20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot met all of our expectations head on, by somehow being just as bad as all the trailers made it look.
It’s a depressing situation for comic book fans, many of whom have a lot of affection for Mister Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing, because we genuinely hoped that this time someone might get it right. Because none of the other movies have ever come close before.
Or have they? The Fantastic Four had been adapted into live-action films three times already – twice by Tim Story, in 2005 and 2007, and once by b-movie producer Roger Corman in 1994 (directed by Fast Getaway II filmmaker Oley Sassone). While Story’s versions have few fans overall, the badness of Corman’s film is legendary. In fact, the film is allegedly so bad that it has never been officially released, despite its ubiquitous presence in the bootleg marketplace.
But is Corman’s film really that bad? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s extremely cheap, and yes, it’s poorly acted, but we’ve watched it again and discovered that in many ways it’s actually a heck of a lot better than the $100 million reboot that stars an impressive ensemble of acclaimed actors.
It Has A Plot, And It’s A Good One (Mostly)
The new Fantastic Four is so drawn out it goes past foreplay and into vicious teasing. The team meets, builds a teleporter, gets powers, hangs out for an entire year and then punches Doctor Doom (and a black hole) in the face. That’s it. That’s the whole movie.
The 1994 version of The Fantastic Four is only ten minutes shorter, but packed to the gills with story. The film opens with Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom conducting an experiment on a passing comet, but Doom ignores Reed’s calculations and is burned alive. Reed thinks he’s dead, and spends the next decade of his life preparing to recreate the experiment, correctly this time, to honor his best friend’s memory. He doesn’t realize that Doom has been alive this whole time, accruing power in Latveria, and scheming to take revenge on Richards for “ruining” the experiment in the first place.
The Fantastic Four get their powers and, as in the new version, are kidnapped by the government… just not ours. They escape and discover that they were prisoners of Doom, and team up to stop him from destroying New York City with a giant superweapon. That’s a solid foundation, built on character, reasonably faithful to the comics, and a heck of a lot more involving the the nonexistent storyline in the 2015 adaptation.
Oh yeah, and there’s an almost completely pointless plot with “The Jeweler,” a supervillain loosely adapted from The Mole Man, that more or less goes nowhere. But nobody ever claimed that the Corman version was perfect.
The Characters Have More Fun
The cast of the latest Fantastic Four may be great actors, but they’re saddled with an underwritten, gloomy screenplay that requires them to act angsty and adhere to odd plot points and clichés. Johnny Storm can’t just be an irresponsible kid, he has to be a rebellious drag racer. Susan Storm can’t just be a genius, she has to be a genius who isolates herself in Portishead albums and analyzes patterns like in A Beautiful Mind. Reed Richards can’t seem to enjoy himself either. Unless he’s drunk, he’s a socially awkward bummer.
And while the cast of 1994’s The Fantastic Four definitely wouldn’t win any awards for their acting, they do at least make being a superhero feel like it might be fun. That was, after all, a big part of what the Fantastic Four comics were all about: family bonding, spirited adventure, and the eccentricities of a celebrity lifestyle. The 1994 characters mostly enjoy their powers, live out in public, geek out over groovy new costumes, and make the most of their situation instead of just moping about it.
Oh, and Ben Grimm is moody in both versions, because that’s kind of his thing. (Har-har.) But at least in Roger Corman’s version he doesn’t become a superpowered assassin for the American government.
The Fantastic Four Actually Act Like Heroes
A weird and wholly dissatisfying aspect of both of 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four reboots (less so in Rise of the Silver Surfer, admittedly) is that the Fantastic Four never actually do anything heroic. They fix their own messes, sometimes, and fight Doctor Doom when he threatens them personally. (And kill people for the government, in this new one anyway.) They come across as reclusive and selfish jerks.
In the 1994 film they not only save Alicia Masters from the creepy stalker machinations of The Jeweler, but they also actually prevent Doctor Doom from destroying anything. Modern action movies aren’t concerned with heroes saving the day. Instead they predominantly show superheroes responding to disasters, getting revenge or at least preventing those disasters from getting worse. Both Avengers movies result in massive destruction, and in Age of Ultron it’s all their heroes’ fault. At least Corman’s film made them heroic enough, and good enough at their jobs, that innocent lives were all saved, not taken.
It Gets Doctor Doom Right (Mostly)
Speaking of Doctor Doom, one has to wonder how – after three expensive stabs – 20th Century Fox has repeatedly managed to screw up one of the most charismatic and appealing villains in comic book history. Rise of the Silver Surfer, again, actually came close by losing his unnecessary superpowers and giving him a plot that didn’t exclusively involve a tacked on love triangle with Reed and Sue, and simply trying to kill his rivals. In that film he tried to steal the Power Cosmic and actually succeeded, showing a little bit of the ambition that made the character so compelling in the first place.
But Corman’s version actually nails it… mostly. Doctor Doom is stuck with ineffectual sidekicks and has at least one too many face palm moments, but his origin (described above) puts him in a position of megalomaniacal power early on, and his vendetta against Reed Richards takes a more elaborate and villainous form than simply beating up on the guy. Also, he looks exactly like he does in the comics, and it actually looks great on camera. He even has a booming voice that fills a room like a proper tyrant, and he sounds just great. Not terribly well acted mind you, but otherwise great.
It’s Got A Memorable Score
Say what you will about Corman’s Fantastic Four, but it actually has a decent orchestral theme, recorded by a 48-piece orchestra despite the film’s massively low budget. The music a romantic quality to it that sets the stage for wonder, not just action or glowers.
Give it a listen in the trailer above. We promise you it’s more memorable and – get this – more “heroic” than any of the 20th Century Fox films.
It Doesn’t Hold Anything Back For The Sequel
The new Fantastic Four film moves like molasses because it’s all just a set-up a sequel, in which The Fantastic Four would apparently actually act like The Fantastic Four. The new film holds back as a way of teasing another movie, forcing audiences to wait two more years (assuming it actually gets made) just to see the movie we wanted in the first place.
And again, say what you will, but Corman’s Fantastic Four doesn’t have that problem. It packs the origin into the first act, where it belongs, and manages to cram in not one but two villains with intersecting but otherwise distinctive plots. It even ends with Reed and Sue’s marriage, giving their budding relationship the sort of conclusion that the new film never even attempts to provide. It’s as much Fantastic Four as the filmmakers could possibly fit into 90 minutes, as opposed to as little as humanly possible.
Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four movie may be cheesy, and it may be cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot more entertaining than 20th Century Fox’s. It strives to entertain by putting the characters in fun situations, and builds those situations out of continuity and character. The acting stinks (mostly), but the characters are there, and the dramatic structure is above and beyond any of the big budget versions.
Yes, it all plays like this movie was made for kids, but what the heck is wrong with that once in a while? You will laugh at this movie, but you will also laugh with this movie. And unlike the most recent reboot of The Fantastic Four, you will genuinely have fun watching it.
And THAT is the version that didn’t get released?
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.