"I think if you're gonna pull a con, you just don't tell people it's a con until you run away with the bag of money."
Of all the Marvel superheroes to have gotten the big screen treatment, The Fantastic Four is the one team that they have yet to get right. There's something about Marvel's first family that has remained elusive to everyone that has tried to bring them to life, and the world is honestly a lesser place because we don't have a great Fantastic Four movie. There are three awful ones—all of which got a theatrical release, had gigantic budgets, and grossed well over $100 million at the worldwide box office—and one that looks like crap because it was made on the cheap and never really finished, but is actually kinda pretty okay.
If you're not lucky enough to have ever seen the cheesy Oley Sassone-directed, Roger Corman-produced 1994 film The Fantastic Four, there's a reason for that. For years, the standard story was that the film was never intended to be released and was made in a failed attempt by a producer to retain the film rights to the characters. The new documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four sets out to dispel that myth and set the record straight about the film. The film has thankfully had a second life on the black market, provided you consider those guys who sell bootleg movies at comic conventions the black market, and if you've seen the film, it's likely thanks to one of these guys or someone who purchased it from one of them.
This film is the latest in a new documentary subgenre about failed films, following in the steps of things like Jodorowsky's Dune and The Death of Superman Lives!, however unlike those films, this one actually was made, it was just never released. That final fact is the subject of the film's largest debate as it's apparent from the beginning that everyone on the creative end of the film—the actors, directors, technicians, etc—was blindsided by this fact.
As the story goes, roundabout the early 90s, German Producer Bernd Eichinger wanted to go into production on a property he owned, Marvel's Fantastic Four, but clearly had no idea what to do with the property. He first went to Troma, who was reluctant to do it because it wasn't an in-house property. Then he went to Roger Corman, who agreed to finance the film and got the ball rolling by hiring people he'd worked with previously and trusted, such as director Oley Sassone. It may be impossible to believe, but this was during a time when Marvel was box office poison, with 1990's Captain America having been the most recent casualty of comic book properties being handled with kid gloves. At this point in time, The Incredible Hulk television show was the high water mark for the studio in live action.
Things were set to change, however, as there were a number of other planned Marvel projects at the time such as James Cameron's Spider-Man, Wes Craven's Doctor Strange, and Wesley Snipes as Black Panther. None of these ever got made of course, but there was a wind of change blowing through and the cast and crew of The Fantastic Four wanted to be out in front of the pack. Sure the film was a super low budget affair with cut-rate special effects and an embarrassing corner cutting aesthetic, but it felt like a Fantastic Four movie, which is more than most of the Marvel stuff prior to then can say.
The problems began after the film was completed, when it really seemed like none of the people with actual money invested in this thing wanted it seen. The cast and crew were very enthusiastic for the film, toured around, attended cons, planned for a premiere screening at the Mall of America, but were shocked when the premiere was cancelled and the film pulled with no official explanation given. That's when the stories and rumors began, but that most commonly known story about the film was reverse engineered after the fact to compensate for the fact that Stan Lee and Marvel essentially wanted to start their own film division and were doing everything in their power to keep this film from being released.
Or so one of the stories goes. Like most failures, there are many many parents—despite that old adage—and the fates had sort of conspired against this film from the very beginning. It's a sad thing when a labor of love, however poor in quality, is kept out of public view because of copyright issues, or meddling producers, or two-faced comic impresarios, but at the very least, it lives on in the form of endless bootleg duplication. This film celebrates that fact as a victory, however small, for the people involved in making The Fantastic Four. All of the cast members and various crew people in the interviews come across as genuine in both their love for the film and their contempt for those who sought to squash it. The film coasts by on their charm and charisma, and you feel legitimate empathy for them, which makes the whole endeavor a bit one-sided, but that's okay. The bad guys of this film have had their praises sung elsewhere on countless occasions.
Viewers familiar with Marvel film productions won't help but hiss and boo when Avi Arad rears his ugly head once more. The minute his name was mentioned, I knew he was part of the evil cabal bound and determined to bring this film down. It's also nice to see people bad mouthing Stan Lee for his two-faced nature, something he's not called out on often enough. This doc is top notch entertainment, particularly for comic book fans. It's a fun reminder that this wasn't always a well-oiled business behemoth, and sometimes these films could be made by people without much more than their love of the source material to carry them.
If nothing else, it'll make you pine for an alternate universe where some of the people who auditioned for the film could have been cast instead. Imagine a Fantastic Four movie with Mark Ruffalo, Renee O'Connor, Nick Cassavettes, Titus Welliver, Melora Walters, and Patrick Warburton! That's just one of the many entertaining and enlightening things you'll learn watching this fun and fast paced doc.
Directed by Marty Langford
Written by Marty Langford
Produced by Mark Steven Grove
Starring Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp, Carl Ciarfallo, Oley Sassone, Roger Corman, Chris Gore, Kat Green, Lloyd Kaufman
Running Time: 85 minutes