At the time of writing early reviews are filtering in on Fox’s new Fantastic Four reboot film helmed by Josh Trank. With a few exceptions the buzz has been overwhelmingly negative, with a lot of bile and anger coming over the film’s drab visuals, cynical storytelling, lack of ambition, and many technical failings. Really this shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise, Fantastic Four has always been a notoriously difficult property to adapt to live action and this new film has been looking terrible for a long time now. However, in the wake of this new disaster and an upcoming documentary people are starting to go back and re-appraise the unreleased Roger Corman Fantastic Four produced in the ‘90s, and it’s about time. Roger Corman’s 1994, low-budget, B-Movie adaptation of Marvel’s first family is easily the best live action version of these characters and honestly stands pretty tall as an adaptation of the FF in general alongside the ‘90s animated series.
Speaking of which, let’s talk back-story. During the ‘80s Superman dominated the realm of superhero adaptations, forcing Marvel to more or less sit out the decade. However, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Marvel came back with a vengeance, seemingly invigorated by the smash hit of 1989’s Batman. Aside from producing an entire shared universe of 6 cartoons they also produced a bunch of TV and direct-to-video films including Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD, Captain America, X-Men, and Punisher. In the mid-90s, Marvel producer Avi Arad contracted Roger Corman to adapt the Fantastic Four. By all accounts the production was a nightmare due to the incredibly short time scale afforded the crew, but the film was completed in 1994; at which point Arad took a screening of the film and decided it would be too damaging to the Marvel brand to be released. The future Marvel mogul was so convinced that Corman’s Fantastic Four would tarnish Marvel’s good name he actually offered to purchase all the copies of the film in order to destroy them. It’s honestly pretty ironic given Arad would go on to produce claptrap like X3: The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3, and, most damning of all, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. In any event Corman wouldn’t sell the copies, but also wasn’t allowed to release them and to this day there’s yet to have been an official release though the film can be found through bootlegs.
As to the movie itself, it honestly holds up shockingly well. A lot of this comes down to how forgiving you are about the film’s low budget, but a movie doesn’t need big budget effects to be good; it needs to be good to be good. The movie is predominately a transliteration of the Fantastic Four’s origin story, with the team going into space and getting hit by cosmic rays. From there, things take a bizarre turn as the film enters a point of true genius. After crashing to Earth the Four are taken prisoner by, what are assumed to be, government forces. In actuality they’re forces of Dr. Doom, at which point the film switches gear into basically a Dr. Doom movie. This seems to be a bit of the ’89 Batman influence as that film was decidedly more of a Joker story than a Batman one, but whatever the reason this elevates the film from a decent B-movie to a really engaging supervillain flick because Dr. Doom is amazing in this film.
Corman’s Dr. Doom is one of the most faithful adaptations of a comic character to be seen in the pre-2000s era. He’s an evil monarch and super scientist and a bit of wizard as well, to say nothing of the fact that he looks exactly like he does in the comics. It’s a marvel to behold and actor Joseph Culp did a superb job bringing the character to life. There’s a sequence midway through where Doom infiltrates the layer of the film’s B-movie equivalent of Moleman named The Jeweler, which is an amazing highlight. What’s more, Dr. Doom just makes more sense as a focus for the story than the FF.
This cuts right to the hard truth of why the Fantastic Four are so difficult to adapt, it’s because everything interesting about their mythos is so grounded in the unreal it’s almost impossible to accurately translate it to the big screen. Their villains are all mostly legitimate heads of state like Dr. Doom or Prince Namor, the leader of the team is also its most alienating member in Mr. Fantastic, they’re constantly afforded high status as an amazing super team despite not really having the same power levels as the Avengers or the Justice League; everything about them only makes sense in the unreality of comic books where a team of bizarrely powered weirdos can just invade a nation should they choose to. This is most obvious in the visual designs of the Thing, a look that is perfect for a comic book, but will always look terrible in live action because of how cartoonish it is. So swapping the focus of the story to Dr. Doom actually makes sense because he’s at least closer to the kind of colorful megalomaniac we’re used to seeing in film.
The other main element helps elevate Corman’s interpretation is his grounding as a director in sci-fi B-movie schlock. For better or worse, so much of the early and great Fantastic Four stories are cut from a similar cloth to the drive-in B-movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s where a certain level of cartoon surrealism is more acceptable.
As stated Fantastic Four ’94 has never received an official release, but the bootlegs are plentiful and it’s well worth seeking out. If you’re willing to set your brain to its low-budget sensibilities and accept the film for what it is, a B-movie, there’s a lot to like. The actors are all solid and the film is brimming with energy and passion for the work. What’s more, this Dr. Doom stands tall as one of Marvel’s best on-screen villains alongside Loki and Magneto. Also be sure to check out the upcoming documentary Doomed that details the insane production history of the Fantastic Four film that time forgot.