Culture

The Secret History of the Unreleased 'Fantastic Four' Movie Marvel Doesn't Want You to See

Fantastic Four movie 1994
A still from "The Fantastic Four," the unreleased 1994 Marvel movie that is the subject of a new documentary. Uncork'd Entertainment

For all of Marvel’s successes at the box office—from its own releases in partnership with Disney to Sony’s Spider-Man films and Fox’s X-Men franchise—there is one comic book franchise that Hollywood just can’t seem to get right: Fantastic Four.

Led by scientific genius Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), the heroic quartet are considered the first family of Marvel comic books, making their debut in 1961. The adventures of the stretchy scientist, The Thing (Ben Grimm), the Invisible Woman (Sue Storm) and her brother the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), as well as their arch nemesis Dr. Doom, have been entertaining readers for over 50 years.

Various attempts have been made over the years to translate that success into a blockbuster Hollywood franchise, but the results have been less than fantastic.

Fox, which currently holds the movie rights to the characters, has made two attempts: 2005’s Fantastic Four starring Ioan Gruffudd and an ill-cast Jessica Alba was panned by critics but made just enough money to warrant a sequel: 2007’s Rise of the Silver Surfer . Ultimately, Fox shelved the franchise when that film barely inched past the box office of its predecessor.

Last year’s attempt to relaunch the series with Fantastic Four, now reimagined as a group of young scientists and starring rising Hollywood names Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, on paper, at least, had promise. But reports of issues with the script, on-set drama and lack of advance press screenings (usually an indicator that a film is a stinker) plagued the production. The film bombed at the box office and analysts estimated the misfire could cost Fox up to $60 million.

But at least these iterations of Fantastic Four made it into theaters. A new documentary is revealing the curious history of a little-known Fantastic Four movie filmed in the early 1990s that was never intended to be seen.

This version, publicly advertised for a 1994 release, was masterminded by German producer Bernd Eichinger’s Constanin Film, who hired prolific B-movie producer Roger Corman to make the film on a $1 million budget. The reason? Having negotiated the screen rights to the comics from Stan Lee in the 1980s, Eichinger risked losing them back to Marvel if he didn’t produce a film by the end of 1992. Unbeknownst to the cast and crew, he hatched a plan to create a low-budget project to hang on to the rights, although the announced release date in January 1994 came and went without a movie.

Over the years, the story of the forgotten Fantastic Four film has mustered much speculation as to what happened. (Eichinger would go on to produce 2005’s reboot, so his plan was successful.) But documentarian Marty Langford, fascinated by the turn of events, felt the need to explore the story further. The resulting film, Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, is released this week.

“My good friend Mark Sikes [the documentary’s executive producer], who I grew up with, worked on [the film]. He was the casting assistant on The Fantastic Four,” Langford tells Newsweek. “When it got shelved, he was as clueless as everyone else was. I had been waiting for some book or documentary to come out and tell me what happened, and when it never happened at the 20th anniversary [in 2014], Mark and I decided to make the film.”

Speaking to Newsweek, Langford reveals four fantastic facts he uncovered while making the documentary:

Not everybody wanted the story of The Fantastic Four told

“Everybody that we did speak with was very forthcoming, very excited to talk about it…they had kind of been dying to talk about it,” says Langford. “The ones who didn’t respond, which we couldn’t get to, included Marvel, 20th Century Fox and Constantin Film. They didn’t even get back to us. We spent 18 months reaching out to these different entities only to get nothing in return.”

Attempts to reach out to Stan Lee were also futile. “Stan Lee wasn’t particularly interested in talking about it,” the docu-maker says. “We were in talks with his people to speak with him about it, but they ultimately declined the interview.”

Stan Lee’s disapproval “hurt” those involved

Langford’s film includes footage from a convention in August 1993 in which Stan Lee disavowed the project. “I’m not expecting too much of it,” he said. “It was the last movie to be made that we had no control over… Our lawyers just gave away the rights.”

But, Langford says: “He was on location, he visited the set at least once, based on the interviews that I had. He was supportive to them at the time.”

“I feel bad for the people involved in the making of the movie because they thought Stan Lee was on their side. To then have him make those comments, it hurt them, especially Michael [Bailey Smith, who played The Thing]. They saw him as an ally and now he was one more thing standing in the way of the movie coming out,” he adds.

You can still watch it online

Although The Fantastic Four never got an official release, the full 90-minute movie was eventually made available on bootleg videos and DVDs from the late 1990s. It is now available to watch on YouTube.

Legend has it that Marvel executive Avi Arad was so worried that a low-budget film would tarnish Marvel’s reputation he bought all of the prints from Constantin Film and had them destroyed. The fact the movie exists in some fashion suggests that not all the copies were demolished.

It’s the most faithful Fantastic Four movie

The Fantastic Four franchise has faltered in Hollywood on three separate occasions. Is it—pardon the pun—doomed?

Langford believes the 1994 film is “the most successful of them” because it “came closest to the spirit of the property.”

The documentarian says that because of the film’s “limited scope and budget…they recognized they couldn’t do the big set pieces and concentrated on the family story. I think that worked.”

In comparison, the 2005 and 2015 attempts shied away from “the tight-knit family” dynamic. “It’s a simple story about four people who are given these great powers and try to deal with them within the context of their family unit. They tried to go bigger and missed the mark,” says Langford.

Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four is available now on Amazon.

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