Remember the worst superhero film of all time? That was the tag that Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four was stuck with after it bombed beyond belief in 2015. If you’ve watched the film you may well feel its reputation is fully deserved, but here’s the thing: it’s not even the worst Fantastic Four film. Not even close. That honour belongs to Roger Corman’s doomed 1994 adaptation, which never even made it into theatres.
Falling in the superhero no-man’s-land that was the mid-’90s, with only Batman & Robin and Batman Forever around for company, The Fantastic Four faced an uphill battle from day one. Superhero films had nothing like the built-in global audiences of today, and none of the faux prestige that pitched them as high-class blockbusters. Back then they were larger-than-life, schlocky fun – a tone that arguably hasn’t really changed all that much – and as such veteran B-movie producer Roger Corman seemed like the perfect fit for Marvel’s perennial misfits.
Of course, quality superhero films weren’t unheard of at the time. Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman had already made sure of that. But this was an entirely different prospect. The film was rushed into production by producer Bernd Eichinger and never actually intended to be released, hence its meagre $1.5m budget. The simple reason for such an odd decision was the labyrinthine rights war, which has defined so much of the superhero movie genre’s boom period. If Eichinger didn’t enter production on a Fantastic Four film by a certain date, he would lose the rights.
Speaking to Los Angeles Magazine’s Robert Ito in 2005, Stan Lee reaffirmed that The Fantastic Four was a phantom film, designed first and foremost to secure Eichinger’s option on the property. The tragedy is that none of the cast or crew, apart from Eichinger himself, were aware of this plan. He’d always had a grand vision for a ‘proper’ big-budget Fantastic Four movie, which he eventually realised with the middling 2005 version starring Jessica Alba and Chris Evans. Essentially, Eichinger was just buying himself more time to make the film he really wanted.
Eichinger was playing the system, but he was also playing with the careers of everyone involved in making the film. It may have been an afterthought to him, but for many of the cast and crew this was a golden opportunity – the chance to make a hit movie and ultimately make it big in Hollywood. In the words of Alex Hyde-White aka Dr Reed Richards aka Mister Fantastic, “It was my shot at becoming an action star.”
In the end it seems Eichinger simply didn’t expect anyone to care much about the project, which is why he never felt the need to be up front about his plans to can it before release. “We had all worked our asses off on this thing,” said director Oley Sassone. “Frankly, I think they [Corman and Eichinger] thought it was just going to be this piece of shit… so it kind of unnerved them when it wasn’t.” It’s particularly ironic that Eichinger assumed almost no emotional investment on his team’s behalf, considering that he was the one obsessively pursuing the perfect production of The Fantastic Four.
Eichinger has long since denied any such subterfuge, claiming that he always wanted to release the movie. For his part, Corman backed this up, citing the film’s respectable advertising budget as evidence that they intended to support it all the way through to cinemas. Why burn money on billboards if it’s a dead film walking? The breaking point came when Eichinger was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by superhero supremo Avi Arad, producer of the X-Men, Spider-Man and the later Fantastic Four films. Arad bought the film to ensure it didn’t tarnish the Marvel brand he later tried and eventually succeeded to revitalise. That Eichinger was willing to sell the film for what is rumoured to be cost price says everything you need to know about his true intentions for the film.
With Doomed!, a 2015 documentary chronicling the whole sorry affair set for release this year, it seems like the original Fantastic Four film won’t be forgotten any time soon. Indeed, it may even have made less of an impact had it been released at the time. Lost films never stay lost for long, and these days it’s easy enough to watch the completed original film online. So is The Fantastic Four really the worst superhero film of all time? Despite Eichinger and Arad’s best efforts, you can finally judge for yourself.
Published 8 Sep 2016
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