With "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" set to give comic book fans another chaotic ride through the world of Marvel Comics' favorite foursome, we thought it was about time we examined how the two earlier Fantastic Four films compared against the source material.
That's right, we said two films. As any self-respecting comic book geek (and how often do you hear that phrase?) could tell you, the 2005 Fantastic Four film was not the first movie depicting Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Girl, The Human Torch, The Thing and Doctor Doom in action. That honor, dubious as it may be, falls on the unreleased 1994 film, "The Fantastic Four."
The 1994 movie is legendary within fan circles. While some confidently claim the film to be among the worst comic book film adaptations, others feel that the movie captured the spirit of the comic books more effectively than the 2005 film. The only way you can see "The Fantastic Four" is to watch a bootlegged copy -- the movie was never released commercially in any format.
Why was the movie never released? That depends on who you ask. In this article, we'll take a look at this little-known release and how it compares to the big-budget 2005 film.
A History of the 1994 Film
The generally accepted story of the 1994 Fantastic Four film is that Neue Constantin Films, a German film company, held the movie rights for the comic book, but the company had never managed to raise the funds needed to make a movie. Film rights are usually granted for a set length of time, and the rights to the Fantastic Four were set to expire. If the studio failed to make a film, they would lose on the investment. So Neue Constantin Films decided to rush a film into production and preserve its rights. After some last-minute efforts, the studio got a script, hired a director, cast the film and began shooting. The movie took 25 days to shoot with an estimated budget of $1.5 million. In comparison, the reported budget of the 2005 "Fantastic Four" film was $100 million.
You might think that the low budget doomed the movie from the beginning. But the real reason, according to the rumor, is that the studio only made the film in order to hold onto the rights while shopping for a bigger deal. The movie was never meant to be released at all, though the cast and crew didn't know that until well after the film wrapped production. The news came as a blow to the cast, who had hoped the film would boost their careers and felt that the movie was a fun and sincere take on the comic book. Some of the cast had even used their own money to promote the film at conventions, not knowing the movie would never be released.
Today, the film reportedly is owned by Avi Arad, the former CEO of Marvel Studios. Arad has said in interviews that he thought the film was a sincere, but not a fitting, depiction of the comic book property. Some claim that Avi destroyed the master print of the film, though many others think that's unlikely. Several members of the original cast hold out hope that the film will be released, even if only as a DVD extra feature on some future Fantastic Four effort.
A Summary of the 1994 Film
Since you probably haven't seen the 1994 movie, let's go through a quick summary. The movie follows the origin of the Fantastic Four, which in this incarnation results from a mysterious cosmic energy called Colossus. The mission to study Colossus fails because a thief known as The Jeweler swaps out a diamond critical to the equipment. The fake diamond can't to contain the power of Colossus, and Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and Sue and Johnny Storm are engulfed in the energy that turns them into the Fantastic Four.
The film also features Victor von Doom as the primary villain. Doom's origin is similar to the heroes -- in college he tries to harness Colossus' power, but his machinery fails and he is apparently electrocuted. Unbeknownst to our heroes, Doom survives the accident and is whisked away to his homeland, Latveria. There he re-invents himself as Doctor Doom and plots his next attempt to capture the power of Colossus. He wants Reed's diamond for his own, so he retrieves the diamond from The Jeweler and prepares to tap into Colossus and dominate the world.
The Fantastic Four confront Doom in his castle. They manage to destroy Doom's equipment and foil his plans for world domination. After a fight with Reed Richards, Doom clings to a balcony on his castle, dangling over a deep chasm. Reed tries to save Doom, but Doom slips out of his gauntlet, seemingly falling to his demise. The heroes return home, and shortly afterwards Reed and Sue are married.
Now that you know a little about the 1994 film, we'll move on to the comparison to the 2005 movie and the comic books.
Origin of the Fantastic Four
Next we'll dive into the comic book versions of the origins of the Fantastic Four, information about the members of the group and their chief nemesis, Doctor Doom. After each description is a report card showing how the 1994 movie and the 2005 movie compare against the source material.
In the comic book, Reed Richards, a brilliant scientist, builds a spaceship and hopes to use it for space exploration and experiments. When his sources of funding threaten to cut him off, Reed decides to launch the ship early before the project is shut down. He convinces his old friend, Ben Grimm, to pilot the mission, and invites Sue and Johnny Storm to serve as crew members. Grimm expresses concern about the ship's safety, but agrees to pilot the vessel. The launch is a success, but while in space the ship encounters a cosmic cloud and all four members are exposed to radiation. They are forced to perform an emergency landing back on Earth, and they soon discover they have strange new powers.
Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic
In the comic book, Reed attends several different colleges and earns degrees in various science fields. At State College, he rooms with Ben Grimm and meets Victor von Doom, a student who doesn't like him very much. Later, Reed goes to Columbia and rooms in a boarding house run by the aunt of Sue and Johnny Storm. Sue develops a crush on Reed. Reed becomes a scientist and leads a rushed expedition into space that culminates in his crew's exposure to cosmic radiation. The radiation gives Reed the ability to stretch his body to incredible lengths with hyper flexibility. Reed is a good leader, though his curiosity can often distract him from things that need his attention.
Sue Storm/The Invisible Girl
In the comic book, Sue and her brother Johnny have a happy childhood until their mother, Mary, dies in a car accident. Their father becomes distraught with grief and his life spirals out of control. Sue and Johnny live with their aunt, Marygay, who runs a boarding house. Sue meets Reed Richards when Reed is staying at their house, and she soon develops a crush on him. When Sue grows up and goes to college, she dates Reed. Sue joins Reed's crew on his failed expedition, and as a result of radiation exposure, she discovers she can turn invisible and create force fields. Sue and Reed get married, and eventually Sue has two children with Reed -- Franklin and Valeria. While in the early comic books Sue is a rather passive character, in more recent issues she has become much more assertive.
Johnny Storm/The Human Torch
In the comic book, Johnny is very young when he loses his parents (his mother in a car crash, his father to depression). As a teenager, he becomes an expert mechanic. He joins Reed's expedition while still in high school. After discovering his powers, he calls himself The Human Torch as a tribute to a World War II superhero by the same name (ironically, the original Human Torch wasn't human at all -- he was an android). Johnny can turn his entire body into flames, shoot flames and fireballs from his hands, fly and even superheat his body to nova levels, though this usually leaves him drained of power. Johnny is mischievous and a prankster. His victim of choice tends to be Ben Grimm, but he's been known to pull tricks on other heroes as well, most notably Spider-Man.
Ben Grimm/The Thing
Ben grows up in a tough neighborhood, and is even in a gang for a while. He manages to straighten up as a teenager and attends State College on a football scholarship. His roommate is Reed Richards. Ben plans on becoming a pilot, and after graduation sets out to accomplish his goal. He becomes a top test pilot for the space program, and when Reed needs someone to pilot his ship, Ben agrees (despite his concern that the ship's shields aren't adequate). When Ben turns into the Thing, he finds adjusting to his new life very difficult. He occasionally changes back into his human form, though he rarely has any control over the transformation. As time passes, these transformations become more rare, and now he seems to be stuck as The Thing. He has left the team several times and pursued a life of isolation.
At one point, Ben is welcomed into the community of misfits ruled by the super villain known as The Mole. Ben's appearance inspires fear in everyone, and as a result his relationship with his fiancée ends. Ben meets a young blind woman named Alicia Masters, and the two fall in love. Their relationship slowly evolves into a deep friendship. Ben's favorite phrase is "It's clobberin' time!" He is quick tempered, loyal and extremely sensitive about how he comes across to other people.
Victor von Doom/Doctor Doom
The son of Latverian gypsies, Victor's childhood is very difficult. His mother dies while Victor is still young, and as a result the boy dedicates every effort to finding a way to bring her back. He begins to study the occult and magic, in the process revealing his genius intellect. When he receives the opportunity to study in America, he eagerly accepts and concentrates on science.
While in college, Victor meets Reed Richards, a man whom Victor considers an intellectual rival. Victor begins to build a machine that he hopes will breach the barrier between this world and the afterlife. Reed cautions Victor that the calculations for the machine are incorrect, but Victor dismisses the warning. The machine malfunctions and scars Victor.
Victor returns to Latveria and seizes control of the country from its despotic king. Then he creates a suit of armor and begins to wear a metal mask to hide his scarred features. Victor renames himself Doctor Doom and reshapes Latveria into a utopia. He eliminates crime, disease and hunger, but at the cost of personal freedoms. Doctor Doom holds a grudge against Reed Richards, and challenges him many times over the years. Doom uses magic and science to try and defeat the Fantastic Four, but Reed always seems to find a way to outsmart him. Doom's suit gives him super strength and resistance to damage. He can even survive underwater or in the vacuum of space - his suit can seal itself and has a four-hour supply of air.
Many comic book fans cite the 1994 film as one of the worst comic book movies ever made, but we feel that isn't a fair judgment. Admittedly, the low budget placed severe limitations on the cast and crew, and at times the special effects can make you wince, laugh or both wince and laugh at the same time. Still, the film's script reflected the spirit of the comics, and the performances are enthusiastic (if not nuanced) across the cast. The Jeweler even quotes Shakespeare's "The Tempest," adding a touch of class to the movie.
It's important to note that the scope of the comic books has always been on a cosmic level. The Fantastic Four have had adventures across time and space, encountering strange alien races and foiling the plans of galactic overlords. Neither film captures that scope, though perhaps the 1994 movie has more of an excuse. It's hard to make a movie on a large scale with such a low budget. Since both movies served as origin stories for the Fantastic Four, we're willing to ignore the relatively small scope of the stories.
As you can see from the preceding report cards, we used a rigorous judging process to determine which film was more faithful to the source material. Both movies were analyzed thoroughly using a tightly-controlled procedure, possibly involving beakers and test tubes. We have confidence in the results of the experiment.
After tallying up the scores on the report cards, the 1994 film takes the trophy. When it comes to production values, special effects and other technical details, the 2005 movie wins hands down. Then again, the 2005 movie had a budget more than 65 times the size of the 1994 film's budget. While the 1994 movie is primitive in comparison, it's charming and faithful to the source material. Sure, it's a corny film and at times it sounds like Doctor Doom is speaking with a sock stuffed in his mouth, but there's no denying that the movie was made with a sense of fun and passion for the comics. Perhaps one day the movie will get an actual release. Until then, fans will have to continue seeking clandestine means of watching the original movie about the Fantastic Four.
For more information on the Fantastic Four, check out the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- "Fantastic Four.". Dir. Tim Story. Film. 20th Century Fox, 2005.
- Ito, Robert. “Fantastic Faux!” Los Angeles Magazine. March, 2005.
- Marvel Comics http://www.marvel.com
- "The Fantastic Four." Dir. Oley Sassone. Film. Constantin Film, 1994.