The superhero film is now a bona fide phenomenon with billion dollar blockbusters being pumping out on production lines so frequently that even Aquaman has his own cinematic outing scheduled for 2018. Anything comic-based is being optioned it would seem as Hollywood continues mine the comics industry for ideas which have often seen films produced of varying quality; from the heights of an X-Men 2 to the pits of a Catwoman. Now the 1994 film version of the Fantastic Four, produced by Roger Corman, is the subject of a fascinating documentary; DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s the Fantastic Four by filmmaker Marty Langford.
The short version of Corman’s FF film is that Roger Corman was approached by the rights holder, Constantin Film, to make a Fantastic Four movie for $1 million. Anyone even with a passing knowledge of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s seminal Marvel Comics superhero series knows that wouldn’t be enough to cover the bill for the crew’s toilet paper on a FF film that remained true to Kirby and Lee’s run, which even today is the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. But Corman was an expert in milking a lot from very, very little in terms of budget and resources, and even though his Fantastic Four may look cheap and shoddy – not to mention a script that is is genuinely painful in places – it retains a charm the subsequent FF films don’t have. And, despite its faults, it’s clear that for the people who made it treated the project as a labour of love. DOOMED! makes it clear that, from director Oley Sassone to actor Alex Hyde-Whyte – and even the on-set journalist – that this film wasn’t just a way to boost their C.V’s. This was an attempt to give fans a superhero comic film that wasn’t awful.
Yet from the off it’s clear that lawyers and the political machinations of film studios never intended to let the public see the film. Langford skilfully creates a narrative that slips from the film’s gestation and the stories of how it was made – often by the skin of their teeth – to the crushing disappointment of those who made it. Like any good superhero stories there are villains; FF co-creator Stan Lee, Marvel Studios Avi Arad, Marvel’s then-owner Ron Perelman, as well as director/producer Chris Columbus are all pointed at (Lee and Arad were asked to appear in the film and refused) but it’s Constantin Film that comes out with Marvel as the scheming baddies.
Yet for all this could be a bitter recounting of a missed opportunity (and there is an element of that here), Langford acts as almost an investigative journalist letting the players in the story tell it themselves and unlike many other similar crowdfunded documentaries which tend to spill into painful self-indulgence, this tells a tale in a solid 90 minutes that ends with the film somehow escaping from whatever legal prison it’s held in and is seen by fans thanks to second generation (at least) pirate copies at conventions in the 90’s before appearing online in the YouTube era.
I first saw Corman’s Fantastic Four at a British comic convention in the mid-90’s. The crowd laughed at it, as did I; but in 2016 with three average-to-appalling films since that have since shown little understanding of the characters or their history, I find myself reassessing the 1994 film as the best Fantastic Four film made so far. DOOMED! is a fascinating and engrossing documentary about a piece of film history that deserves to be remembered.