For all the comic book fans concerned that Josh Trank‘s big-screen reboot for Marvel’s Fantastic Four isn’t faithful enough to the property’s comic book roots, there is an obvious response — hunt down the very first Fantastic Four movie. No, not the 2005 Tim Story-directed movie released by Fox; the first movie, produced by none other than Roger Corman.
How Corman ended up attached to the project is a matter of circumstance. The rights to Fantastic Four were originally purchased by producer Bernd Eichinger in 1986; Eichinger, best known at the time for producing The Neverending Story and The Name of the Rose, had reportedly been pursuing the property for a number of years, including meeting with co-creator Stan Lee, but his enthusiasm wasn’t matched by any of the major studios; by the early 1990s, he was faced with the prospect of his option expiring with nothing to show for his efforts unless he could somehow get a movie in production by Dec. 31, 1992.
Enter Roger Corman.
Depending on who you talk to, the Corman-produced Fantastic Four might have merely been a stopgap never intended for release — certainly, Stan Lee has since claimed that, although Eichinger has always maintained that the movie was a serious endeavor with its announced release date in 1994 one that everyone involved with the production intended to honor. During shooting, the movie was promoted by the comic book press, with images of its little-known cast (Alex Hyde-White as Reed Richards, Rebecca Staab as Sue Storm, Jay Underwood as Johnny Storm and Michael Baily Smith as Ben Grimm — pre-CGI, the Thing was actor Carl Ciarfalio in a latex suit) attempting to build interest or, at the very least, quell suspicions that the movie would be embarrass the proud legacy of the comic book.
Ultimately, the movie was never released… officially. Avi Arad, who would later go on to become an executive producer of Sony’s Spider-Man movies but at the time was a Marvel Entertainment executive, told Los Angeles magazine in 2005 that he purchased the rights to the movie ahead of its release and, embarrassed by its low quality, destroyed every available print. Unfortunately for Arad, copies remained in circulation, leading to a brisk trade as bootlegs initially at comic conventions, and eventually online.
While Arad’s actions were probably for the best when viewed from the point of view of someone trying to protect the value of Fantastic Four as a viable property rather than a pop-cultural oddity, it should be said that there’s a certain B-movie thrill to the 1990s Fantastic Four movie that’s absent from subsequent versions; at its heart, it’s a movie that stays true to mythos of the comic book, right down to the looks-ludicrous-in-real-life costumes… but, more importantly, also stays faithful to the comic book’s inability to take itself too seriously, making it into a strangely enjoyable, if not necessarily good piece of filmmaking. (The special effects alone look especially cost-effective, to be polite.)
In another dimension, audiences are lining up for Fantastic Four: Infinity War right now, with Alex Hyde-White settling into his role as old-school grandmaster of Marvel’s movie properties. For some fans, that might be a preferable version to the reality in which we currently live.