The Rise Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film Part 2

The Road Out of Development Hell

by J.C. Macek III

9 June 2014


You Can’t Keep a Good Man Out of the Spandex

That fourth film, however, never materialized, as disagreements between Sony and Raimi continually delayed plans. With Raimi also being nearly as unhappy with the finished product of Spider-Man 3 as the critics were, he felt it was his duty to maintain creative control and make the best Spider-Man 4 possible. With the proposed May 2011 release date looming, Raimi began to believe this was less and less a possibility. After many reiterations of the screenplay by James Vanderbilt resulted in little more than a bad taste in Raimi’s mouth, the director balked and walked, followed by the series’ star Tobey MaGuire.

Sony wasn’t done with Spider-Man, however, and the studio took an interesting angle with Spider-Man 4. The studio kept the same writer and producers from that film (and much of the crew from the first trilogy), recast the entire shebang and hired Marc Webb as director and Andrew Garfield as the new version of Spider-Man and reshaped Spider-Man 4 into a new origin story for a teenaged Peter Parker (thus rebooting the series with no continuity with its predecessor). The Amazing Spider-Man hit theaters with a bang (and a Lizard) in 2012 to great box office receipts. And while the box office wasn’t quite that of Spider-Man 3, the critical acclaim was much greater.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) continues this success and has (after a month in theaters at the time of this writing) made almost as much as the first film in the series. Will it be enough to fuel not only the sequel in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and the proposed spinoffs of Venom and The Sinister Six? Keep watching the headlines in The Daily Bugle for more.

In comic books it took an entire super team to introduce Spider-Man. That team was also responsible for launching the Marvel Universe as we know it (before the likes of existing character Captain America were brought retroactively alongside new guys like The Human Torch) and making the team’s creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, two of the biggest names in comics, even to this day. That team was, of course, The Fantastic Four, who debuted in late 1961 (in their self-titled comic, subtly subtitled “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”) and took the comic book world by storm.

Well, two storms… Johnny Storm (the aforementioned Human Torch) and Susan Storm (his sister, soon to be known as The Invisible Woman). The team was rounded out by Reed Richards (the stretchable Mister Fantastic, who would eventually marry Sue Storm) and Ben Grimm (the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing). The success of the Fantastic Four didn’t just lead to the debut of Spider-Man. Without this initial Silver Age success there may never have been a Hulk, Daredevil, Avengers, X-Men or a resurrected Captain America (who made his first appearance almost twenty full years before the “FF”).

While enjoying success on the small screen in various animated forms, the quartet’s launch to the big screen was as much (if not more) trouble wrought than Spider-Man’s own.

It’s a matter of comic book and Hollywood lore that before the $100 million blockbuster film Fantastic Four (2005) some other company made a totally different adaptation of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”... and it was almost as terrible as the blooper reel from an all Esperanto series of fully clothed Bahraini erotica with Swahili Subtitles. So terrible, in fact, was this 1994 film that the makers of the original never intended to release the damned thing. Instead, it was only made in order to keep the ridiculous film rights right where it liked them in a futile effort to keep control of the Fantastic Four.

The doomed cast of the 1994 Fantastic Four film

The doomed cast of the 1994 Fantastic Four film

As with most stories, the truth is somewhere in between what the good guys proclaim and what the bad guys defend. And here it is. The Fantastic Four (1994) was not actually made by a separate company from 2005’s Fantastic Four. Though separated by a full 11 years, both films were made by a company called Constantin Film and produced by Bernd Eichinger. Meaning? The gamble worked and the same dudes managed to maintain the rights to The Fantastic Four, including remake and sequel rights. Meaning both the 2005 film and 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer were made by the same people as the widely reported abomination from 1994.

The both dastardly and clever reality is that in 1986 German studio Neue Constantin Film GmbH (responsible for 1986’s The Name of the Rose and 1984’s The NeverEnding Story) purchased the rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four comics (for the bargain price of $250,000) but never actually acted on the option. That option was set to expire on 31 December 1992, and Constantin Film was about to lose the rights it had purchased from Marvel Comics if it didn’t start production on an FF flick (and would reportedly have to pay a $5 million fine back to Marvel). Thus Eichinger (who neither had the $40 million for a, then, big-budget Four Flick, nor even the $5 million for the fine) engaged the legendary low budget pioneer Roger Corman (sound familiar?) to executive-produce this adaptation with the best resources he could drum up. As rights were to revert to Marvel on 31 December if no film was started, production began on December 28th.

The cast and crew appeared at comic book conventions, gave interviews and expressed their excitement for the film itself and its upcoming release. A release that was decidedly slower than Christmas; a release that took longer than Red Dwarf season VII; a release longer delayed than Watchmen... a release that never came. This “Original Fantastic Four film” has still never been released

In a strange way, the gamble makes perfect sense. When given the option between spending $1 million on a real movie you never intend to release or $5 million on no movie at all and losing a potentially lucrative licensing deal to boot, what would you do? I, personally, would spend the $1 million and keep the rights and use the remaining $4 million to buy more comics (and a few trips to Argentina), my friends. As Eichinger later explained “They didn’t say I had to make a big movie.”

A “big movie”, this was not. In truth, it’s something of a stretch to call this a small movie. The Fantastic Four is a frustrating mess. The Thing’s mask is radio controlled for some emotion but he looks like a melted and discolored leftover suit from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Human Torch’s fire is poorly matted in at best and badly animated at worst, Mister Fantastic’s stretching is either a hydrolic jack or a rubbery fake appendage, depending on the seriousness of the scene and the Invisible Woman’s tricks are something you might see on stage at a mediocre magician’s review.

All of this surrounds the plasticized character of the villain, Doctor Doom. In any ambitious low-budget film something must suffer and Doom’s characterization is in more distress than anything heard in a Patsy Cline, Connie Francis or Cher song, or anything seen in a Cathy Guisewite comic! Look, I’m not dissing Joseph Culp (son of Robert, by the way) as an actor. He has gone on to respectful career, including a recurring role on the critically acclaimed Mad Men and when the mask is off in this film, he does a decent enough job with what he’s given. In costume and character as the Doomed Doom, however, the word “pathetic” springs to mind.

With no viable facial expressions (most prints are so dark you can’t see the guy’s eyes) Culp is forced to be much more expressive with his hands and body movements, to the point that every time he says something self-aggrandizing or important he actually seems like he’s vogueing. I half-expected Madonna to come out and dance with him a time or two. And that over-expression keeps going and going to the point that he seems less like the nefarious Latvirian Dictator than he does a robed Power Ranger! I have to guess about some of the things Culp was trying to say, because the budget was so poor that they couldn’t even fly the guy out for looping? Culp is on record saying he would do the looping for free.

They should have had him subtitled. Chewbacca is easier to understand.

Of course neither Culp nor the rest of the cast or even crew were told that the film wasn’t going to be released. Then again, even Eichinger claims that while he intended to make a B-Movie, he fully planned for it to be released.

Who really killed this (admittedly awful) movie? According to Los Angeles Magazine (March, 2005), the culprit (or savior) was Avi Arad. Arad became the chief creative officer of Marvel Comics upon Marvel’s merger with Toy Biz (of which, Arad was the CEO). Fearing that a bad movie version of The Fantastic Four would tarnish the property, he bought the film for $2 million and had all prints destroyed, sight unseen. While Arad went on to become CEO of Marvel Comics (and still serves as Executive Producer for many of the films), he was unable to keep this movie completely hidden. VHS copies were traded for years, and now the complete film is available on Eichinger won.

Eichinger won in more ways than this, also because his gamble for producing the low-budget (and never released) little movie paid off and he retained the rights for new productions, sequels and remakes. He almost created a new version in 1996 before actually working with Constantin Film on the 2004 hit Fantastic Four starring Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Chiklis. The budget was 90 times that of the $1 million 1994 film and the box office was over $330.5 million. The 1994 film had no official box office. The $130 million sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer fared a little better with critics but it suffered 63 percent attendance drop off (similar to 2003’s Hulk) and ultimately made $289 million. This wasn’t enough to warrant another sequel (or the proposed spinoff Silver Surfer film).

Meanwhile, Chris “The Human Torch” Evans was cast as… Steve “Captain America” Rogers in the official Marvel Cinematic Universe films. You can’t keep a good man out of the spandex, it seems.

A reboot to the Fantastic Four series is set for a 2015 release (and a sequel is already planned) without Eichinger or Constantin Film’s participation. Then again, Arad is neither involved, nor could he presumably buy this film back, considering the budget is planned for quite a bit more than $1 million.

Thus, the story is far from over for The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, but what of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? What of the incredible saga of all of those also-ran comic book films? What of the future of Marvel Comics on television and what about the big comic book movie boom we are all still riding? Where did all of this come from?

Stay tuned, True Believers, as we will discuss this and much more in the next exciting issue of The Next Reel. I’ll see you there! Excelsior!

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