How do you make a Fantastic Four movie for a million dollars? This is the question posed by Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, a documentary about, well, exactly what its title promises.
If you don’t know, in the early 1990s, legendary b-pic master Roger Corman produced a Fantastic Four movie with a budget of between $1-2 million. It was never released. Why? Well, aside from the fact that making a Fantastic Four movie for that kind of money seems ridiculous right out of the gate, there were shady Hollywood deals and conspiracies swirling, some of which indicated that maybe this movie wasn’t ever supposed to be released in the first place. It wasn’t (well, at least not officially), but as with many pieces of forbidden knowledge, the more you try and keep something from people, the more its legend will grow.
Documentaries like Doomed! are almost becoming a cottage industry. There are immediate comparisons to be made to the masterful Jodorowsky’s Dune, a cinematic achievement in itself, or the fan goldmine that is Jon Schnepp’s The Death of Superman Lives! but Doomed! is a very different in tone from those, and not just because its subject matter, despite never having scored an official release, was actually produced.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is about a visionary who tried to make an impossibly ambitious adaptation of an equally ambitious sci-fi epic, who brought in absurd talent and spent tremendous amounts of money for a movie that ultimately was never made. The Death of Superman Lives! is ultimately about Hollywood arrogance at its finest, the inside story of the quest to make a Superman movie by people who had little regard for or understanding of the Superman legend and who spent the equivalent budget of a blockbuster movie for one that never saw the inside of a movie theater. Both documentaries are wonderful if you haven’t seen them, but Doomed! has something they don’t.
See, Doomed! is genuinely sweet and a little sad. While the Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four movie is one of those legendarily bad superhero movies from the pre-internet dark ages, what many don’t take into account is that it’s far more faithful to the spirit of the comics than any of the “actual” FF movies have been. I’m a staunch defender of this movie, and I’ve written about it at length here if you’re interested. There’s a can-do charm and earnestness to that version of The Fantastic Four that modern superhero movies could take a page from. And this is where Doomed! really got to me.
Y’see, nobody making The Fantastic Four thought they were making a bad movie. Not only that, the cast, the director, everyone involved (perhaps, depending on who you ask, up to and including Roger Corman) were operating under the assumption that not only was this movie going to be released, but that they had something special on their hands. Doomed! spends time with virtually every major player in front of and behind the camera for this movie and lets them tell their stories in often hilarious ways. Even if you’ve seen the movie (it’s out there on the internet and available at conventions…and Doomed! spends a few minutes celebrating those bootlegs, too), or you’re a weirdo like me who has researched this poor, tragic little movie over the years, there’s just so much to absorb and enjoy, from appearances by Lloyd Kaufman and Roger Corman himself to the revelations that a young Mark Ruffalo read for a part in this movie to archival footage of Stan Lee at the 1993 San Diego Comic-Con making disparaging remarks about the project, essentially trying to bury it before it was officially buried.
Throughout Doomed! I was reminded of Tim Burton’s masterful (if inaccurate) Ed Wood biopic (see also: excellent Ed Wood biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy). Wood’s reputation as “the worst director of all time” is, of course, utter nonsense and we’ve defended him at length on this site in the past, and will continue to do so far all time. But Wood made the most of limited resources, budget, and time, and inspired tremendous loyalty in his cast and crew. And while I’m certainly not comparing Fantastic Four director Oley Sassone to Ed Wood, that unquenchable sincerity and drive to make the best of a weird situation rang a little familiar.
At one point, Rebecca Staab, who played Sue Storm, while relating the inadequacies of the movie’s wardrobe department, recalls how Sassone pointed out that Sue Storm herself made the FF uniforms, so it would make sense for them to have a certain (ahem) handmade aesthetic. Sassone has another vocal defender in Alex Hyde-White, who played Mr. Fantastic and argues passionately that the film still deserves an official release, and another in Joseph Culp, whose main gripe with the flick is that they never properly recorded the dialogue he delivered while under Doctor Doom’s full face mask.
So for all the cynical back room dealings surrounding the movie itself, which the documentary spends most of its final act trying to unravel, there’s remarkably little cynicism or bitterness on display from the people who actually made The Fantastic Four. It’s almost heartbreaking to realize that dozens of people put months of work (and in some cases overtime and money out of their own pockets) into a movie that they expected to, at the very least, be given the limited release of other Corman productions of the era (Carnosaur, which shared some sets with The Fantastic Four, comes up quite a bit in the course of this documentary, and that was certainly a staple of video rental stores during the Jurassic Park era).
In fact, nearly everyone who appears on camera in Doomed! not only speaks highly of their time making the movie, but of each other, and for their desire to let the movie see the light of day in an official capacity. Not everyone feels that way, though. Both Avi Arad and Stan Lee declined to speak with Doomed! filmmaker Marty Langford to tell their side of the story.
Doomed! is an oddball delight, and a refreshing reminder that superhero fans didn’t always have it easy when it comes to seeing their heroes on the screen. It’s a love letter to an unloved movie. It’s also the strongest case that can be made for Marvel and 20th Century Fox to get off their collective asses and let the fans see this movie. The cast and crew believed in The Fantastic Four, and I suspect that after a viewing of Doomed! you will, too.