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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's Fantastic Four: A Breakdown & Analysis



            “How many movies did Roger Corman make that never got released?  One.”  That statement sets the stage for one of the most intriguing and disappointing stories ever told.  “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” is a 2015 documentary by filmmaker Marty Langford and tells the despondent true Hollywood story of the “failed” 1994 Fantastic Four movie.  Why put “failed” in quotes?  Because this movie has gained more recognition and support than I ever think it would have had it been released in theaters as it was originally intended.  But this is not a review of the movie we were never meant to see.  This is a review of the film that explores why we never got to see it.

            Everyone loves a good conspiracy story.  Taking only select pieces of an intricate jigsaw puzzle to find out who of your sinister lineup of suspects is the culprit responsible for the crime.  Deducing the complex sequence of events and tracing every step that had to be masterfully perpetrated to commit the heinous act.  In the world of unmade comic book films, “Fantastic Four” has been a mystery dying to be solved.  After years of speculation and rumors, Marty Langford set out to uncover the “True Hollywood Story” that die hard comic book and movie fans have wanted to know: What really happened to “Fantastic Four”? 



            What makes for a good documentarian is not dependent on if they’re a good filmmaker.  It’s dependent on how good of a historian they are.  Where does the film find its evidence and which sources do they utilize to confirm the subject matter that they are presenting to their audience?  In this regard, Marty Langford went directly to the source:  director Oley Sassone, casting director Mark Sikes, executive producer Roger Corman, stars of the film Alex Hyde-White, Michael Bailey Smith, Rebecca Staab, Jay Underwood, Joseph Culp, and several other members of the production team.  It is through these sources of information that Langford cuts through all of the speculation, rumor, and lore that has surrounded this film for decades.  Langford is an experienced writer and short-film creator, but this marks his directorial debut in the genre of documentary.  As a student of film who had to take not one, but two college courses on documentary filmmaking, let me assure you that it is extremely difficult.  In this first film, Langford shows a clear talent for the genre as he not only directed and wrote the film but also edited the film.  Taking a little bit over a year to complete, Langford patiently executed the project as he waited for more and more fan supported donations to come in to help him fund the making of the film.  I think this ended up giving him a real opportunity to experiment, assemble his footage, see what worked, what didn’t work, and how best to move forward.  Each interview is perfectly framed, which is actually much more difficult than it looks.  Getting each interviewee to have their eyes looking towards the camera, but not AT the camera, having each subject lit properly so that it doesn’t look cheap, seamlessly intercutting between interviews, soundbites, and footage and stills from the production of the film.  Watching this, you would never guess that this was Langford’s first foray into the world of documentary filmmaking.   




            Before I go any further in discussing aspects of this stellar documentary, the greatest asset Langford achieved through gaining access to the individuals involved in the production of this film was that this movie was made with true passion.  In every interview, each person involved in the production put their heart and soul into making “Fantastic Four” a true success that would be beloved by the fans.  Yes, all of the actors had hopes that the film would further their careers, but they did not enter into the project with the mindset of just cashing a paycheck as many other actors have in the plethora of failed comic book movies.  Langford succeeds in making each of the interviewees feel safe and comfortable to recount their experience during the making of the movie.  This helps draw out the heartfelt emotion and disappointment that each of these people feel towards how they were treated and how the film was ultimately killed.

            The atmosphere of the time period of 1994 is set by interviews with Chris Gore (on-set publicist) and Sean Howe (Marvel Comics historian).  Through them, we gain a full understanding of the condition Marvel Comics was in at this point in time and the mindset they had in the approach to “Fantastic Four”.  As they reveal the setup of how Bernd Eichinger of Constantin Film acquired the rights to the property and his partnership with Roger Corman, we are immediately thrust into the time, place, and mindset:  We have to make a movie, we have to do it cheaply, and we have to do it fast.  In doing this, Langford does not villainize anyone, which is a true testament to how good of a documentarian he is.  He presents audiences with the factual foundation of this film and how it was built from the ground up and reveals that this movie was never intentionally made to be a failure as others, such as Stan Lee, has tried to lead us to believe.  In 1994, Marvel Comics was in a dire situation with sales of comics vastly declined and very few avenues to explore to generate revenue for the company.  As we all know, this resulted in Marvel selling the film rights to their properties to several different production companies so that they could use that money to keep the company afloat.  What is arguably the most disheartening aspect of “The Fantastic Four” is that Stan Lee and Marvel are proven to have shown clear support for the film during production.  It was not until public interest and anticipation started to show that Stan Lee and Avi Arad began their crusade to discount their approval of the production. 



            The most captivating elements of “Doomed” are the interviews with the director and stars of the film.  As I mentioned earlier, Langford succeeds in creating a safe atmosphere for each of the actors to give not only truthful recounts of their experiences during the making of the film, but their heartfelt emotions.  Alex Hyde-White, who played the role of Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic, provides some of the best segments of interviews as he gives the audience a sense of maturity on his outlook towards the film, but also an emotional sense of betrayal.  Easily the most heartbreaking moment in his interviews is found where they play footage of Stan Lee denouncing the film at a comic book convention and defaming its quality, and then Langford brilliantly cuts to Alex Hyde-White revealing Stan visited the set countless times and even brought donuts for the entire cast and crew. 



            Further reinforcing the mindset on the production are interviews with Michael Bailey Smith who played Ben Grimm, Rebecca Staab who played Susan Storm/Invisible Woman, Jay Underwood who played Johnny Storm/Human Torch, and Joseph Culp who played Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom.  Up until this documentary was made, all fans ever knew of the film was that it was low budget with cheaply made costumes and lackluster special effects.  But through these five actors, the heart and passion that fueled this film are revealed.  None of them expresses anger or fury towards the “fat cats” at Marvel or make any lofty proclamations that they were set up for failure.  No, each member of the cast offers viewers insight into how they approached the project, what was going through their minds on set, how some of them spent money out of their own pocket to passionately promote the film to fans, and their crushing disappointment as they came to learn that the movie was being shelved and would never be released.


            Audiences are granted a “behind-the-scenes” look at the filming locations, sets, costume production, set production, and post-production footage from the making of “The Fantastic Four”.  While interviews and sound bites give an audience information, visuals are the key element to making a good documentary as they fill in the gaps for viewers and allow them to create a clear image in their head instead of speculating.  Staring at static shots of a person sitting in a chair while recounting their story would get very boring very fast.  Marty Langford shows that he truly became a detective by unearthing numerous amounts of footage, stills, and pieces from the production and marketing of the film to give viewers the full, uncensored story of this infamous production. 



            If I wanted to, it would be incredibly fun for me to reveal all the hidden secrets and treasure troves of knowledge that are shown through this documentary, but it would quite honestly ruin the effectiveness of seeing this documentary for yourself.  For me to reveal what really happened and the people behind shelving “The Fantastic Four” would be like me telling you that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father in 1980 before you’d had a chance to go see “The Empire Strikes Back”.  It would destroy any excitement and thrill that you would have in the experience of viewing the movie for yourself.  What I can say is that “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” is a masterfully well-made documentary that not only shines a light on what exactly happened to “The Fantastic Four”, but it also gives audiences a look into the shadiest parts of Hollywood and how those tendrils latch into every big blockbuster film.  You’ll be able to see why movies like “Batman & Robin”, “Green Lantern”, “Elektra”, “Daredevil”, and other big budget films can often times fall on their faces.  Now, I do not believe that any of those movies are truly bad or unwatchable.  They may be inferior in quality in terms of story or character development, but there is care and countless hours craftsmanship and dedication to making the best product they can under the conditions that they're under.  Often times, because we as a society are prone to being followers of trends, we have a tendency to convince ourselves of public opinion because we don't want to feel abnormal if we don't agree with the social stigma.  For example, I certainly think that 2011's "Green Lantern" certainly could've used better writing and clearer editing, but the production quality, score, set design, special effects, action, and casting are all very well done and does not merit the verbal lashing it has received over the years.  Of course, that's only my opinion.



            Documentaries such as “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” and Jon Schnepp’s “The Death of Superman Lives: What Really Happened?” are extremely entertaining and informative, at least for me, because more often than not, it’s more fun to see how the “bad” movies are made or sabotaged than to see how the successful ones are.  Right now in 2017, Marvel Studios/Disney is riding a billion dollar high that has been clearly well deserved through their quality.  Everyone from Stan Lee to Avi Arad to Kevin Feige promotes standing ovations for the creative minds behind their films.  But what “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” will make you question in your mind:  What if “Iron Man” hadn’t been as well received as it was?  What if “Avengers” hadn’t gained the acclaim that it did?  Would those movies have been relegated to a dusty shelf in someone’s hidden closet?  Would Stan Lee have come forward to say, “That movie was never meant to be seen by anyone”?  Again, this documentary does NOT villainize anyone.  It doesn’t try to push its own opinion on you, but instead, works to inform you with truthful, reliable accounts from the people involved so that you as a comic book fan or a movie enthusiast can determine your own opinion on the ill-fated “Fantastic Four” movie.

             As a Blu-ray, "Doomed" is an extremely satisfying release for fans.  Along with a 1080p HD copy of the documentary, viewers are also treated with special features such as a panel discussion with the cast/crew, a director interview, outtakes, further exploration with Joseph Culp on Doctor Doom, unused interview footage with Roger Corman, Sean Howe, and other members of the cast, as well as a special segment revisiting the filming locations of the movie.  The best way to put it: the entire project and Blu-ray is complete fan service.  It provides you with everything you need to get the full inside look into the production of "The Fantastic Four".


            I think it will come as no surprise that I give this documentary 5/5 Stars.  The film utilizes all of the formal elements of the documentary genre and applies them to a topic that very few people ever would have thought to apply it to.  Films such as this are only made through passion and fan support, so for all of the people out there who thirst for knowledge and insight into the darker corners of the Comic Book Movie genre, this film does not disappoint.  I feel it is just as important for audiences to see and support "Doomed" as it is for them to go out and see "Captain America: Civil War".  We can't simply write "The Fantastic Four" off as a bad movie that isn't worth our time.  It absolutely is and this documentary proves why.


            As a closing statement:  I would like to urge everyone reading this to support projects like “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” and Jon Schnepp’s “The Death of Superman Lives: What Really Happened?”.  These are passionate filmmakers who have worked so hard to bring you truthful, well-researched documentaries on subjects and projects that we as fans have been dying to get legitimate insight and information on.  It is only through fan support and donations that these films can be made as big budget production companies won’t fund them.  So please, show your support by buying a copy of “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” from Marty Langford himself at www.doomedthemovie.com and Jon Schnepp’s “The Death of Superman Lives: What Really Happened?” at http://www.tdoslwh.com.  These are artists and creators that are well worth your support if you’re even the slightest bit a comic book fan or movie enthusiast.  You will be assisting worthy projects and helping to ensure that more documentaries such as these continue to be made.



Written and Edited by: Witt Reese. Co-Edited by: Jack Flowers. Published by: The Nerd Hub

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