Having seen two out of the three abysmally bad Fantastic Four movies already, I figured that by now I was probably jaded enough to tackle the original 1994 version without risking my sanity. After all, the 2015 version was absolute rock bottom: so bad that it derailed before looping back around to “hilariously bad” and ended up in a fiery heap somewhere between terrifying and boring. Much to my relief, while the 1994 version is indisputably terrible, it’s the sort of terrible you can watch in relative comfort and have a giggle at. Some charming aspects are that it’s mercifully short, comically overblown, and features (genuinely) the best movie version of Dr. Doom we have. Some terrible aspects are that it feels like a high school kid did the final editing, it treats women like garbage, and while it’s technically fairly accurate to the comics, it chose specifically the worst faults of the comics to stay faithful to.
The movie starts off with a strangely middle-aged-looking actor attempting to masquerade as a twenty-something Reed Richards, sitting with his alarmingly beefy friend Ben Grimm (who is also obviously approaching forty) in a classroom. Reed passes notes full of vaguely sciencey-looking calculations to his friend Victor as they listen to a professor wildly over-act an explanation of a weird energy-producing comet called “Colossus” that is about to pass near Earth. Leaving the classroom, Reed and Victor reveal that they have built a device to harness the magical science-energy produced by Colossus and use it for… science, I guess. Momentarily they pass by the home of their friends the Storms. It is never explained why Reed Richards is friends with an eight-year-old and a twelve-year-old. He seems to know their mom, but we don’t know how or why.
After this baffling encounter, Reed and Victor head to a lab and dramatically switch on their comet-channeling science machine, only to have it malfunction and burn Victor to a crisp. Reed and Ben take him to the hospital, but an inexplicably ominous and henchman-like doctor announces that Victor is dead and wheels him away. This next part is extra nonsensical: the creepy doctor takes Victor to a basement and announces creepily to his creepy nurse that they must save him at all costs. They do, clearly, but it’s never explained why. Who is this weird doctor? Why does a relatively obscure scientist matter so much to him? Did he swap shifts with someone to make sure he would be on duty when the Colossus comet swung by, on the off chance some dude had built a comet-harnessing machine that would malfunction and result in horrible burns? Did he just have a powerful long-term goal to be the henchman to someone who was clearly in the midst of a villain origin story? We may never know, but we see this doctor acting as Doom’s henchman throughout the rest of the movie.
After Victor’s “death” we cut to ten years later. Reed has built another comet-harnessing machine, but this time he’s strapped it to a rocket and put a big-ass diamond in it, because of course that’s how it works. As soon as Reed slaps the clearly-highly-critical diamond into the machine, a weird little mole man villain turns up, creeps past the incredibly ineffective security system, and swaps the real diamond for a fake one. Meanwhile, Ben Grimm is going down a flight of stairs and trips a blind woman, who immediately falls in love with him after less than twenty seconds of interaction. We do not learn her name, only that she is now in love with Ben, which is convenient information since she gets kidnapped by the diamond-stealing mole man later so Ben can have some character development.
Reed promptly rockets himself, Ben, Sue, and Johnny into space. If you can do math, you’ve realized that a ten-year time jump would make Johnny about eighteen and Sue maybe twenty-three. Why has Reed shot two very young random people into space? The hell if I know. The only explanation he gives is that they “know more about this project than anyone” which presumably means he’s had a lot of one-sided dinner conversations with his underage pals over the last decade. They aren’t scientists or engineers or otherwise connected to this operation in any way, they’re just the other two members of the Fantastic Four, so they have to get shoehorned in there and end up with powers somehow. Now granted, as ridiculous as this is, it’s a good example of how the movie pulls from the original comics in the worst kind of way. In the older comics, the Storms are in fact dragged along for completely arbitrary and unexplained reasons. Effectively, the writer decided they needed a chick and a young jock-type guy to balance the team, but of all the things to draw inspiration from, surely they could have found something less… stupid.
Of course, the rocket blows up, the team falls to earth unharmed (thus realizing they have powers), and while the government assumes they’re dead they get rescued/kidnapped by Doom’s science team and taken to a lab. How did Doom know where they had landed? I don’t know; the questions are pretty meaningless at this point. The team quickly escapes from Doom’s lab, but they see on the way out that he’s building a giant death ray. Because of course he is.
From here on out everything is so weirdly hurried and clipped-together that the plot (such as it is) kind of falls apart. They do defeat Doom: Reed punches him off a cliff after a few seconds’ worth of lackluster hand-to-hand combat, and Johnny flies faster than light to intercept the laser beam. It then cuts immediately to a scene of Sue and Reed getting married, but for some reason Reed, Johnny, and Ben are all in their Fantastic Four jumpsuits, whereas Sue is in a wedding dress. The entire climax takes place during only the last few minutes of the movie, so if you blink you miss most of it. Hilariously, after Doom falls to his death, the gauntlet he left behind stuck to the ledge starts wiggling, clearly an attempt at leading into a sequel. I don’t know exactly what they were getting at there, because it seems to be an empty gauntlet, but hey, it’s not like anything else about this movie make sense.
There were a few redeeming factors to this movie as compared to the other Fantastic Four movies. First, as I mentioned, Dr. Doom is delightful. He’s got a great villain voice and intonation, his costume is very closely pulled from the comics (presumably because they didn’t have the budget to do anything more elaborate) and the actor is genuinely fully committed to the role. He’s hokey, sure, but in a really fun, distinctly comic-book-villain way that’s entertaining to watch. In both the 2005 and 2015 versions, the writers tried to take Doom far too seriously, but I really think the only way that he works as a concept is in the specific realm of comic book villainy, so it seems like it’s best to just let him be ridiculous and overblown in every form of media.
Another decent (not good, but decent) thing is that the conflict between Ben and Reed is actually better developed in this movie than in the 2015 version. Once out of Doom’s clutches, Ben and Reed have a falling out over the fact that Ben is now a giant rock monster and it’s kind of Reed’s fault. In the 2015 version, Ben seems to actually be in worse shape and clearly blames Reed even more for ruining his life, but they never actually talk about it or have any meaningful resolution. The 1994 version is a bit ridiculous, but at least it’s dealt with in some way: Ben runs away into the city where he makes many dramatic hand gestures in slow-motion over a touching instrumental before being found by the mole-people, henchmen of the mole-villain. They welcome him warmly into their mole-society in spite of his bizarre appearance and take him to meet the mole-villain, who is their mole-overlord. To Ben’s shock, however, the mole-villain has kidnapped that one blind woman he met that one time. For some reason, when the blind woman (whose name Ben doesn’t know, and who he’s only met once for a few seconds) declares her love for him, Ben turns back into his fleshy Ben Grimm self, but when he’s not around her anymore he transforms back into a rock monster. This never happens again, and is never brought up, but the take-away I think is that the whole process helps Ben realize he’s still human inside and that his friends still care about him.
Amongst the painfully bad aspects of the movie, however, is that there are only two named women who appear on screen throughout. The blind woman only barely counts as named, because we only learn her name after she gets rescued. Both characters crash and burn on both the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp Test. In fact, if you don’t count screaming, the blind woman has only two lines of dialogue that aren’t somehow about Ben Grimm, and they are “oh, my statue!” and “come in”. Sue, likewise, is framed almost entirely in relation to her obsession with Reed. The first and only words she says in the scene where she is introduced (where, allow me to reiterate, she is clearly no more than twelve or thirteen) are “he’s so dreamy” as she gazes at Reed, a man very easily old enough to be her father. It’s unsettling. For some reason, Sue doesn’t even get her single potentially offensive combat power (the ability to create force fields) until the very last and most inconvenient part of the final fight, even though there were several prior instances where she could have used it to benefit the team. It’s almost as if the filmmakers went out of their way to deliberately take away her moments to shine. As they escaped from Doom’s lab, for example, she punched precisely one guy in the face, but immediately started jumping up and down whining that her hand hurt. She and Ben’s love interest both exist completely and entirely to serve as objects of interest for the male characters. It’s a trainwreck in a way that even “well, it was 1994” can’t excuse.
I sincerely think it’s time to stop making Fantastic Four movies. We’ve had three that ran the gamut from “sort of mediocre” to “unwatchable”, and it seems that there is no easy go-to formula for making this collection of characters work on screen. I’m sure that with the right collection of talent in directing, writing, and acting, they could eke a decent movie out of the franchise, but I think the comic-reading public has honestly had enough by now, and wouldn’t trust even the most promising-looking remake. Personally, I’m not even a big fan of the Fantastic Four comics; the reason I keep watching the movies is because at this point I’m morbidly fascinated by how bad they consistently prove to be. At the very least, the 1994 version does cross the critical threshold from bad into hilarious. The special effects are horrible, there are all kinds of non-sequiturs in dialogue and plot, and some of the acting—Johnny Storm’s in particular—is amusingly talentless. The other two films were varying degrees of bad, but neither was as genuinely funny as this one.