This week, Fox releases its latest reboot of Marvel’s "Fantastic Four." It cost a reported $122 million to make, but it wouldn't exist if it weren’t for a million-dollar movie made two decades ago by a legend of low budget cinema.
Quick. You're a creature so powerful you consume entire universes. Which Marvel supervillain are you? Answer: You’re Galactus, the sworn enemy of Marvel's mutant supersquad the Fantastic Four.
(Galactus in promotional art by Mitch Breitweiser. Wikipedia Commons)
But the real world has its Galactus too. He's a jovial grey eminence, who sits behind a big desk in a posh and airy office on the edge of Beverly Hills, and whose latest production is called "Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf."
And until I tell him, he doesn't even realize he — Roger Corman — personally destroyed the multi-billion-dollar Marvel Universe.
(R.H. Greene and producer Roger Corman. Courtesy R.H. Greene)
"'The Fantastic Four' was one of the most fantastic projects I was ever involved in," Corman says with a laugh. "I'm a little amazed that what we did in '92 is still in the news in '15."
Corman is now 89. His low-budget filmmaking career goes back more than 60 years and includes more than 400 producer credits and 50 directing credits. Films like "Attack of the Crab Monsters," "Attack of the Giant Leeches," "The Terror," "The Raven," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Death Race 2000." Corman is often discussed in terms of the younger talents he discovered: Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Gale Ann Hurd, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and more.
In the 1970s and '80s, Corman alums dominated studio filmmaking, and Corman could have been a studio filmmaker too. He directed a couple of films for 20th Century Fox, but decided he liked life better back on the outside.
"By 1992 I had a studio in Venice and I was producing about 10 pictures a year. We had our own distribution arm, and as we used to say, we had to feed the dinosaur. We had to make enough films so that the distribution arm could function," Corman says.
Nobody in Hollywood had more independence than Corman, nor could make more movies for less money. Which is why producer Bernd Eichinger, who died in 2011, called Corman when he got into a jam.
"He had an option to produce 'The Fantastic Four' on a 30 million dollar budget. But the option was going to expire on December 31st and he didn't have the 30 million dollars. So he came to me and said, 'Roger, I've got this 30 million dollar picture. Could you make it for 1 million dollars?' I said, 'We can do a pretty good job, I think, for a million dollars.'"
The main purpose behind "The Fantastic Four" was to keep Eichinger from losing his film rights. But Corman and company still tried to make a real movie. In 1992, there may have been a few other producers foolhardy enough to tackle a $30 million movie on a $1 million budget — but only Roger Corman could have pulled it off. His "Fantastic Four" is actually pretty good.
It's brisk, for one thing — 90 minutes flat. That's 71 minutes shorter than the butt-battering "Avengers: Age of Ultron," a film that cost $280 million to make.
Corman's film is also true to its source. The Human Torch has to cry "Flame on!" to control his powers. Reed Richards, the elastic team leader known as Mr. Fantastic, has a spit curl worthy of Bob's Big Boy. And the lavaman superhero called the Thing shouts out his comic book catchphrase "It's clobberin' time!" no fewer than three times.
That's not to say "Fantastic Four" isn't textbook Corman too — space scenes are a blend of NASA stock shots and the rocketship from a Soviet-era science fiction movie Corman's been plundering since the 1960s. And when Dr. Doom fires his death ray, Corman shows us '50s atomic test footage of exploding houses.
There's even a blown line reading, with the Human Torch saying, "I gotta make sure nothing here happens to sis."
Corman laughs warmly when some of the film's more obvious shortcomings are pointed out to him. "Those were some of the compromises we had to make in order to trim 29 million dollars off the budget."
"Fantastic Four" is a farewell address from a less pretentious time. When the Hulk was still a bodybuilder painted green, and the Thing was an actor in an orange rubber suit. It's a B movie for sure, but everybody brought their A game.
"We took the film very seriously as a challenge," says Corman, "an attempt to do something beyond what we'd been doing before. Everybody was really up for this."
"Fantastic Four" stands as one of the better Corman productions of the 1990s. It's also one of the few Corman films to never get released.
"We were ready to distribute the film when Bernd told us he'd made the deal with Fox. I said to Bernd, 'OK, you're now going to make the 30 million dollar picture.' He made it, and I think it came to 60 million or something like that. I said, 'What are you going to do with the 1 million dollar picture?' Fox said, 'If you want to continue with us, you're not going to distribute the 1 million dollar picture.' When Bernd told me that he'd sold it to Fox, I cashed the check, but I was somewhat disappointed."
But the world wasn't done with "The Fantastic Four." A bootleg version has a million views on YouTube. But the film's most lasting legacy — the one Corman himself was mostly unaware of — is as a butterfly effect.
Because of Roger Corman, Eichinger kept the rights to "The Fantastic Four," and then partnered with the Fox film studio for a couple of mega-productions. This severed the Fantastic Four from the rest of the Marvel movie universe, which now belongs to Disney. As a result, Marvel has discontinued the "Fantastic Four" comic book, and Disney has written the characters out of the upcoming "Infinity War" movies.
This shift is tectonic for true fans — because the Fantastic Four aren't just any characters. They're the first superhero creations from the team of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, themselves two foundational figures on the Mount Rushmore of comic books. Cutting the Fanastic Four out of the official Marvel Universe is like cutting Moses out of the Bible.
"I'm amazed to hear that Marvel has done that," Corman says. "I understand their reasoning — Fox controls that one project. Nevertheless, it seems to me they could work together with Fox. There's no reason why they couldn't collaborate in some way. But egos sometimes get in people's ways."
The feud between Marvel and Fox has gotten so bad that one Marvel artist recently drew the cast of Fox's new Fantastic Four reboot into a Punisher comic book. And then blew them up.
Because Roger Corman knows how to make a movie for a million dollars, the corporate histories of two of the largest media conglomerates the world has ever seen have been altered irrevocably, and decisions worth billions are being taken in what reports describe as an atmosphere of bitterness and acrimony.
While Roger Corman just sits in his comfortable office, planning out his next production.
"You can't predict what is going to happen," Corman says. "You go forward, you do the best you can, you have your plan, and the plan never works out exactly the way you thought it would."
A partial cast and crew reunion and a special screening of "DOOMED!," a new documentary about the Corman production of "The Fantastic Four," will be featured at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 7:30 p.m.