Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: Criterion DVD release of Prince Namor's "The Fantastic Four"

The Fantastic Four (1962)
Review by RJ White

Criterion Collection (USA) | Region 1, NTSC | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 Mono | English (FHI) Subtitles | Director: (Prince) Namor

For years, this, the first (and only film) directed by Prince Namor, was only viewable via the stray late night television screening or on some nth-generation awful dub from a dealer at a comic-book convention. Now, however, various ownership and legal issues have finally been ironed out and Criterion has been able to put out a very extensive DVD release for a film many have only heard about.

The story's pretty well-known- in the early 1960s, not long after their disfiguring accident and entry into the public eye, the short-lived "science vigilante" group the Fantastic Four (Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards, Susan "Invisible Girl" Storm-Richards, Ben "The Thing" Grimm and Johnny "The Human Torch" Storm) fell upon some financial hardship, due to poor investments. Monarch/industrialist/part-time terrorist Prince Namor of Atlantis (sometimes known as the "sub-mariner") decided to privately fund a film starring the team. Namor even started his own production company to produce the film, but the whole thing turned out to be some sort of elaborate scheme in which he had planned to kill them. Thwarted somehow, he went back into the sea and the film was completed by an uncredited Samuel Fuller.

With this story behind it and such a legend built up, the film has a lot to live up to. Here's the thing, though- it isn't really very good. It's mainly just a bunch of fight scenes, in which each member of the Fantastic Four gets their own set piece. The entire thing is strung together by a thin plot involving some sort of vacation or assignment by the military- it gets a little muddled. Then, out of nowhere, Prince Namor occasionally shows up and it sort of becomes a film about the making of the film. In that way, it's a little revolutionary, I suppose, as this sort of meta commentary on itself, but in that case, they should have just set aside any sort of fictional narrative and made the thing as a documentary. Ah, well, at any rate- it did very well at the time, particularly in the Midwest and South, where the antics of the Fantastic Four had only been seen on television or in magazines and for many years, much of the public in other areas of the country assumed the team was just the creation of some sci-fi B-movie screenwriter. The performances are fair at best, with the exception of the late Mr. Grimm, who could have maybe pursued acting or television as a career, were it not for the whole being-covered-in-orange-rocks thing.

The extras are superlative and provide some surprising insight. Prince Namor, though defeated, still went through with the distribution and, in some cities, promotion of the film (Trivia note: The company Namor established for the production of the film later co-produced some documentaries by the Maysles Brothers). Also, I definitely have to applaud the restraint of the producers in not using documentary footage or photos from Phil Sheldon's Marvels franchise. You can't swing a dead cat while talking about any of these people without hitting some material from that and it's great that the Criterion producers didn't go to that well once again.

To sum up- the print is excellent- the quality of the materials and extras are up to Criterion's usual high standards. It's a shame that the centerpiece- the film itself- isn't of comprable quality, but it serves as a very interesting artifact of a bygone era.

- 2000 interview with Namor on The Charlie Rose Show
- 1985 interview with Samuel Fuller in which he briefly discusses his role in directing and editing portions of the film
- Newsreel piece on the film's opening at Grauman's Chinese Theater
- Outtakes from Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm's recording sessions for promotional radio spots. (They get a little blue.)
- Theatrical trailer
- Interview with John Pierson on Prince Namor's role as a pioneer of early independent film
- Commentary by pulp magazine publisher Stanley Lee, who, with with advertising legend Jacob Kirby, produced issue 9 of the licensed 1962 "Fantastic Four" children's comic dramatizing the film's production
- Commentary by film historian and critic Leonard Maltin
- Ten-page production booklet, including pages from the 1962 "Fantastic Four" children's comic.

DVD cover design by Kevin Church


  1. This is brilliant. Just filled with so many little bits of win.

  2. This is really, really hysterical.

  3. Namor on Charlie Rose *killed* me.

    Dwayne McDuffie

  4. This is a masterpiece. I gotta go read that FF story again - which issue was it?

  5. Great just Great in another Universe I am sure
    Aquaman is gearing up for his close!