Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: once again, it has proven impossible to make a remotely decent movie out of the seminal comic book Fantastic Four. Let us travel back in time to the movie that, against all odds, is still the best attempt that anybody has yet made.

This is a story wherein, if you're the sort who'd interested, you already know everything I'm about to say. But please bear with me anyway, because the backstory is the heart and soul of understanding how things could have ended the way they did. Once upon a time, the idea of making movies based on Marvel comic books was at best a pathetic joke, and because of this, German producer Bernd Eichinger was able to snag the rights to the oldest of all Marvel titles, Fantastic Four, for a mere pittance in 1986. This was after one studio, Universal, had already sat on the option long enough for it to run out, and Eichinger would do no such thing: he actively pursued big studios to partner with his Neue Constantin Film to make a Fantastic Four movie that all would be proud of, or at least profit from. But in those days, there had only ever been successful feature films made with Superman and Batman, and they were much too fussy and costly for anybody to roll the dice on such an uncertain project as a superhero movie.

As the deadline on Eichinger's option, 31 December, 1992, approached, he finally concluded that since no proper movie would be made, at least he could make an improper one, and thus retain his option for several more years. Wisely, he teamed up with Roger Corman, film history's greatest artist at stretching a budget to the breaking point and then beyond, to help produce his minimum opus, which went into production on 28 December. Their target was a release date in fall 1993, eventually bumped to January, 1994, but before that could happen, forward-thinking Marvel executive Avi Arad found out about the project, and rather than allow the release of such a tiny piece of shit dilute the brand name of one of his company's toniest titles, he bought out Eichinger and Corman, essentially paying them more than the production cost of their movie not to release it. The option remained, though, and some 22 years after all of this happened, any new Fantastic Four movie is still a co-production with Constantin Film.

And so that explains why the officially-unreleased The Fantastic Four, the story of a man who can turn into a fireball, a translucent woman, a man made out of a pile of rocks, and a man with long-stretching elastic limbs would have such an enormously insufficient budget as $1 million, and why it is now only possible to watch it in the form of bootlegs copied from a single full-frame VHS tape that leaked somehow. That does not explain why, for all of its flaws, those forced by its outrageous poverty and those which were simple the result of sloppy B-filmmaking, it's still the best Fantastic Four feature in existence. But it certainly is, and by my lights, it's no particularly close battle. It's insane to use the phrase "good faith" to describe any aspect of this particularly cynical production, but I truly do suppose that the filmmakers put in a good-faith effort to make the strongest and most respectful adaptation of the comic book that $1 million could buy in 1993. Whereas none of the big-budget films attempted since then have had much in the way of respect for the material, or even basic human decency.

The poor bastards tasked with turning this business proposition into a movie were writers Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock, and director Oley Sassone; between them, Sassone's work on the Don "The Dragon" Wilson picture Bloodfist III is the closest anybody comes to an earlier film credit that suggests that they even actually exist. What they turned out is about as thoroughly generic as an origin story gets; in college, Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) were best buddies, and they decided to perform an experiment tied to the closest approach of a comet-like energy object called Colossus, which goes badly awry, killing Victor. Or does it? Of course not, but Reed won't find that out for ten years. During that time, he and his other best buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) work on perfecting that experiment so they can execute it again when Colossus returns, this time without killing anybody. This involves flying Reed's experimental spacecraft right up next to the object; for reasons that honestly seem to be solely sentimental, they're bringing with them the now-adult children of Reed's college landlady, siblings Sue (Rebecca Staab) and Johnny Storm (Jay Underwood), and for a totally unnecessary dose of creepiness, it's clear that A) Sue joins the mission because she's been harboring a desire to jump Reed's bones ever since she was a child and he was a college student, and B) he's happy to have her join because he's now harboring the same desire, though thankfully it seems unlikely that he's been doing so for the intervening decade.

Things go amiss, they all get blasted with cosmic radiation, and they crash back on Earth with a new array of superpowers: Reed can stretch, Johnny can flame, Sue can disappear, Ben is a big strong rock dude (and is now played by Carl Ciarfalio in a suit). This is iconic stuff, Comic Books 101, I don't need to belabor it. Bitter that his condition alone can't be turned on and off, Ben leaves, and encounters the weird subterranean Jeweler (Ian Trigger), who has stolen a large gemstone vital to harnessing the power of Colossus, as well as kidnapping Alicia Masters (Kat Green), a blind sculptor, to be his bride. And Victor, now styling himself Dr. Doom and wearing a metal face mask to hide his scars, has popped back up trying to build a weapon using Colossus, and the four heroes must learn to channel their abilities to stop both villains.

All of that is messier when you're actually watching it, with the subplot around the Jeweler in particular feeling like it could have benefited from another draft or two. And, frankly, it could have benefited even more from having a more clearly defined villain than this original creation (there's no readily apparent reason not to have used the Mole Man, the very first bad guy in the Fantastic Four comics, who would have required only a little tweaking to the script). But for the most part, this is boilerplate superhero origin story shenanigans, albeit from a time when there were just a few superhero origin stories that had been filmed. The details, though, are anything but boilerplate: the stupefyingly low budget and fast-paced production schedule gives The Fantastic Four a boldly amateur charm, like watching a middle school play with infinite ambition to go with its near-complete lack of resources. The one place, surprisingly, that the low-scale production doesn't betray itself is in the costume used to turn Ben Grimm into the Thing: it doesn't really resemble a man of rocks very much (he looks like a '70s linoleum pattern come to life), but the mechanics of the face are surprisingly functional in the mouth and eyebrows, and Ciarfalio's physical performance is the best in the movie, making the suit itself seem flexible and organic.

The rest of the effects are, unsurprisingly, quite dreadful, with the Human Torch realised primarily through judicious cutting and Mr. Fantastic's stretching arms a comically awful rubber prop (transforming Sue Storm into the Invisible Woman is pretty straightforward, using techniques pioneered in the 1900s, but it's also totally unimaginative). And the costumes, sets, and makeup (the garish white patches of hair designed to make Hyde-White look old are especially unpersuasive) are plainly not up to the demands of a broad-scale superhero movie, looking like a bunch of Midwestern ladies whipped them up over the weekend.

Where the cheapness shines, though, is in the unmodulated, one-take performances, ranging from the professor (George Gaynes) in the first scenes whose enunciation is delightfully stiff and formal (pronouncing "radioactive" as two discrete words is my favorite), to the '50s sitcom bigness of the doctor (Robert Beuth) who overreacts to the team's curious physical conditions, to the leads themselves. Hyde-White is generically unctuous, and Smith is actually good, insofar as the role gives him anything to be good with. But the other leads are all over the map, with Underwood screaming like a tweaked-out junkie and Culp hamming and camping it up like Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films, only done deadly straight. The sheer ebullience of the performances is totally unacceptable, but so joyfully bad and low-rent that it gives the film a genuine personality as the kind of bad movie that everybody involved plunged right into rather than felt their way through cautiously. And that is the best kind of bad movie. It's hokey as all hell, the final act is made of pure idiocy (culminating with the Human Torch, in the form of ghastly CGI, outraces a laser beam) reliant on clichés every step of the way, and there's simply no way for the action to look like anything but people bumbling about in underlit sets, but through all of this, The Fantastic Four is surprisingly cheery and committed to the cheap world it barely builds. And this is better than can be said for any of the subsequent attempts at doing the same material on a halfway-decent scale.