Drat!

The Fantastic Four has always been a comic lover’s comic. Although Spider-Man is more widely known, Reed Richards and his family are often considered the soul of Marvel Comics—it was, after all, the Fantastic Four’s explosive popularity in the early sixties that vaulted the company from also-ran to market leader. Although it’s been a long time since the comic book dominated the sales charts, it continues to sell well and remains a high-profile assignment for writer-artist teams (J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the TV series Babylon 5, recently signed on to write it). Even forty years on, minor happenings in the comic’s plot can occasionally make the real-world news, as in 2002, when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish.

It stands to reason that a movie version of a franchise this beloved would generate loads of interest, and the eruption of online speculation about story and cast bears this out. Legions of nerds, and I emphatically include myself in that category, have been waiting a long time for a good Fantastic Four flick.

Let’s examine why the comic was so great to begin with. When Fantastic Four #1 appeared in 1961, it was unlike anything else in comics. DC Comics was enjoying great success with Justice League of America, a team-up of its A-list super-types (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al.). The Fantastic Four were Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s attempt to get a piece of the dream-team action for Marvel. Lee, however, was also sick of the comics industry and on the verge of quitting. As a result, he threw caution to the wind and wrote heroes with actual personalities and regular, human problems. They bickered. They went broke. They spent as much time exploring and inventing as they did fighting crime.

Ben “the Thing” Grimm bitterly (and rightly) blamed Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards for his horrible disfigurement in the accident that gave the Four their powers. Susan “Invisible Girl” Storm, though romantically linked to Richards, frequently flirted with one of the Four’s primary villains, a sea-dwelling tough guy named Namor (who, with his fish-scale swimming trunks, comes off as an ill-tempered Aquaman). This quartet was a far cry from the Justice League heroes, who were happy and well-adjusted (most of them, at least—admittedly, Batman’s got some problems). The Fantastic Four’s nemeses were also notably different; often they defied convention by having actual motivations. The jealous Dr. Doom, for instance, with his enormous ego and raging Oedipus complex, is vastly more compelling than the giant starfish from space that the Justice League faced. Sure, Doom’s desire to conquer the Earth is pretty common, but that was just one of his goals, along with contacting his dead mother, sticking it to Reed Richards, and raising the international prestige of his home country of Latveria.

This month’s Fantastic Four movie is not the first time that Marvel’s First Family has been adapted to film. A notoriously awful version was shot in 1994 purely to fulfill contract obligations—producer Roger Corman’s ownership of the film rights included a clause that production had to begin by a certain date. The resulting film featured a ridiculous foam-rubber Thing costume and a Mr. Fantastic stretching effect that, according to comics historian Scott Tipton, “looks like a sock on a really long stick.” Even by Corman’s standards, this movie stank. He buried it, and it is currently available only in bootlegs—though the prevailing consensus is that it’s not worth watching even for laughs.

This leaves the bar pretty low for the new film. However, in adapting what is essentially an origin story, the filmmakers made some choices that will rile the faithful. In Lee and Kirby’s delightful, original version, the Fantastic Four receive their powers from accidental exposure to cosmic rays while stealing a rocket to beat “the commies” into space. Reed Richards’ decision to bring his college roommate, pilot Ben Grimm, makes sense; bringing along his fiancée and her little brother is somewhat less understandable, but that’s part of the charm.

In the new film, the exposure to cosmic radiation is more or less intentional, and Richards spouts a lame generalization about advancing “our knowledge of planetary life.” How is that even one-quarter as cool as stealing a rocket to beat the commies into space? In fact, while Lee and Kirby quickly established the Four’s powers and then sent them into action, the movie gets bogged down with bogus scientific justifications, in which people must listen to tedious explanations about why they can stretch or turn invisible. If your story hinges on people doing things that are outside of the bounds of scientific possibility, why waste screen time doling out cheesy rationalizations? Every second squandered telling us about Reed Richards’ internal organs could be used instead to, say, send the superheroes back in time to hang out with pirates, or have them hypnotize shape-shifting alien invaders into believing that they’re cows.

There’s nothing blasphemous about doing the Fantastic Four as high science fiction; this is essentially what Lee and Kirby did, although the boundaries of science fiction have shifted considerably since the sixties. But why play it so straight? The comic book works because of its sense of lighthearted wonder. You can’t have an effective villain named “Dr. Doom” unless you’re willing to at least flirt with camp. While the book, at its best, is an exercise of raw imagination, the movie, like so many of its blockbuster brethren, seems likely to be little more than a modest exercise in computer-generated imagery.

Not that film adaptations of comics should slavishly ape the tone or trappings or specifics of their source material. Far from it—if adding a character or changing a power makes sense for the story, then I say go for it. The two Spider-Man movies, to take recent examples of Marvel successes, tweaked a lot of details but held on to the core elements that have always made Spider-Man interesting. The result was something that pleased pretty much everybody: Comics geeks got a couple of Spider-Man films they could love; the non-comics-reading public got well-above-average summer movies; and the producers got enough money to fill the Grand Canyon. But these are exceptions; the more typical Hollywood emphasis on effects and exposition over story and character hasn’t generated a lot of great superhero movies. Do we still talk about the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

I submit that comics are a potential trap when it comes to adapting them for film. It seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world to do, since a comic book looks like an illustrated screenplay. But that’s the point: It’s illustrated. Someone has drawn the panels, and has total control over what you see and don’t see. Visually awkward elements, such as the look of Dr. Doom’s armor on an actual person, never have to appear. Moreover, a comic artist can control the flow of time itself based on how he chooses to break up the action. If, in a comic, you want to show Reed Richards stretching his arm, you show a normal Reed arm in one panel and a stretched-out one in the next. If you want to emphasize that it’s really hard for him to stretch—maybe Dr. Doom has him in a chamber whose temperature is absolute zero and he’s not as elastic as usual—then you draw six almost-identical consecutive panels, each with a slightly longer arm. The reader’s mind fills the gaps, drawing her more deeply into the story. The closest thing to this in film is that Matrix-y “bullet time” effect that keeps getting trotted out (and, mercifully, seems to be on the wane).

Superhero stories are hardwired into us humans—or more accurately, superhero stories are one manifestation of a story archetype that appears to be hardwired into us. That pretty much explains Joseph Campbell’s career, and the line stretching from Beowulf to Reed Richards b
ears that out. The weird thing, though, is the way that superheroes and comics have become inextricably linked. There’s nothing inherent about words combined with pictures that forces them to tell stories about demigods. Hordes of comics writers and artists are working, more or less underground, to tell completely unheroic stories (see Dan Clowes and Marjane Satrapi for a couple of more prominent examples; tangentially, Clowes’ Ghost World was the basis for one of the best comic-to-film translations of all time). But if you drive by Comic College on Hennepin, you see a photorealistic painting of Batman and a bust of the Hulk; when people think comics, they think superheroes.

There are three reasons for this. The first comics to sell in huge numbers were superhero books. Second, simple good-versus-evil superhero tales were an easy way to comply with the harsh scrutiny trained on the medium during the fifties. (Vibrant alternate genres that had cropped up, like pirate and horror comics, wilted when censors started paying attention.) Finally, until recently, hand-drawn pictures represented the only way to show superhero action without either looking cheesy or costing a fortune.

The universality of superhero stories means that characters can easily hop among different media—Superman is inspiring whether you’re reading a comic book, watching a movie, or playing with an action figure. The characters themselves are in no danger, but comics have become a niche market with dwindling numbers. Tipton notes that while top books routinely sold millions of copies in the late forties, these days a book is a phenomenon if it cracks a hundred thousand. Currently, the comics divisions of Marvel and DC exist at least partly as R&D departments to produce characters and storylines for use in other, more lucrative media. It’s rumored that DC’s corporate parent, Time Warner, doesn’t even require that the comics turn a profit, knowing that movies and toys will more than recoup the money spent on writers and artists. Although it almost certainly won’t match the trainloads of money produced by the Spider-Man movies, The Fantastic Four will in all likelihood be profitable for Marvel. It will provide us with a couple of hours’ worth of mildly diverting spectacle, and maybe even some cool toys (the Hulk movie sucked, but those foam Hulk Hands are pure fun). For anything more, your best bet is to turn back to the comics. Which is fine by me.

Let’s examine why the comic was so great to begin with. When Fantastic Four #1 appeared in 1961, it was unlike anything else in comics. DC Comics was enjoying great success with Justice League of America, a team-up of its A-list super-types (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al.). The Fantastic Four were Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s attempt to get a piece of the dream-team action for Marvel. Lee, however, was also sick of the comics industry and on the verge of quitting. As a result, he threw caution to the wind and wrote heroes with actual personalities and regular, human problems. They bickered. They went broke. They spent as much time exploring and inventing as they did fighting crime.

Ben “the Thing” Grimm bitterly (and rightly) blamed Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards for his horrible disfigurement in the accident that gave the Four their powers. Susan “Invisible Girl” Storm, though romantically linked to Richards, frequently flirted with one of the Four’s primary villains, a sea-dwelling tough guy named Namor (who, with his fish-scale swimming trunks, comes off as an ill-tempered Aquaman). This quartet was a far cry from the Justice League heroes, who were happy and well-adjusted (most of them, at least—admittedly, Batman’s got some problems). The Fantastic Four’s nemeses were also notably different; often they defied convention by having actual motivations. The jealous Dr. Doom, for instance, with his enormous ego and raging Oedipus complex, is vastly more compelling than the giant starfish from space that the Justice League faced. Sure, Doom’s desire to conquer the Earth is pretty common, but that was just one of his goals, along with contacting his dead mother, sticking it to Reed Richards, and raising the international prestige of his home country of Latveria.

This month’s Fantastic Four movie is not the first time that Marvel’s First Family has been adapted to film. A notoriously awful version was shot in 1994 purely to fulfill contract obligations—producer Roger Corman’s ownership of the film rights included a clause that production had to begin by a certain date. The resulting film featured a ridiculous foam-rubber Thing costume and a Mr. Fantastic stretching effect that, according to comics historian Scott Tipton, “looks like a sock on a really long stick.” Even by Corman’s standards, this movie stank. He buried it, and it is currently available only in bootlegs—though the prevailing consensus is that it’s not worth watching even for laughs.

This leaves the bar pretty low for the new film. However, in adapting what is essentially an origin story, the filmmakers made some choices that will rile the faithful. In Lee and Kirby’s delightful, original version, the Fantastic Four receive their powers from accidental exposure to cosmic rays while stealing a rocket to beat “the commies” into space. Reed Richards’ decision to bring his college roommate, pilot Ben Grimm, makes sense; bringing along his fiancée and her little brother is somewhat less understandable, but that’s part of the charm.

In the new film, the exposure to cosmic radiation is more or less intentional, and Richards spouts a lame generalization about advancing “our knowledge of planetary life.” How is that even one-quarter as cool as stealing a rocket to beat the commies into space? In fact, while Lee and Kirby quickly established the Four’s powers and then sent them into action, the movie gets bogged down with bogus scientific justifications, in which people must listen to tedious explanations about why they can stretch or turn invisible. If your story hinges on people doing things that are outside of the bounds of scientific possibility, why waste screen time doling out cheesy rationalizations? Every second squandered telling us about Reed Richards’ internal organs could be used instead to, say, send the superheroes back in time to hang out with pirates, or have them hypnotize shape-shifting alien invaders into believing that they’re cows.

There’s nothing blasphemous about doing the Fantastic Four as high science fiction; this is essentially what Lee and Kirby did, although the boundaries of science fiction have shifted considerably since the sixties. But why play it so straight? The comic book works because of its sense of lighthearted wonder. You can’t have an effective villain named “Dr. Doom” unless you’re willing to at least flirt with camp. While the book, at its best, is an exercise of raw imagination, the movie, like so many of its blockbuster brethren, seems likely to be little more than a modest exercise in computer-generated imagery.

Not that film adaptations of comics should slavishly ape the tone or trappings or specifics of their source material. Far from it—if adding a character or changing a power makes sense for the story, then I say go for it. The two Spider-Man movies, to take recent examples of Marvel successes, tweaked a lot of details but held on to the core elements that have always made Spider-Man interesting. The result was something that pleased pretty much everybody: Comics geeks got a couple of Spider-Man films they could love; the non-comics-reading public got well-above-average summer movies; and the producers got enough money to fill the Grand Canyon. But these are exceptions; the more typical Hollywood emphasis on effects and exposition over story and character hasn’t generated a lot of great superhero movies. Do we still talk about the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

I submit that comics are a potential trap when it comes to adapt
ing them for film. It seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world to do, since a comic book looks like an illustrated screenplay. But that’s the point: It’s illustrated. Someone has drawn the panels, and has total control over what you see and don’t see. Visually awkward elements, such as the look of Dr. Doom’s armor on an actual person, never have to appear. Moreover, a comic artist can control the flow of time itself based on how he chooses to break up the action. If, in a comic, you want to show Reed Richards stretching his arm, you show a normal Reed arm in one panel and a stretched-out one in the next. If you want to emphasize that it’s really hard for him to stretch—maybe Dr. Doom has him in a chamber whose temperature is absolute zero and he’s not as elastic as usual—then you draw six almost-identical consecutive panels, each with a slightly longer arm. The reader’s mind fills the gaps, drawing her more deeply into the story. The closest thing to this in film is that Matrix-y “bullet time” effect that keeps getting trotted out (and, mercifully, seems to be on the wane). Superhero stories are hardwired into us humans—or more accurately, superhero stories are one manifestation of a story archetype that appears to be hardwired into us. That pretty much explains Joseph Campbell’s career, and the line stretching from Beowulf to Reed Richards bears that out. The weird thing, though, is the way that superheroes and comics have become inextricably linked. There’s nothing inherent about words combined with pictures that forces them to tell stories about demigods. Hordes of comics writers and artists are working, more or less underground, to tell completely unheroic stories (see Dan Clowes and Marjane Satrapi for a couple of more prominent examples; tangentially, Clowes’ Ghost World was the basis for one of the best comic-to-film translations of all time). But if you drive by Comic College on Hennepin, you see a photorealistic painting of Batman and a bust of the Hulk; when people think comics, they think superheroes.

There are three reasons for this. The first comics to sell in huge numbers were superhero books. Second, simple good-versus-evil superhero tales were an easy way to comply with the harsh scrutiny trained on the medium during the fifties. (Vibrant alternate genres that had cropped up, like pirate and horror comics, wilted when censors started paying attention.) Finally, until recently, hand-drawn pictures represented the only way to show superhero action without either looking cheesy or costing a fortune.

The universality of superhero stories means that characters can easily hop among different media—Superman is inspiring whether you’re reading a comic book, watching a movie, or playing with an action figure. The characters themselves are in no danger, but comics have become a niche market with dwindling numbers. Tipton notes that while top books routinely sold millions of copies in the late forties, these days a book is a phenomenon if it cracks a hundred thousand. Currently, the comics divisions of Marvel and DC exist at least partly as R&D departments to produce characters and storylines for use in other, more lucrative media. It’s rumored that DC’s corporate parent, Time Warner, doesn’t even require that the comics turn a profit, knowing that movies and toys will more than recoup the money spent on writers and artists. Although it almost certainly won’t match the trainloads of money produced by the Spider-Man movies, The Fantastic Four will in all likelihood be profitable for Marvel. It will provide us with a couple of hours’ worth of mildly diverting spectacle, and maybe even some cool toys (the Hulk movie sucked, but those foam Hulk Hands are pure fun). For anything more, your best bet is to turn back to the comics. Which is fine by me.