Not all superheroes meet the challenge of the big screen

Some comics do well as movies, some succumb

Movies

July 07, 2005|By Gene Seymour | Gene Seymour,NEWSDAY

The Fantastic Four and I bonded at a perfect time. It was in the mid-1960s, and I was in my early teens. If there is ever a time in one's life when one desperately needs over-inflated dreams of power and glory, it's at that low point in your adolescence when it seems as if all you do is trip over curbs and sputter awkwardly in public places.

And Marvel Comics, especially in those years, felt my pain. Who else would have come up with Peter Parker, a nerdy, neurotic high school student transformed into (insert guitar riff here) The Amazing Spider-Man? D.C. Comics' twin towers -- Superman and Batman -- may well have had "issues" as messy as Spidey's, but those were still beneath the radar in the 1960s. It was Marvel who made it OK to have super powers and all one's hairy psychological conundrums spilling all over the panel.

I loved Fantastic Four the best. In a time of social upheaval, there was something stirring and reassuring about a team of superheroes that bickered with each other even while pooling their freakish talents against formidably malign powers.

The FF -- whose comic book debuted in November 1961 -- were super, but they were far from perfect. Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, the leader, was a grandiloquent egotist who loved his mind even more than he loved his often-simpering wife, Sue, aka the Invisible Girl. Sue's volatile teenage brother, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, was often too slow to think and too quick to act. And finally there was the tragically deformed Thing, alias Ben Grimm, who proved that having skin like orange rocks and being able to beat everybody up couldn't keep away feelings of inadequacy or loneliness. (This was especially reassuring to those of us small enough to be easy prey for sociopathic bullies and arrogant jocks.)

Such iconoclastic heroism would have been enough to make Fantastic Four stand out among other comic books of its time. But what really helped nudge the self-proclaimed "world's greatest comic magazine" close to matching its grand assertion was how artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee created a world of spectacularly exotic antiheroes and villains.

Doctor Victor Von Doom, the quartet's numero uno enemy, was an armor-plated megalomaniac who allegedly inspired the creation of Star Wars' Darth Vader. He was even worse than the Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker.

During the 1960s, Kirby and Lee also created such backup support for the FF as the Black Panther, the first African-born superhero; the Inhumans, a sect of mutants led by Black Bolt, who could level a mountain by uttering a single word; and the Watcher, a kind of interplanetary voyeur who pledged never to meddle in human affairs -- but who frequently stuck in his big bald head to warn humanity of peril.

With the exception of Doctor Doom, none of these guys is expected in the coming movie version of Fantastic Four. The movie's trailers suggest that the FF's story, from their physical transformations by -- what was it, "cosmic radiation"? -- will be executed with a lighter touch than in the Lee-Kirby comics. Looking back at those stories I devoured almost 40 years ago, I can see why a contemporary writer would think twice before replicating the tone of the original comics.

Example. Reed to Sue from 1967: "If someone does have the power ... to subject us to a mind probe ... from somewhere in space ... beyond the stars ... then we dare not close our eyes to the appalling danger!"

The writing in comic books has reached a level of sophistication to make Marvel's narrative innovations of the 1960s seem overreaching and heavy-handed in retrospect. Otherwise, time has done little to diminish the simple pleasures and arcane wonders of Fantastic Four, which novelist Jonathan Lethem, in his recently published essay collection, The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday), called a "defining artifact of the `Silver Age of Comics.'"

The only thing that could ultimately defeat one's beloved Fantastic Four isn't a supervillain or even a galaxy-gobbling force like Galactus. (Remember him, kids?) It's the movies.

The record of Marvel Comics' transitions to the big screen is hardly a spotless one. Spider-Man, Blade and X-Men have done well, but then there's The Hulk, The Punisher and, though it has its defenders, Daredevil. No one's expecting the kind of franchise-spoiling fiasco that 1986's Howard the Duck was. But we'll be watching -- and, as with the Watcher, helpless to do much of anything but warn others.

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