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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Does the world really need another Fantastic Four movie?

If you saw Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the answer is no. Some things deserve to die.

Despite horrific reviews (one and a half stars on RottenTomatoes.com), Fox made a decent profit on the first Fantastic Four film. They spent $100 million and grossed $330 million. (You do the math). But the sequel only pulled a fizzling $160 million profit. Columbia’s Spider-Man sequels drew less than their original too, but for Spider-Man 3 (released the same year Rise of the Silver Surfer) that meant $890 million.

Is Spider-Man an intrinsically hotter commodity than Fantastic Four? Obviously. But Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America are all lower on the pantheon, and Marvel grossed $448, $623, and $367 million on each. Columbia is only making The Amazing Spider-Man because Spider-Man 4 died in development. They didn’t want to start over, but it was the only way to continue the biggest grossing superhero series in history.

Which is why the execs at Fox are weeping as they eke out the remains of their X-Men franchise, while watching their Daredevil and Fantastic Four rights grow radioactive mold. Meanwhile, Marvel keeps marching out third tier heroes to other studios for yet another round of blockbusters.

For Fox there’s only one solution. A reboot. And not just because Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm is the least convincing blonde in the history of film. She and the rest of the cast signed three-film contracts, but the internet is ripe with new casting rumors, including Bruce Willis as a CGI Thing. Sadly, Green Lantern writer Michael Green is still the top name for screenplay (did anyone at Fox see Green Lantern?). Chronicle launched Josh Trank’s name into the director race. Personally I would head back to Peyton Reed, who was once attached to the first film. He wanted Renee Zellwegger and George Clooney in his cast and, more importantly, envisioned the film as a period piece set in the early 60’s. Which is the direction the reboot should go.

Period piece? I know, it sounds all fuddy duddy, Downton Abbey in spandex. But hear me out. Fantastic Four: The Reboot needs to be a period piece because the team’s origin story is tethered to a unique moment in American history. Take away the space race and the cold war, and the FF are just Four Freaks in search of a plot. Their superpowers (all knock-offs of Golden Age heroes) don’t matter. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could have stolen from Aquaman, Flash, and Hawkgirl, and nothing central changes.

Marvel became a pop culture phenomenon in the early 60’s because Lee set his action in the moment. Heroes over at DC existed in a world disconnected from current events. The Man of Steel never battled the Iron Curtain. But the FF did. In fact, their creation was premised on it. Mutant-transforming cosmic rays were less about romanticizing a new frontier than literalizing national anxiety over the cold war.

The FF both embodied a national urge and critiqued it. Which is one reason why the 2005 Fantastic Four felt so pointless. Super genius Reed Richards radically miscalculates the effects of radiation exposure and turns himself and his closest friends into monsters. Why? Um . . . ? Writers Mark Frost and Michael France had nothing.

But in 1961 that error is the whole story. The super genius foolishly rushed his team into space for one reason. Russia. Look at the first issue:

“An angry Ben Grimm confronted Dr. Reed Richards . . .

Ben: “If you want to fly to the stars, then you pilot the ship! Count me out! You know we haven’t done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays! They might kill us all out in space!

Sue: “Ben, we’ve got to take that chance . . . unless we want the Commies to beat us to it! I—I never thought you would be a coward!”

Ben: “A coward!! Nobody calls me a coward! Get the ship! I’ll fly her no matter what happens!!”

The FF are punished for and are victims of their and their nation’s collective hubris. Reed is Dr. Frankenstein. The FF are Godzilla. The Thing (the one original and utterly unchangeable character in the cast) is a variation on the monsters Kirby was drawing in the 50’s, but now incongruously warped into the figure of a superhero.

There’s a reason Silver Age superheroes regard their powers as curses. The magic word wasn’t “Shazam” anymore. It was “radiation.” As in end-of-the-world fallout.

Which also explains the failures of both Hulk film adaptations. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk rebooted 2003’s Hulk, and now The Avengers is rebooting the character again. Why’s Bruce Banner so hard to get right? Because the guy was making nuclear bombs. Something that in the early 60’s was considered both terrifying and essential to the country’s survival.  A blessing and a curse. A monster and a hero.

Stan Lee only invented the Hulk because the Thing was so popular. Kirby even drew him as the Frankenstein creature: flat head and grey skin. And he drew the same hubris-smoldering pipe in both Bruce’s and Reed’s right hands.

So what happens when you drop the Hulk or the FF into the 21st century?

Very little.

Marvel Comics is rebooting the FF in comic book form this week. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa prefers to call it a “refresh.” He promised to give the team a “contemporary sensibility.” So his updated “Season One” characters have cellphones and Twitter accounts. Which sounds perfectly harmless. He just wants to “blow the cobwebs off,”not “alter the fundamental DNA of the Fantastic Four.” But those cobwebs are period-specific. The DNA is intertwined. Sever the origin point from its history and the story is pointless.

So why does Aguirre-Sacasa’s new Reed rush his launch? To hide it behind a U.S. Space Shuttle mission, and to woo his girlfriend. (Sorry, Roberto, that just doesn’t get the job done.)

But I know period pieces are a tough sell. The approach was fun for X-Men: First Class, but if Twentieth Fox demands something 21st century, then their writers will need to modernize more than just the FF’s social network. Newt Gingrich would like to reboot the space race, but not even unemployed NASA workers care about moon colony statehood. George W. promised a manned mission to Mars as early as 2010. But unless Iran and al-Qeda start calling for a Muslim solar system, that’s only half the equation.

So without the U.S.S.R., what are 21st century Americans really terrified of? That’s easy. Not being America any more. America the superpower. America the uncontested world leader. The greatest threat to our collective self-image isn’t Communism or Islam or anything else that can stoke cold war nostalgia. We’re terrified of becoming irrelevant. We’re threatened by anyone not willing to follow us. It’s not us against the world. It’s us against our fear of the world’s indifference.

So the FF space launch should be a genius billionaire’s bid to put Americans on Mars.  The FF is racing the world. Literally. They rush the launch to beat the multi-national team about to debark from the International Space Station. And the FF win. Sure, their ship explodes and they nearly die, but what matters is American exceptionalism. And there’s no fuller embodiment than the American superhero. Forget Mars. The original FF didn’t make it to the moon either. But they achieved their goal. They returned extraordinary.

A blessing and a curse. A monster and a hero. That’s America, folks. That’s the DNA Fox needs to reboot. The world may not need another Fantastic Four movie, but we do.

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