Oh Jack, I am so sorry

My introduction to the wonder that was Marvel Comics in the mid-1960s was via the Fantastic Four. I’d read comics before then, sure, but it was with FF #37 that the budding imagineer within me was hooked and hauled in big time. That issue – unlike any of the DC Comics titles I’d read when I was younger, unlike any of the Marvel anthology monster-spook titles I’d seen previously – caught me and wrapped me up with a ribbon because, at the end of the story… it wasn’t finished! It was a cliffhanger, clearly meant to get me to buy next month’s issue, and oh how it worked. The “Frightful Four” opener led into the Daredevil/Doctor Doom second act which barrelled without pausing for breath into the Ben Grimm/Thing climax. It was all one big tale spread out into seven issues. I was on tenterhooks waiting the thirty days between installments and let me tell you, no one knows how to be on tenterhooks like a 15-year-old who’s just discovered the best escapist fantasy ever. There will never be a moment of heroic transformation in the comics to come up to the scene where Reed Richards, in order to defeat Doctor Doom, condemns Ben Grimm to retransform into the Thing – the memory of that three-panel page still sends chills up my spine.

(And then Stan and Jack went on to introduce the Inhumans! And then the Silver Surfer and Galactus!! Oh, ecstacy! The run of issues from #36 through #50 will never be equalled. Ever.)

Which is why I, like so many other fans of the Fantastic Four in their heyday, were fervently hoping that the recently released “Fantastic Four” movie would capture at least some of the glory of Marvel’s first family. And which is why I titled this blog entry as I did.

(And no, I am not dissing Stan by omission. At their peak, in the mid-1960s, the Lee-Kirby or Kirby-Lee creative team was untouchable and more, they complimented each other perfectly. Jack was Olympian vision, sometimes remote but always titanic; Stan was the editorial ear perfectly tuned, sometimes bombastic but always humane. However, we had special connections to Jack and so his name goes on the post.)

How could so many aspects of a story that was originally done so right, be translated so wrong to the big screen? I don’t want to do a point-by-point analysis; there are others who have, or who will, do much better. (Ball’s in your court, PAD.) I’ve tried to make allowance for the fact that Stan and Jack introduced the Fantastic Four in a time and a culture removed from the one we inhabit now. I was willing to accept that the original premise – of Reed and crew stealing an experimental rocket ship – wouldn’t fly (no pun intended) in today’s “we’ve been in space already for forty years” setting. I was prepared to try – mightily – to overlook the wretched, but probably necessary in today’s American Idol driven Hollywood, casting.

But oh, the pain. How could such a wonderful concept go so wrong? How could Reed be made such a wimpish, wishy-washy dork? (Not my word, Sue Storm’s.) How could Sue be transformed into such a shrew? OK, Johnny was a hothead – but not so self-centered a jerk. Ben… well, of the four of them, Ben came closest to being what he was in the early, formative comics. I give Michael Chiklis points for doing more than any of the other leads to bring some semblance of emotion (all the while wrapped in a Thing-suit) to the tortured character. And Victor von Doom… toppled from mythic counterpoint to cliché-ridden second-string supervillain. Oh, the pain, twice. I’ll even go so far as to say that, for all its clunkiness and low budget, the 1994 film version (which never saw theatrical release for a lot of reasons) had more heart than this year’s slick but soulless entry.

Adding that picquant little frisson of insult to injury, I recognized (as I’m sure other long-time fans of the FF did or will) several little dramatic bits that were – or were trying to be – homages to particular scenes in the comics.

(Spoilers be here.) One of my favorite scenes from the comics involves the Thing, in a funky mood, spearing a huge stack of pancakes with a fork, one assumes to comsume the entire wad in one bite, “just to keep body and soul together.” It was just the right balance of humor and compassion. In the movie, there’s a scene in a diner where a waitress brings such a plateful of flapjacks to Ben – but the moment becomes meaningless in the greater meaninglessness of the conversation between Ben and von Doom at that point. But what really torqued my strings was the scene in the movie that I’m guessing was supposed to be the big dramatic moment when Ben decides to sacrifice his humanity and become the Thing again in order to save his friends. Total waste. As the viewer, you get nothing – a moment of thought showing on Michael Chiklis’ face as he looks at the transformation gizmo, then cut to battle with Doom. If this was meant to hark back to that three-panel scene from “The Battle of the Baxter Building” it failed. Abysmally. (Spoilers be done.)

Actually, I lied earlier. There is one other scene, not coincidentally from another Marvel title of about the same vintage, that is as visceral and powerful as the one I mentioned from the FF. It occurred in issue #33 of the original Amazing Spider-Man title. It involves Spider-Man, trapped beneath an impossibly huge chunk of machinery as water rises higher and higher, threatening to drown him. For panel after panel, Spidey goes on about effort and honor and commitment and trial and failure and consequence and… It’s basically a talking-head sequence, which can easily be the most boring sort of storytelling known to comics. And yet Steve Ditko’s agonizingly slowly animated art and Stan’s reach-in-and-grab-your-guts words bring it to life so that when Spidey finally thrusts this mountain of metal off his back, you realize you’ve been holding your breath the entire time and now you can get back to breathing. In the second “Spider-Man” movie, they didn’t spend quite so much time on that scene, but they did show it. And they made me believe Spidey’s effort. (Don’t even get me started on the elevated train rescue – when it was done my shoulders were sore from the strain of watching!)

So yeah, Stan, Jack, I’m sorry. I don’t – can’t – know what either of you are feeling about this, wherever you are. (I know Stan took a cameo part in it. He does in about every Marvel character film. He looks like he’s having fun doing it, and he’s a gentleman. So his having a bit part does not, for me, constitute a personal endorsement.) I only know what I’m feeling, and now I’m going to get my forty-year-old comics and revisit a wonderful story that no one can ever take from me.