The dust has settled but the body count is still being assessed over Josh Trank's Fantastic Four debacle, now currently enjoying its status as the Heaven's Gate of summer superhero blockbusters. (How positive are we that someone has already signed a book contract to write the definitive BTS account of this shitshow? PRETTY DURN SURE.)
Be advised: The Beast is not a fanboy. The Beast never really liked The Fantastic Four. (Except for Ben Grimm, who came off like a cranky Brian Dennehy, they all seemed kind of square and annoying.) But we do remember coming to a belated appreciation of Jack Kirby's dissection of the Eisenhower-era nuclear family thanks to Ang Lee's austere and enigmatic 1997 film The Ice Storm.
Actually, just like The Fantastic Four, it was a book before it was a movie. Rick Moody composed his, well, "moody" seriocomic novel in 1994 -- ironically, the year that a previous F4 movie was wisely shelved. The film stars Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Cristina Ricci, Katie Holmes and a still baby-cheeked Tobey Maguire. The plot, adapted by screenwriter James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain), centers around two white-collar suburban families in the WASP bedroom hamlet of New Canaan, Connecticut during the time of the Watergate trials. (TV images of a sweaty Nixon loom in the background.) Morality is crumbling from the top down and the confusing lessons of the 1960s -- learned and unlearned, mostly the latter -- have trickled down into genteel suburbia, with predictably damaging and embarrassing results.
The main references to F4 come via terminally virginal college student Paul Hood (Maguire). The film begins with him sitting in a gloomy frozen tomb of a railcar (the storm of the title has temporarily stopped any forward progression) reading F4 Issue #141 from November 1973. He explains the plot thusly: "Reed Richards has to use his anti-matter weapon on his own son, who Annihilus has turned into a human atom bomb. The problem is that the cosmic rays that infused Richards and the rest of the Fantastic Four on their aborted moon mission have made young Franklin a volatile mixture of matter and anti-matter." Reading this, Paul comes to a realization about his own family: "Your family is kind of like your own personal negative matter. And that's what dying is -- dying when your family takes you back, thus throwing you into negative space. So, it's like a paradox -- the further you're drawn back in, the further into the void you go."
Natch, Moody's novel goes even further: "For almost a year -- a year in real time, a year in Paul Hood's whirlpool teens, but a few days, no more, in the motionless, imperceptible time of Marvel comics -- Sue Richards, nee Storm, the Invisible Girl, had been estranged from her husband Reed Richards. With Franklin, their mysteriously equipped son, she was in seclusion in the country. She would return only when Reed learned to understand the obligations of family, those paramount bonds that lay beneath the surface of his work."
Moody sums up the subtle ways that Paul sees his own family and its drama refracted in the F4 -- as if both families and comic books have their Golden Eras: "It was a good period for readers of the F.F. Still, the magazine would never equal its first eighty issues, when its creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were at the helm. But it was pretty cool. Twelve years ago, exactly, in 1961, the first issue, with its chronicle of the battle with Mole Man, had appeared. Paul's sister, Wendy, was almost the same age as the book. Fourteen years ago, his family had arrived at its tetragonal shape. In fact, if you thought about it, it was possible that his sister, Wendy, was born during the creative gestation that led to the Fantastic Four. Where had Stan Lee been in those two years?"
Paul thinks of his dad as The Thing ("chunky, homely, self-pitying") and his mom as the Invisible Girl. "These models never worked exactly," Moody writes. "Still, the F.F., with all their mistakes and allegiances their infighting and dependability, told some true tales about family. When Paul started reading these books, the corny melodrama of New Canaan lost some of its sting."
We urge you check out the film yourself for your own interpretations, but so far the Beast picked out some lots of interesting parallels and details:
- Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) wears a rubber Nixon (i.e., "superhero") mask.
- Kevin Kline's philandering husband/father is named Ben.
- Both of the main families are families of four...the "nuclear" family. They sort of "mirror" each other a la The F4 vs. The Frightful Four.
- The prepubescent Sandy Carver (Adam Hann-Byrd) sets fire to his tiny superhero action figures in a charcoal grill. He is terrified of his own sexuality (i.e., "energy") but entranced by it in others.
- Combine the creepy characters of "hip" priest Philip Edwards (Michael Cumpsty) and reptilian corporate schmoozer George Clair (Henry Czerny) and you may have a pretty good roux for Dr. Doom.
- The hair of Elena Hood (Joan Allen) looks almost as odd as Kate Mara's.
- (Wait, cancel that. NIXON is Dr. Doom. At the very least Mole Man, or Galactus.)
- Wendy's makeout pal Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) plays with electricity and talks of the ice storm in mystical-scientific ways ("The molecules are not moving, so when you breathe, there's nothing in the air...it's clean."). Mikey has an existential dreaminess inherited from his visionary but sort of head-in-the-clouds father (the excellent Jamey Sheridan), who is a sort of amalgam of Reed Richards and Dr. Storm. Mikey also wears a thick red parka throughout the film, occasionally resembling the Human Torch in certain shots.
"Flame ON, asshole."