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There’s something missing from the first teaser for Fox’s reboot of Fantastic Four: anything that really makes it feel like a superhero movie. There are no costumes in the way we know them from Marvel Studios movies, and no tease of a climactic battle with some seemingly invincible bad guy — or, for that matter, scenes of the titular heroes in action at all. It’s something that might seem unusual for a movie based on the comic that launched Marvel’s superhero empire back in the 1960s — but also something that is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the earliest days of the classic comic book series.
When Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four in 1961, the characters were barely recognizable as superheroes. Their costumes didn’t appear until the series’ third issue, and although the characters had their familiar superhero code names from the very start — the cover of the first issue promises “The Thing! Mr. Fantastic! Human Torch! Invisible Girl! Together for the first time in one mighty magazine!” as if it wasn’t the first appearance of each character — they were barely used in the stories themselves; the characters referred to each other by their real names, and the rest of the world didn’t know what to make of them.
In fact, the way the Fantastic Four teaser treats its main characters — as something different, something unfamiliar and uncomfortable and not quite right — is entirely in line with the way the original comic books portrayed them. Coming from working on “monster comics” like Journey Into Mystery and Amazing Adult Fantasy, Lee and Kirby’s first Fantastic Four stories are essentially monster stories in which the heroes were monsters themselves.
That’s an idea that’s barely subtext. The opening pages of the first issue feature regular people confused and horrified by the heroes: “Huh?!! Wait — who said that?? Wha—??” exclaims a cabbie when dealing with the Invisible Girl. “It’s a walking nightmare!! Help!! Help!!” shouts a bystander when the Thing walks past (“It ain’t human!” another man helpfully shouts, in the same panel). Later that same issue, the Human Torch has to avoid a nuclear missile attack from a terrified U.S. military; the following month, the team is hiding out “in an isolated hunting lodge,” before being captured and imprisoned in “specially constructed private cell[s]” by the government. Just as the movie trailer refrains from portraying the Fantastic Four as traditional heroes, so do the original comics.
The tone of the original Fantastic Four books matches the narration from the teaser perfectly: “With every new discovery, there is risk. There is sacrifice. And there are consequences.” Although later portrayals would suggest that the accident that gave the team their powers was, for all intents and purposes, a good thing — even the Thing would later come to accept it, and almost be glad about it — it was initially a terrifying event that ruined the characters’ lives, a sacrifice that was, in fact, the consequence of the risk inherent in Reed Richards’ ill-considered attempt to get into space first. (That’s a theme that runs through the early comic stories; Doctor Doom’s origin is similarly a science experiment gone wrong).
While the teaser is ultimately more stoically optimistic than the first comics — somehow, I find it difficult to imagine any major studio being OK with a trailer for a summer superhero movie that really went for “Body Horror Freaks Fighting Other Freaks, Can We Trust Them, I Don’t Know” as the primary selling point — but its rejection of the familiar superhero tropes, and subsequent recasting of the property as science fiction (and arguably unsettling science fiction) is far more in keeping with the original intent of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby than anyone had any right to expect. Whether or not the movie follows through is, of course, another question, but for now, the trailer is a surprisingly strong step in the right direction for a, well, fantastically faithful adaptation of an often-problematic property.
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