(Or: Who knew that the comics Stan Lee’s wife dared him to create would be so successful that they’d be made into major motion pictures?)
At a time when Atlas Comics (which later became the Marvel Comics Group) was facing bankruptcy, Stan Lee‘s wife urged him to just do what he always wanted to do. If he was going to fail anyway, what was the risk?
THE FANTASTIC FOUR and the SILVER SURFER
The first idea that Stan Lee tried out was the family comic, the Fantastic Four. Looking at the first issue, it’s very similar in tone to the monster and sci-fi comics that he had produced with Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers and Jack Kirby. The main characters didn’t even have any colorful costumes in their first adventure. The story was apparently mapped out in a cafe between Stan and Jack and Kirby was so excited that he left the meeting only to draw out the entire first issue on his own. The ‘Marvel Style,’ a method where a pitch is drawn by the artist and then embellished with dialog by the writer was born.
The series spear-headed the explosion of ‘guys in tights’ that Marvel has been known for since. Not just colorful characters, but ‘characters with problems.’ The Fantastic Four faced cosmic menaces with nary a sweaty brow, but eviction from their building was another issue.
Fantastic Four was modestly produced and a major commercial success due to it’s low production cost and the fact there were no other decent movies to see at the time. Lucky FF dodges the collection man again. It’s not my favorite comic book movie, but it is the only ‘family-oriented’ comic book film. The X-Men Trilogy , Spider-Man / Spider-Man 2 ,Hulk , Superman Returns and Batman Begins are all far superior movies but feature various levels of gruesome violence and subject material that would bore the average kid. The Fantastic Four film, despite its drawbacks in character development and casting, is fun, colorful and innocent.
Doctor Doom makes me want to tear my eyes out, but never mind.
The new film due out this summer, Rise of the Silver Surfer, will attempt to tell the most successful and well-loved Fantastic Four stories of all time, the Coming of Galactus trilogy from issues 48-50 (featured in the hefty Fantastic Four Omnibus Volume 2) back in the early days of the series. That’s ambitious to say the least. The images I’ve seen of the Silver Surfer look great and casting Laurence Fishburne as the voice of the Silver Surfer is appropriate. I’ve heard nothing but rumblings of disappointment over the depiction of Galactus the World Devourer in the movie, so my hopes aren’t that high.
It’s big concept Stan and Jack material that is almost impossible to pull off in a movie. It’s surprising that Stan and Jack made the same ideas work in the comic! So bully to the producers for giving it a shot.
Just so long as it doesn’t suck.
Surfing about, I found this very impressive image from the forthcoming Spider-Man 3. Since the announcement of the first Spider-Man movie, I’ve tried to figure out where they were going to take the films. In the comics, the character has been all over the place.
The comics created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko depicted Peter Parker as a very clever and frustrated teenager, slowly developing into an impressive and powerful character, a teenage super-hero in more ways than one. He was surrounded by the likes of the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Doctor Strange, all established adult heroes that never took him seriously. While the FF flew to other dimensions, Peter Parker fought a head cold, a broken arm, and still had to stop Doc Ock from blowing up the city while maintaining his secret identity from his ailing Aunt… who was dreadfully behind on the rent. Reading those early issues, you can see that Stan and Steve… well, Steve, were very intent on where they wanted to take the character. Nothing was easy for Peter Parker, but it was clear in those first 23 issues or so that Spider-Man was maturing and would outshine the likes of both the Fantastic Four‘s egghead Reed Richards and the rampaging Hulk. But that never came to pass and in my opinion the character more or less stopped developing after Steve Ditko left. He became the eternal teenager.
With John Romita at the drawing chores, the comic developed very much into the series we have had for the past few decades. Slick, stylish and full of adventure. Strangely, Peter has become dumber in recent years. No longer a clever and inventive fighter, he’s more likely to make awkward jokes and pop-culture references in the middle if a fight, overlooking several moments to defeat his opponent, who is more annoyed by Spider-Man than acting the typical ‘evil villain’ routine.
My assessment on Spider-Man‘s development in the comic and Steve Ditko‘s influence on the series may differ from yours, but I prefer the frustrated and intelligent Ditko character. It appears that Sam Raimi does too.
In the first two films, nothing goes right for Peter Parker. He tries so hard to be a noble hero, fighting back his passion for revenge and anger at the villains he is fighting, only to end up alone and full of pent-up anxiety. So when Peter wound up with Mary Jane at the close of Spider-Man 2, I knew things could only get worse… much worse. From everything I’ve seen in the trailers, this looks like an amazing story that continues to draw upon the mood and direction set in those early Spider-Man comics.
And it includes Venom, a character that embodies the style and energy of Todd McFarlane. Personally, I never cared for Venom, but I cannot deny that he has an incredible fan following and with the right visual effects team, will make a lasting impression on the movie-going audiences.
As long as the same energy and emotion that Raimi and company inserted into the first two Spider-Man films goes into the third installment, I think we’re in for a great film.
And if it sucks, I’ll just dig out my old Marvel Tales comics.
The story goes that Stan Lee was feeling cocky about the success he was having at Marvel with the FF and Spider-Man. He claimed that he could make the worst, most unappealing premise into a comic book that would sell like hotcakes.
At this point in entertainment, war wasn’t in fashion. In fact, it was at this point that GI Joe changed from being a soldier to an ‘adventurer’ fighting Yetis and Mummy’s.
So Stan Lee decides to have a munitions salesman as his ‘hero.’ Not only that, but this ‘hero’ would be a devilishly clever businessman and globe-trotting jet-setter, zooming about in his hot-rods with a different sexy lady on his arm ever day.
The catch was that the hero, Tony Stark, was dying. Wounded by a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest from a land mine in Korea, the only thing keeping him alive was his chestplate which kept the deadly metal from piercing his heart and ending his rich lifestyle.
Pretty tragic, huh?
While Iron Man started off in a clunky and battleship gray costume, a new outfit was later introduced, designed by Steve Ditko. In his now familiar red and yellow armor, he was one of the most colorful characters to grace the comic page. In many ways, Iron Man the ‘Wolverine‘ of his era, often placed on the cover of any comic to give it that extra star power needed for sales… or to sell Hostess Fruit Pies, whatever the situation called for.
Given the character’s failure to gain a steady audience in the 80′s and 90′s, that kind of star power is hard to swallow, that is until recent months which have seen Iron Man regain his major player status in Marvel Comics . What strikes me as very ironic is that in a time where America is involved in an unpopular and difficult war, we again are seeing Iron Man introduced into Pop Culture.
It’s unclear to me if this version of the character will be depicted as a war profiteer, but if so the Iron Man film will have an uphill battle to gain an approval from the audiences. An ingenious casting decision to have Robert Downey Jr., a very strong actor but troubled personality, play Iron Man is sure to give the movie some clout. For those of you not in the know, Tony Stark is a recovering alcoholic. See, his heart problem got solved and Marvel Editorial thought they’d give him another hurtle to overcome. Having an actor who has been seen fighting a substance abuse problem so prominently in the public eye playing a character embroiled in a similar internal conflict was recently revealed to not be a coincidence.
Downey himself said: “He struggles with his lifestyle, he struggles with the drinking. He faces the same issues a lot of people do. I see Tony Stark as the best and occasionally worst in Americans and citizens around the world. He’s a brilliant guy, an inventor who can’t totally separate himself from the repercussions of the weapons he builds. There’s a real sense of honor and I know a thing or two about honor.”
So here we are seeing a set of ideas that were seen as definite failures in comics fighting the battle to win the box office. In Spider-Man’s case, the concept has worked like magic, or at least so far. Will Spider-Man 3, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four be so lucky?
I hope so… but if they don’t work, at least I’ve got that closet full of comics to keep me warm.
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