Fantastic Four

Ambivalent Recommendation. I say ambivalent because, while on the one hand, I enjoy comic book movies, Fantastic Four was my favorite comic as a kid, and this one was pretty good as those go, I have a growing suspicion of the comicbook superhero culture which I will explain in a minute. First, this one translated the characters pretty well, from the ornery Ben Grimm to the weasley Reed Richards, the sexy Sue Storm and the rowdy juvenile Johnny Storm. The interrelationships of these people suffice as a sort of family structure. The idea that a superpower reflects also the point of weakness for a character works extremely well here. Grimm has an anger management issue which makes him hard as a rock, Johnny is of course, adolescent and passionate which translates to the flame, Sue has the issue of being invisible to the man she loves, Reed, and Reed is so waffling and rubbery in his manliness toward Sue that it causes relationship issues. And even the villain, Dr. Doom, is a steely heartless Tinman. Well, the unique tack of this story was that it was more personal of a villain and goal. Dr. Doom had big designs, but this story was about him trying to eradicate the Fantastic Four in order to carry out his ultimate designs (which, I don’t even remember if he said what those were). Anyway, this personal edge that was atypical from the usual comic book villain trying to take over the world was on the one hand different and refreshing. On the other hand, halfway through I found myself getting bored because it seemed so petty of a goal, that is, personal vengeance on the Four not being an important enough arena to sustain interest. I don’t know, maybe I’m just impossible to please. I enjoyed watching them use their powers together to save people from a major accident scene on the bridge. I enjoyed their discovery of their powers, and I especially enjoyed their troubled relationship with each other. Their superpowers do not make them super virtuous. They are after all, humans too. And in that sense the audience can identify with them and they become mythological models of the pursuit of virtue. My problem with these superhero movies is a nagging little thought at the back of my head of how similar in function comic book superheros have become to the pagan pantheon of Greek and Roman gods. The similarities are scary. The Greeks and Romans did not believe that their gods were real, any more than we do watching our comic book superheros. They were stories to explain the origins of meaning and the values of the culture. The pagan deities were in fact projections of humanity at it’s greatest potential for both good and evil. Just like Superheros and supervillains are in fact, normal humans given extraordinary powers. The pagan pantheon was petty, bickering and struggled with vice, just as the FF bicker with each other, or the X-Men are demigods, yet frail. A big difference is that the Roman/Greek gods were religious, and superheros are not. But is that really true? What I mean is that the deities were worshipped as deities and were somewhat transcendent. But now, deity is relocated INTO nature, that is an intrinsic guiding process of change that operates with providential control through scientific laws. I see the new trend toward super power origins to be rooted in evolution. In the 50s and up, powers usually came from some atomic accident, marking the danger of science as well as it’s ultimate modernist saving hope for mankind. A delicate balance. But with XMen and now, FF, powers come from evolutionary adaptation. In Fantastic Four, the cosmic storm cloud that gives them their powers is described in the beginning as the source of life on earth as it interacted with the elements billions and billions of years ago. So, we see how the metanarrative mythology of evolution (unguided chance processes) is replacing the mythology of humanism (Accidental human genius). But of course, they are really just two sides of the same coin of modernity. But really, modernity is just a naturalistic religion that substitutes chance for fate or providence, substitutes immanence for transcendence (this worldly rather than otherworldly), and substitutes human love as ultimate in place of love of one’s creator. But modernity, or evolution, operate as systems of salvation where man is “saved” from his ignorance and superstition by his intellect, rationality and science. Ignorance replaces sin in this religious paradigm of modernity. So the point is that modernism does not replace religion with a non-religious paradigm, it merely replaces one religious paradigm with another religious paradigm of secular scientism and evolution, which still operates to explain the same questions of origin and meaning that religion does. Therefore, evolution is really just another religious story meant to give meaning to the world based on a faith commitment to an ultimate that cannot be proved, namely naturalistic chance processes. Okay, back to superheros. It is interesting that in FF, Johnny Storm muses that their powers are “a higher calling,” that “fate turned us into gods.” So there is an explicit metaphoric likening to deities that is recognized in the film itself. I am not making this up in my mad little mind. Just a cursory comparison of superheros with pagan deities will give you a taste of the likenesses.
Human torch – Vulcan, Roman god of fire
Be Grimm, The Hulk – Mars, Roman god of war
Superman – Hercules
The Flash – Mercury, Roman messenger god of speed
Aquaman, The SubMariner – Neptune, god of the sea
Of course, I am not suggesting a one to one correspondence, but merely a common paradigm of exalted humanity that replaces the One true God with many gods, a common impulse since the Fall. My point: Superheros have a tendency to operate as secular god substitutes in a postmodern pluralistic culture. They give us hope, they save us from evil, they provide an example of virtue and illustrate for us what we could be. Every system has an ultimate reference point and that ultimate reference point or standard is the deity of the system. The deity of pluralism is polytheism. Pluralism means “many truths,” which means, “many gods.” Having said all this, I am not condemning all superhero stories. I may be missing what separates the two mythologies. I am simply wrestling with thoughts that are creeping up in my mind as I interact with these myths and think them through. One fine example is The Incredibles, where I see superpowers, not as a secular god substitute, but as an obvious metaphor of the potential for extraordinariness and uniqueness of each individual. Maybe that’s not all that different from Fantastic Four. I’m not sure. Still thinking it through.