In the face of Miles Teller on this poster for Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, I read only confusion. What we have is a picture of a person who is not sure what he’s doing here or what precise expression to wear while doing it. This is face-weather you can’t describe without reaching for nonsensical combinations of adverbs and adjectives: quizzically resolute? Steadfastly, uh, pensive? If it were a piece of punctuation, this face would be a question mark trying to pose as an exclamation point. It’s the spinning-beach-ball cursor of faces.
In Fantastic Four, Teller plays science genius Reed Richards, who in most versions of the Fantastic Four’s origin story is the architect of the experiment gone awry that turns him and three of his friends into the FF. In Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four No. 1, from 1961, the accident involves some cosmic rays and an experimental rocket ship launched hastily, so as to beat “the Commies” into space; in Trank’s movie it’s teleportation and the Negative Zone.1
1. I have not seen this movie yet, though I choose to believe in Trank and his feel for this story.
In Fantastic Four No. 1, practically the first thing the FF do after they stagger from the wreckage of their fateful mission is argue about whose fault the accident was. Ben Grimm — the rocket’s pilot and Reed’s old college buddy — becomes The Thing, a super-strong golem made from orange rock briquettes, and tries to hit Reed with a tree trunk, growling, “I’ll prove to you that you love the wrong man, Susan!”
The decision they make on the very next page — to use their newfound abilities to help mankind — essentially comes out of nowhere and plays almost like a sublimation of the rage and infighting and Cronenbergian body horror depicted in the preceding panels. In a sense, Trank’s great debut film, Chronicle, is a version of this story where that moment when someone says, Guys, maybe we should stop being assholes, never happens, and I’m genuinely curious to see what the person who made that film does with this one. I think there’s a chance this movie will work, that it’ll redefine the Fantastic Four for a new generation of fans, and that Teller’s quizzically resolute Reed Richards will end up supplanting the old Reed Richards in the popular consciousness as thoroughly as Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury has overwritten this guy.
I could be wrong about this. But just in case, let us now salute the old Reed Richards before he slides into eclipse.
And I do mean “old.” Reed Richards is probably supposed to be about Teller’s age — 28 — in that first Fantastic Four story, but it’s an old, 1961-ish 28, not a Vine-star 28. He’s gray-templed, a smoker of pipes, and a wearer of suits. Like Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, who preceded the FF into print by 20 years, Reed can reshape and elongate his body at will, but this is basically the only way Reed is like Plastic Man. Plastic Man is part of a line of goofball trickster-heroes that runs unbroken from the Cheshire Cat to Deadpool, whereas no matter what form Reed’s pliable body assumes, the shape he returns to is, colloquially speaking, a square.
Some comic-book heroes are infinitely repurposable, modern archetypes that continue to make sense even as their context evolves. Batman (haunted vigilante passing childhood trauma along to the urban-criminal class) is a good example; Iron Man (rule-bending playboy industrialist and repentant war profiteer) is another. In 1963, Tony Stark was Howard Hughes; in 2015, he’s Elon Musk with repulsor beams. Both Reed and Tony are constructs representing Cold War–vintage ideas of manhood, but Reed feels pinned to a context in a way that Tony doesn’t.
While Reed’s very first appearance on the comics page involves a rash error in judgment — stealing the rocket — he’s still identifiably the grown-up in the room, sober and serious, addressing Johnny Storm (the future Human Torch) as “lad.” There’s also a fatherly aspect to Reed’s dynamic with Johnny’s sister Sue, a.k.a. the Invisible Woman (I know, right?). She’s nominally his love interest and eventually they marry and have children, but in those early FF stories, Sue’s forever in a girlish huff and Reed’s a distracted, distant authority figure whose attention she craves.
Something about the idea of a “young Reed Richards” therefore voids an essential aspect of the character in the same way, say, “young Gandalf” would. The most successful attempt to recast Reed as a young person is probably the version from Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four, conceived in 2004 by the writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar; in the ensuing years, Ultimate Reed became a disfigured mad-scientist type not unlike the FF’s perennial nemesis, Dr. Doom. Remove Reed’s maturity and all the other certainties come into question. No wonder Teller looks befuddled. He’s trying to portray a contradiction in terms.
At some point in Jonathan Hickman’s miniseries Dark Reign: Fantastic Four, Reed Richards writes “IDEA #101: SOLVE EVERYTHING” on the wall of his Thinking Room.
I am jealous of Reed Richards. I am jealous of his Thinking Room, which appears to have floor-to-ceiling tablet-screen walls on which to write Beautiful Mind–ish equations. I am jealous of his having had 100-plus ideas. But I also relate to Reed. Reed has a wife and a family, but in order to see to their safety and security, he has to absent himself from their lives and spend long periods of time in the Thinking Room. As a professional writer, I relate very strongly to all of this.
Superheroes tend to be edgy loners, or members of surrogate families made up of other edgy loners. Batman. Wolverine. Cyclops from the X-Men, who tried for years to settle down with versions of the same woman and start a family, only to have that domestic idyll ripped away over and over. Spider-Man’s 1987 marriage to Mary Jane Watson was erased from continuity 10 years later by editorial decree, in the name of “story potential.” Being Daredevil’s girlfriend is a death sentence, like being the drummer in Spinal Tap. Reed Richards, who married Susan Storm in 1965’s Fantastic Four Annual Vol. 1 No. 3, is practically the only major superhero who’s been successfully and un-tragically married for the bulk of his publication history.
And the important thing about Reed as a husband is that he kind of sucks at it.
He’s a pretty good dad to his two weird kids, reality-altering Franklin and superintelligent Valeria. But if you throw a dart at 50 years’ worth of FF comics, chances are you’ll hit a panel in which Reed is depicted being paternalistically overprotective of Sue and/or oblivious to her actual needs, while simultaneously demanding endless amounts of patience and space in order to go off and SOLVE EVERYTHING. For all of his brilliance, he’s often completely in the dark about what’s going on with the people closest to him. He’s one of the smartest men in the Marvel Universe and one of the most emotionally obtuse.
All of this was lost on me as a kid, as I imagine it’s lost on kids in general. For decades, Fantastic Four has been a comic book largely about grown-ups reckoning with grown-up problems, one whose focus invariably returns to Reed, whose responsibilities as scientist and superhero are often in direct conflict with his responsibilities as husband and father. Throughout those same decades, it’s rarely been one of Marvel’s biggest-selling books, no matter how many hot creators the company throws at it. Those two things can’t be coincidental. Lee was almost 40 when Fantastic Four No. 1 was published; Kirby, now widely presumed to have done much of the actual creating on comics Lee is said to have created, was 44 and a World War II veteran. The concerns of men of a certain age are written in Reed’s DNA.
I became a fan of the Fantastic Four and specifically of Reed Richards when I was 32, reading those Dark Reign issues for the first time. My wife was pregnant with our daughter and I was trying — in vain, it turned out — to finish writing a book before the baby came. It would be great to be able to tell you that Reed Richards inspired me to keep going even when all seemed lost, but this isn’t that kind of story. I never finished the book. But during those months when I was trying, I returned again and again to that “SOLVE EVERYTHING” panel and imagined myself as the Reed Richards of my own family, unshaven in the lab, too smart not to realize my situation was hopeless and too desperate not to keep going.
2015 is a weird time to be a Fantastic Four fan. Earlier this year, Marvel announced that the monthly Fantastic Four comic would be canceled as of Issue No. 645, which came out in April. This fall, Marvel2 will roll out more than 50 new or retooled titles as part of an initiative dubbed “All-New All-Different Marvel”; although Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm will appear in Guardians of the Galaxy and Uncanny Inhumans, respectively, the announced lineup doesn’t currently include a Fantastic Four–branded title. The conspiracy theory is that Marvel’s corporate overlords — possibly Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, who also owns an enormous stake in the Walt Disney Company — would rather erase Marvel’s First Family from history than help promote a franchise controlled by 20th Century Fox.
2. Which, like Grantland, is owned by Disney.
Last fall, Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn referred to the cancellation of the FF comic as a “fully independent decision” on Marvel’s part. The conspiracy theories began, in part, because the narrative they propose is poetically plausible. Marvel begins as a comic-book company and evolves into a multibillon-dollar movie studio and intellectual-property titan to which comics and the sentimental attachments of comic-book readers are of circumstantial importance; having played their role in that evolution, the Fantastic Four are symbolically discarded.
Marvel continues to insist this isn’t the case, that reports of the FF’s permanent excision from the canon have been greatly exaggerated. But the sense of an ending still pervades Hickman and artist Esad Ribic’s event series Secret Wars. After Dark Reign: Fantastic Four was published in 2009, Hickman took over as writer of the monthly Fantastic Four series. His run on the title was a dense prog-sci-fi epic, as solemn and sweet as a Yes ballad with an eight-minute modular-synth solo in the middle. It was also thick with apocalyptic foreshadowing that paid off in Hickman’s subsequent work on Avengers and especially The New Avengers, in which Reed Richards and a star-chamber of A-list heroes worked in secret to prevent the destruction of Marvel’s various fictional universes by a race of extradimensional conquerors called the Beyonders.
Secret Wars is about what happens after they fail. In the first issue, time runs out and reality as Marvel’s characters have known it is wiped away. The second issue takes place on Battleworld, a patchwork planet cobbled together from scraps of leftover Marvel continuity by Dr. Doom, who’s become God Doom after staring down the Beyonders as the universe died. Secret Wars and its countless tie-ins are superhero comics at their most mercenary and their most sentimental; each realm of Battleworld takes its cues from a different fragment of Marvel’s past, including many other successful crossover events. There’s a world where it’s always Inferno, one where it’s always Days of Future Past, where it’s always the Age of Ultron. It’s simultaneously pure fan service and a sprawling metacritique of the ad hoc nature of even the most seemingly cohesive fictional world, with Doom in the role of editor-in-chief, policing the canon with an iron fist.
But without quite announcing itself as such, Secret Wars is also the last chapter of a story that began in 1961, with Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny climbing into a rocket. I don’t believe for a minute that we won’t see these characters together again — the only certainty in comics is impermanence, and every erasure is the prelude to a return, whether the Trank movie bombs or breaks records. But Hickman’s story feels final in a way that these things seldom do. All is lost. Nothing will ever be the same. And everything’s going to be fine.