Friday, July 08, 2005


There is good news for fans of movies adapted from comic books. No, it's not the latest such film, which cannot possibly be skewered enough. It's a new proposal for a conservative version of that story instead.

The original Fantastic Four was one of the three pillars of the Marvel Comics revolution. (The other two were The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. No, youngsters, the soon-to-be-much-bigger The Angst-Enveloped X-Men came a little later.) The sea change was wrought by Stan the Man, Jack the King, Steve the Randite and company (and, as a wordsmith, I never forget the contributions of the incomparable Artie Simek). Into the rather predictable Code Approved dullness of NASA-style cardboard cutout heroes suffocating the medium at the start of the sixties, they injected whimpering agonizing over personal relationships, straight out of soap operas. But they did it in a sexless, twin-beds-for-married-couples, televisionized version.

Stan Lee later seemed to imply he was inspired by serious stuff such as Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther or Flaubert's Education sentimentale: Histoire d'un jeune homme. His actual nearest model was that late fifties bestseller, Metalious' Peyton Place, but with capes and masks. The emphasis on inner whining held sway for two decades, until Frank Miller and Alan Moore dynamited it with insanity and vigilantism.

This latest example of the genre has been updated in various awful ways, including a fierce anti-capitalist angle which belittles the vicious Victor Von Doom from the ruthless ruler of Latveria into a bad billionaire businessman. The liberals of Follywood just don't believe true evil can exist outside of corporate boardrooms. (To be fair, their own production companies do provide plenty of horrid examples.)

What is really needed to refresh the medium is to bring in, not "politically correct" references to current society, but real down-and-dirty politics filled with Red State values. Hence this treatment for a much better remake of the original material, meant to be financed by a Scaife grant and subject to oversight by Medved and Dobson. (Yes, I switch the starting jobs for the future "thing" and "torch". That's prosaic license.)

The story begins in 1991. The leader of the four who become our heroes is a Dispensationist preacher, Dub Bob Crawford. He wants to overcome evil by bringing about the End Times. To do this he needs to sacrifice a flawless red heifer on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

He enlists three helpers for this project. His own secretary, Connie Sue Petty, will come along to videotape the event for the media. The actual bloodletting will be done by a bulky construction worker and part-time kosher butcher, Dickie Ben Chayim. Naturally, the wimpy powers-that-be have refused permission for this "provocative act". Because the Temple Mount is heavily guarded, the enablers of the Apocalypse will have to strike very quickly.

Crawford's plan is to land in a helicopter, kill the calf, then flee back into the sky. To pilot the copter, he brings in Connie Sue's brother (really only a step-brother, hence adding an undercurrent of possible Southern pseudo-incest to future episodes), the hot-shot crop-duster and Nam vet, Donnie Johnnie Petty. (No, of course he's not really related to racing's Royal Family, but the dynamic connotation of the name won't hurt sales a bit.)

As the group is zooming toward their destination, Gulf War I begins. Iraq promptly fires missiles at Jerusalem. The one which gets through and strikes the helicopter is experimental and filled with genetically altering gas. Instead of killing them, it causes their aircraft to crash through the roof of a chemical plant. With the chaotic mixtures which result, no one can say exactly what the four are exposed to, but it does give them all super-powers:

Mr. Phantasy decides that if God was willing to let Satan start a war just so that they could be prevented from killing the heifer (which winds up dyed blue by the chemical mixtures, and becomes a mascot for the heroes), then He must not be ready to personally intervene yet with the Rapture. It will be up to the four of them to destroy evildoers, one villain at a time. That must be why He has given them these superpowers. They all pledge to work together for Good (although no one is willing to actually clasp hands with The Trojan, so they just sort of wave in his direction). They move into a bankrupt megachurch headquarters in Tulsa, financed by Dub Bob's television appeals to support their mission.

One subplot of the story is Dickie Ben's agony over his appearance. It's not that he is ugly. It's that he is seen as a symbol of birth control and a living enemy of abstinence, thereby revolting all good conservative females. His fiancee abandons him for an Orthodox rabbinical student. Later he does fall in love with a blind woman who sees him as he really is inside. Unfortunately, she turns out to be the innocent (in fact, so virginal that she had no idea what his name meant) daughter of insidious lefty radio commentator Al Frankensnark, who is manipulating the public like puppets to fear these peculiar and powerful beings. Al is really laying the groundwork for his own attempt to seize power in the sequel.

Soon the good guys and gal face their first villain. Unlike the newest movie, which jumps ahead several issues, this version begins just like the comic series did, with an underground monster. Mr. Phantasy, able to see into the very soil, tries to warn people, but the vast liberal media, led by the evil Al, mocks and scorns him. Soon church buildings all over Tulsa are cracking and collapsing, undermined by an army of blind suicide tunnelers that burrow underneath until they bring the structures down on their own heads.

These pathetic creatures are degenerate human beings, bred underground in total darkness by their master, the Mussulman, to be Muslims and hate Christians, and fed endless lies about virgins which await them in heaven. Dub Bob finally leads his team to blow up this monster's headquarters, then find and drag him out of the hole he was hiding in. His surviving fanatical followers are locked in the Oklahoma state pen, where guards pose them for embarrassing lewd photos, which will be sold in calendars to pay for rebuilding the destroyed churches.

All of this is only a warmup for the big fight against the main villain. He actually went to the same college in South Carolina as Dub Bob, but was kicked out for dating higher class students. (They were to graduate in the same year as him, but they had a lot more class -- and money.) Vowing revenge against the world, he began wearing a spacesuit so that no one can even tell what his origins are. Continuing his scheme to marry money and power, he converted to Islam so that he could wed the daughter of an oil-rich Emir, and will inherit that nation as Consort Regnant when his father-in-law dies. This mastermind is the evil Dr. John Karaoke.

Mr. Phantasy first realizes something is amiss when his powers let him see that the very large cloud passing overhead is synthetic, covering a huge airship. By the time the authorities have predictably dismissed his warning, the zeppelin has already reached its destination in the nearby Texas panhandle. The Intelligently Designed Four, as they are belittlingly labelled by Al the on-air orator, hurry to Amarillo. There they find Dr. JK has been busily abusing his diplomatic immunity as a Prince to buy up all the available helium production from local wells.

Some clever trickery by The Immemorable Girl, ploying girlish wiles from a handbook on Seduction for the Totally Clueless, lures him into an obsession with her and uncovers his scheme. When the oil runs out someday, and jet planes are replaced by nuclear-powered airships, he plans to have gained monopoly control of the world's helium supply, so that he can use that for international extortion. To me, that just sounds like a good business plan, but Dub Bob shows how much farther he can see than we ordinary humans by realizing that if the future Emir can ground Dirigible Force One at will, then the President of the United States would be at his mercy. (Actually, that sounds like a good business plan to me, too, but never mind....)

This leads to the climactic battles that true superhero fans read the books and view the movies for. Determined to raid the airship and find the illegal (even under Texas laws, which are very loose) weapons of mass destruction which Dr. JK bragged about having stashed there, and incidentally to seize his supply of helium, the four stage an attack on the zeppelin from four different directions.

Sorry, but I won't spoil it all for future movie-goers by detailing here how the villain defeats and captures each of them in a separate brutal battle, then they manage to escape and overpower him. At the end, Good does triumph over Evil, but it is set up for a sequel when the Prince seems to fall to his death into the cloud miles in the sky. (But in the words of one of Miller's classic tales of Daredevil and the Kingpen, after a careful search, "There is no corpse.")

(Dedicated to Michael Chabon, whose masterpiece about the early years of comics might have been really great, if he had just left out all that gross and icky guy-on-guy stuff.)

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