Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fantastic Four: Noir

I was recently thinking about all of the changes made to the Fantastic Four for the upcoming movie (and I'll probably be blogging about that soon, here or elsewhere). In specific, I was thinking about all the previous "reconceptualizations" of the FF we've seen over the years, from the Manga FF to the Elizabethan FF to the Zombie FF to...and I sort of mentally trailed off there, half-remembering that there'd been a 'Marvel Noir' line but unsure whether they'd actually done 'Fantastic Four Noir'.

So I went back and checked. And when I found out they didn't, well...

It's the 1950s. Sue Storm is a private investigator in Los Angeles barely keeping the rent paid and the bill collectors happy. Her kid brother Johnny sometimes helps her out with a case, usually when it involves driving too fast or thinking with his fists. But out of the blue one day, an old friend of hers named Ben Grimm turns up looking to cash in a favor.

They met during the war--Ben was a rock-solid pilot who flew infiltration missions for the OSS, and Sue was his cargo. She was an expert in stealth and infiltration, nicknamed "The Invisible Girl" for her ability to get in and out of secure facilities. The two of them had a romance, but it ended badly. Now he's here to ask her to spy on the United States government.

Ben, as it turns out, has gone on to bigger and better things; he's now a test pilot for the government's experimental space program. His old college buddy, Reed Richards, is designing the actual rocket with the help of a defector from Communist Eastern Europe, an egghead named Victor von Doom that also went to college with Reed and Ben. But Ben thinks that someone is trying to sabotage the rocket tests. He wants Sue to find the culprit before the first big space shot, three days away.

Sue and Johnny head out to the small town near the testing grounds, frequented by scientists and pilots alike due to its possession of the only bar within a hundred miles. There are a wide variety of scientists there, a boatload of eccentrics with nicknames like "The Mad Thinker" and "The Wizard", but all of them respect Reed "Mister Fantastic" Richards and Doctor Victor von Doom (who has made it icily clear that he considers nicknames obsequious and small-minded). Sue blends in with the eggheads, while Johnny gets to know the fighter jocks.

That night, someone tries to kill them both. The mystery assailant sets their hotel on fire; Johnny only survives because he has a fire-retardant suit he uses for drag racing, and he bursts through the flaming door to rescue Sue. The two of them realize someone must be on to them. The next morning, they quiz Ben to see if he confided his plans to anyone...and sure enough, he mentioned them to his good friend Reed.

Sue questions Reed, but the interrogation quickly turns into flirtation as the two discover a mutual attraction. She's quickly convinced that Reed's no Commie...this space-ship is the culmination of his life's work. He'd never sabotage it. But she also learns that he mentioned Ben's fears to his own colleague and good friend, Victor.

At this point, Sue is convinced that Victor isn't the defector he claims to be, but a spy. She tails him as he comes back to the testing grounds, late at night, and sneaks on board the experimental rocket ship. Just as she watches him making furtive modifications to the engine, she's hit from behind by an unknown assailant...

Sue recovers consciousness, tied up in the cargo hold of the ship. She sees the person who knocked her out--a Soviet spy she worked with during the war, back when the Russians were our allies. Ivan Kragoff, nicknamed "The Red Ghost", an infiltration expert every bit her equal. She realizes that Kragoff must be behind the sabotage attempts. Kragoff admits it, but isn't particularly worried about being caught...the launch is in less than ten minutes, and she won't tell anyone after the ship crashes and takes the cream of the crop of the American rocket program with it. As it turns out, Reed and Victor both have stowed away on the rocket out of a determination to see the results of their labors first-hand.

Just then, he's tackled from behind by Johnny. The two men struggle, accidentally knocking the cargo bay door shut in their fight. Johnny finally gets the upper hand and KOs the Ghost, but it's too late. The rocket is already lifting off. As it turns out, everyone's riding this rocket together.

As the rocket goes up, Johnny unties Sue. She figures out how to get through from the cargo bay to the crew section, slipping through areas of the ship that are already dangerously underpressurized. She makes it to the cockpit and tells Ben to abort the launch. Victor and Reed both insist they go on, but Reed pales when Sue informs him of the sabotage. The two scientists immediately pull on spacesuits and go out to make a risky attempt to repair the damage.

Ben struggles to control the ship--he knows he has to keep it as steady as a rock to prevent the two men from falling off. Reed and Victor quickly get into an argument about how to repair the damage, and Victor is forced to admit that he's made secret modifications to the engine of his own design, arrogantly convinced that he knew better than Reed about how to best make the rocket work. Just as he's about to tell Reed what needs to be done, the ship shakes, and Victor is thrown off.

Nonetheless, Reed manages to repair the engine, having to reach as far as he can to reset both ignition boosters manually. (GET IT?) The ship makes a safe landing, the Red Ghost is apprehended, and Sue offers to buy Reed a drink. Ben winds up going out drinking and bar-brawling with Johnny instead.

And somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, a half-burned, half-shattered figure floats. He is determined not to die, not so long as Reed Richards and Ben Grimm live. If they'd only listened to him instead of wasting time with petty arguments. If they'd only followed his lead in repairing the engines. If they'd only held the ship steady like they were supposed to. But they failed him. Everyone failed him. And Victor von Doom will make them all pay...


Omar Karindu said...

I like this as a story of the FF in a realistic setting without their powers, but I'm not sure how noirish it is. There's no sense of the past haunting the present, and none of the fatalistic elements of the genre. Aside from Sue bing a private eye, in fact, I don't see much noir genre material in it. It's more in the vein of JMS's Powerless miniseries, an adventure in which every character retains his or her basic personality and arc, than like Marvel Noir, which gave us such stuff as sociopathic Professor X, ZEMO as the codename for a chemically brainwashed Howard Stark. and

Part of thew equation is that the Marvel Noir stuff was fairly up-front abut being self-contained storytelling, the alternate-reality kind of fabulism where half the point is in blowing up the storytelling engine to show that you can or to swerve the reader's expectations. In a way, your piece is as much a critique of the way Marvel Noir tended to play out as it is a

I certainly think there's an argument that the FF needs to be an optimistic space-age fable, and that making it work within the noir genre's conceits almost means working at cross purposes to the source material. In the FF's corner of the universe, an antiheroic character with a history of doomed compatriots like Namor fits the noir context better than the FF, perhaps. And the Silver Surfer might be made to work, too.

Say, there's your sequel: Sue encounters lothario film producer Rex Romani, a skin-diving enthusiast with a shady connection to smuggling and a past as an Italian partisan during the war. Reed and Ben are being blacklisted after rumors surface that Doom is back in some little Balkan puppet state selling American secrets to the Soviets, but then Sue's old ally Colonel Fury offers them a mission in Central America, investigating rumors that a bunch of expatriate Nazis are trying to set up their own little version of Villa Baveria. The trouble is, the man Fury's after may have made a deal with Fury's employers int he CIA, and Reed and Ben don't know their little mission is unsanctioned and "off the books."

Meanwhile, a mysterious, platinum haired man, seemingly just a surf bum, turns up muttering about "the end of the world" when Romani hosts a party for a Euro-counterculture cult of star-worshippers at his European villa. an expatriate Nazi hatemonger with CIA contacts trying to set up a private land of beautiful people in the republic of San Marco, and an unethical plastic surgeon named Phillip Masters with a blind daughter who provides Romani's films with real "dolls" who never seem to last beyond one or two films.

And then we discover that Masters is really war criminal Jacob Reiss, that Romani may have had suspicions about Masters from the start, and the Cult of Galactus and its platinum-haired ex-member are one of the ways Reiss and his mysterious boss recruit their "beautiful people" as they plan to unleash a lethal Teratogen Mist on the rest of the world....

Omar Karindu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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