By the turn of the 60's, the adolescent boys who drove the comics market had had their fill of lessons in moral rectitude from superheroes that the graphic designer Chip Kidd once described as "middle-aged men thwarting crime in their underwear." The time was ripe for morally ambiguous heroes who dared the occasional impure thought, and those heroes rolled off the Marvel assembly line by the dozen in the 60's.
Spider-Man filled the bill for some boys. But the character who did it for me, when I was 10 years old in 1961, was an impossibly large man who walked into a clothing store with his face cast in darkness by a pulled-down hat and the upturned collar of his trench coat. When told that the store carried nothing in his size, he bellowed, "I live in a world too small for me!" and threw off his coat, revealing a grotesque but superhuman physique covered in orange skin. He exploded out into the street, ripped up the pavement with his bare hands and disappeared into the sewer.
The shock came from learning that the ugly, bad-tempered fellow was actually a good guy. His name was Ben Grimm, also known as the Thing, and he played the strongman in the crime-fighting quartet the Fantastic Four. Among his teammates was the Human Torch, a bratty young hothead who burst into flame at will. The team was rounded out by the Torch's sister, the Invisible Girl, her husband-to-be the elastic-limbed Mr. Fantastic. The Four resonated with real-world family life, cast a permanent spell over a generation of budding writers and became the emotional template for legions of Marvel heroes who followed.
But if the Stan Lee lawsuit was one sign of the end of an era, the scheduling of a Fantastic Four movie signals another. The big screen has already exhausted the most important characters from the Marvel stable and a few of the minor ones as well and is most likely to consume the rest within a relatively short time. This reminds us again that the golden age of comics on which the movie boom is based really lasted only about 10 years. The artists who changed the world were hot and swinging, then gone in the blink of an eye.
Considering that upcoming Marvel movie projects include Man-Thing, Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, and Deathlok (O.K., and to be fair, Iron Man), it seems like the House of Ideas may have indeed exhaused its movie options.