Werewolf by Night is the latest Marvel Comics character to enter the MCU. His body horror-filled Disney+ special provides the perfect template for the introduction of the Fantastic Four. Fans are eagerly awaiting the MCU debut of Marvel’s first superhero team, especially given their spotty history on-screen thus far. And as Werewolf by Night shows, the MCU could nail a Fantastic Four reboot by leaning into the more horrific parts of their stories.
Werewolf by Night’s use of body horror isn’t unprecedented in the superhero genre. In fact, body horror is an essential force guiding fans’ conceptions of superheroes like the Fantastic Four. The superhero genre, at its core, whether through comics, film, or television, focuses around the body. As the lowest common denominator between character and fan, the body connects the outlandish adventures of superheroes to the regular people who find them fascinating. It’s what makes the sight of bullets ricocheting off of Superman’s unperturbed face so impactful. Audiences know the fragility of their own human flesh. In this way, the superhero genre takes what is ordinary and transforms it into the extraordinary, and occasionally, the monstrous.
As such, the Fantastic Four are the definitive Marvel Comics team. The group represents the genre’s emphasis on the body. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, they embody the core tenets that guided Marvel Comics during the creatively fruitful Silver Age of Comics. The team is led by Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), one of the smartest men in the Marvel Universe, who can stretch his body in superhuman ways. His wife, the Invisible Woman (Sue Storm), can generate force-fields in addition to making herself invisible. Sue’s brother, The Human Torch (Johnny Storm), can turn his body into a flying ball of fire. The Thing (Ben Grimm), a towering rock monster with super strength on par with the Hulk, rounds out the team. And while the Hulk can transform back into his human self as Bruce Banner, the Thing is permanently stuck in this form.
Unlike popular comics heroes such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel (later known as Shazam), the Fantastic Four were not classical hero archetypes from myths and magic. Instead, they were decidedly modern heroes, with a heavy scientific influence that spoke to mid-century technological advancement. With the Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics hammered out a thesis that would define their heroes for the rest of the century: heroes are made, not born.
The Fantastic Four’s unique DNA as superheroes builds from their origin story, which later became the blueprint for Marvel’s superheroes going forward. As depicted in Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four #1, the group embarked on a trip to research “cosmic rays” in space. When their spaceship collided with the cosmic storm, the rays breached the hull of the ship. They then passed through each member. After their ship crashed, the members emerged with horrifying superpowers. As such, the circumstances of the Fantastic Four’s origin not only reflected the Cold War’s Space Race, but also a world where humanity’s technological prowess could lead to irreversible bodily change.
With this in mind, it isn’t difficult to see how Werewolf by Night stems from the Fantastic Four’s legacy. Partway through the special, Gael García Bernal’s Jack Russell transforms into his werewolf form. The camera focuses on Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly’s) terrified expression as the monster’s shadow dances across the wall behind her. This mimics the effect of Fantastic Four #1. In the issue, both character and reader unite in shared shock as Ben Grimm’s human face permanently transforms into the Thing. Even as Werewolf by Night runs through superhero theatrics, dispatching bad guys with balletic grace, he remains unquestionably a monster. And like the Fantastic Four, his monstrosity isn’t an innate quality, but something that happens to him, against his will. To watch Werewolf by Night, or to read Fantastic Four, is to bear witness to the ambiguous separations between superheroism and monstrosity.
This theme of superhoism and monstrosity is another key element to the Fantastic Four’s identities. Werewolf by Night excellently pilots this by hitting familiar fight sequence beats through a stylized Universal monster look. With this unabashed indulgence in the legacy of monster movies, Marvel Studios proves it’s ready to tackle the most central question of the Fantastic Four as a group: is all heroism itself a form of monstrosity?
The Fantastic Four’s previous adaptations have fallen short of addressing this question, and have suffered for it. This powerful question challenges fans’ understanding of how heroism works in the MCU. One of the most iconic shots in the Captain America movies reveals Steve Rogers’ chiseled form after Dr. Erskine injects him with the Super Soldier Serum in Captain America: The First Avenger. The heroic music and awestruck looks from the people in the room fill the scene with a sense of benevolence, rather than horror.
Seeing skinny Steve Rogers transformed into a muscular hunk through the miracle of science sets the stage for the MCU’s handling of bodily change and heroism. His physical exceptionalism is intended to be seen as an expression of his noble ideals. In other words, he’s a hero because he’s different, while still remaining familiar enough that he isn’t seen as threatening or villainous.
The Fantastic Four don’t have this luxury. Their freakishness can enhance the MCU’s heroic diversity if Marvel Studios applies the same level of commitment seen in Werewolf by Night. While audiences have accepted an alien tree and a talking raccoon as valid superheroes, the Fantastic Four illustrate the visceral costs and conditions to being a superhero that other characters in the MCU simply don’t experience. The Super Soldier Serum may have rapidly transformed Captain America, but his handsome face and muscles makes him easily accepted by society. On the other hand, the Thing’s civilian identity as Ben Grimm functionally died the day that cosmic rays hit him. He can’t exist in public without people seeing him as a monster, or as a superhero. The Thing is unrecognizable to those who knew him as Ben Grimm.
Likewise, in one striking moment in Daredevil #261 by Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr., the Human Torch describes the terror he feels every time he fires up his powers, not knowing if this time, his superpowers will simply burn him alive. Body horror is built into who the Fantastic Four are as superheroes. Building their MCU debut around this concept will invite fans to consider heroism within a more critical lens.
The Fantastic Four are at their best when their stories take the weight of their experiences and bodily changes into account. Though buzzwords and concepts like the multiverse are all the rage right now in the MCU, it shouldn’t distract from the simple, human truth that the Fantastic Four have brought to Marvel Comics. The group shows that heroism can be an intensely isolating experience. It’s not always something chosen by those “gifted” with superpowers. The Fantastic Four have bravely been the face of the fine line between freakishness and heroism in Marvel Comics. By digging into this part of their story, Marvel Studios has the chance to finally give the group the adaptation they deserve.