Fantastic Four: Hollywood's Radioactive Obsession

The Upside of Cosmic Radiation


July 5, 2005 — I'm not saying nuclear fallout makes the world a better place. But without it, our pantheon of superheroes would be much smaller, there'd be no super-intelligent talking apes and Homer Simpson might be unemployed.

Hollywood's next action hero flick, "Fantastic Four," hits theaters Friday, and as any comic book fan can tell you, Dr. Reed Richards and his crew — astronaut Ben Grimm, Reed's ex-girlfriend Sue Storm and her brother, Johnny Storm — are thrown into a radioactive cosmic storm while conducting research in outer space. Their DNA is rewired and they return to Earth with super powers.

Richards (played by Ioan Gruffudd) becomes a human rubber band who can stretch into any shape. He's now known as "Mr. Fantastic." Grimm (Michael Chiklis) is now a clobbering machine who calls himself "The Thing," Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) develops powers of invisibility and her brother (Chris Evans) flames out as "The Human Torch."

In real life, wouldn't it be great if massive doses of radiation would give us anything but cancer? Madam Marie Curie, the famed pioneer of radiology, died of leukemia in 1934, as a result of overexposure to contaminated materials.

What Makes a Zombie Eat Flesh?

Modern history has been punctuated by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and fears of a nuclear holocaust.

Nevertheless, ever since World War II, pop culture has spun some amazing tales out of wide-scale nuclear contamination, which has alternatively become humanity's greatest nightmare and science fiction's most handy off-the-shelf explanation for nearly everything.

In comic books, Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive insect and becomes the wall-crawling Spider-Man. Bruce Banner is pelted by gamma rays and changes into the Hulk.

At the movies, radiation makes the incredible shrinking man shrink. It spurs Godzilla to traipse through Tokyo. It unleashes the flesh-eating zombies from "Night of the Living Dead." And it allows the super-intelligent chimps of "Planet of the Apes" to enslave humanity.