Fantastic Four: Hollywood's Radioactive Obsession

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.

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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.

"Radioactivity is something we've mythologized so that it's easier for us deal with," says professor Paul Brians of Washington State University, the creator of the Nuke Pop Web site.

The "Fantastic Four" -- created 44 years ago by Marvel Comics -- is just part of a giant wave of super heroes, many created at the height of the Cold War, that draw their power from radiation.

In the months after the bombing of Hiroshima, America's comic book shelves even welcomed one hero called "Atomic Mouse," who gets his super strength by munching on uranium 235, just like Popeye ate spinach.

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One sure thing about showbiz radiation -- it can super-size almost any critter. The Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles are nothing but household pets until they wash up in a New York sewer, where radioactive ooze blesses them with advanced skills in martial arts.

Suddenly, the quartet of Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello become pizza-eating heroes-on-the-half-shell.

In the B-movie tradition of Godzilla and Mothra, irradiated and enlarged varmints tend to get a little more ornery than some of their comic book contemporaries. Who can forget Joan Collins' unearthly screams in 1977's "Empire of the Ants," when she must bow to welcome planet Earth's new insect overlords, which stand over 50 feet tall?

On some level, movie house irradiation is nothing more than a magnifying glass, amplifying the best and worst in anybody. That perhaps explains why each of the Fantastic Four is bequeathed a different super power, and each new power comes at a personal price.

Ben Grimm loves being the fist-pounding Thing. But as a hideous man-mountain of rocks, he's got zero chance of getting a date, leaving him perpetually crying on the inside.

This much is true: When the fickle finger of fallout points at you, the salubrious effects are a mixed blessing at best, and the effects are irreversible. As Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons" once put it, "A lifetime of working with nuclear power has left me with a healthy green glow … and left me as impotent as a Nevada boxing commissioner."

But if a little fallout has made Mr. Burns what he is -- and isn't -- today, what can we say of Homer Simpson, America's most celebrated nuclear plant technician?

Is it an accident that each "Simpsons" episode begins with Homer carelessly tossing a radioactive rod from his car door? Or that Bart is obsessed with "Radioactive Man" comic books? The fallout in Springfield never ends. And maybe that is a good thing.

One other note in radioactive news: July 5 marks the 59th anniversary of the most incendiary fashion innovation of modern history -- the bikini.

In 1946, French designer Louis Réard named his provocative new beachwear in honor of the Bikini Atoll, the Pacific island where some of the first atomic bombs were tested -- and the outfit has been having a similar effect on men ever since.

At the time, Réard claimed he was forced to invent the skimpy swimsuit because fabric for high fashion was rationed during World War II, and not because it was the next best thing to a peep show.

Just like Mr. Fantastic's super stretching ability, chalk up this poolside innovation as one more unintended consequence of the atomic age.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.