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Commentary Comics

The MCU is missing Marvel's most fascinating star, The Thing

Commentary: As the ultimate outsider, the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing would fit right into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If only the lawyers could figure out how to make it work.

He's an orange-skinned native New Yorker with zero impulse control. No, it's not the president -- it's Benjamin J. Grimm, better known as The Thing. As a founding member of the Fantastic Four, the first superhero series of the modern Marvel era, he's been part of the Marvel canon from the very beginning. But he's also one of the comic book heroes missing from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, due to a long history of convoluted film rights issues.

rainything
Marvel

It's a shame, because The Thing has always been one of the most interesting characters in the Marvel stable, surreptitiously tackling issues related to outsiderness and ethnic identity, long before it was considered kosher in comic books. 

Spider-Man hails from Queens and Captain America was born and raised in Brooklyn (really, I live about 10 minutes from the official statue), but Benjamin Jacob Grimm is from New York's Lower East Side. And not the hipster LES of today, but the gritty immigrant district now only hinted at by holdouts like Katz's Delicatessen and Guss' Pickles, or the Tenement Museum.

While reading a recently released collection of Marvel 2-in-1 comics (a team-up series starring The Thing that ran from 1974-1983), I was struck by how Grimm's language and personality shone through, no matter who the writers and artists were. Co-creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee stamped his DNA from the very beginning. Grimm even looks like Kirby, himself a Lower East Side native, and shares much of the artist's personality. 

Kirby was likewise described as a gentle giant, but with a strong sense of justice. One oft-told anecdote about his life involved him heading downstairs from his office to beat up Nazi sympathizers who'd called from the lobby threatening him over the Hitler-bashing adventures of another of his co-creations, Captain America. Kirby told them he'd be right down, but the not-so-tough guys were gone by the time he got to the lobby.

Grimm's easily identifiable New York accent is the most obvious manifestation of his personality and background, with lots of exclamations like, "Look like them crumbs ain't learned their lesson yet!" and "I wuz wonderin' when they wuz gonna show up." And, of course his famous, "It's clobberin' time!" 

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Jack Kirby co-created heroes from The Thing to Captain America to Black Panther. 

Susan Skaar

But his often self-directed monologues also reflect the challenges of being so outwardly different in a world where most heroes can hide behind more typical-looking secret identities. Heading to Florida on a Greyhound bus to confront a c-list creature called the Man-Thing, whose sin was horning in on the "thing" name, Grimm says: "I clobber my way back ta civilization -- an' find some meatball tryin' ta hog my glory! Mebbe I'm bein' oversensitive, but when ya look like me, a little glory is all ya got on Earth. An' it hurts ta see it slip away."

With issues like this, it's no surprise The Thing was the first widely known Jewish superhero. His background was long obvious to any sharp-eyed reader familiar with Grimm's history dealing with the street gangs and grandmas of Yancy Street (his fictitious LES home block), even though it was only explicitly acknowledged in 2002. Unless you were on the Kirby family's 1976 Hanukkah card mailing list, that is. 

One could probably read something into the fact that The Thing's creators, Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg, worked under the anglicized pen names Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. With The Thing, the pair were adding yet another comic book outsider to a long line of immigrant/underdog characters who grappled with similar themes, from Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) to Captain America (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).

As a young comics reader, I was always struck by how often you'd see The Thing, in his giant overcoat and fedora, down in the New York subway system. Only Peter Parker had a similar affinity for public transportation. Ben Grimm is one of us in a way that gazillionaire Tony Stark or egghead Bruce Banner could never be.

It's been a real shame that the current run of interlinked Marvel movies haven't had access to possibly the most "human" hero in the canon. But while The Thing's cinematic history to date has been less than impressive (feature films from 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2015 have all been rightfully panned), there's still hope. 

Spider-Man, another Marvel hero controlled by a separate film deal, was recently re-integrated into the MCU to great acclaim, starting with Captain America: Civil War. And now that Disney (which acquired Marvel in 2009) is buying 21st Century Fox, which still controls Fantastic Four film rights, the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing may yet get to share the big screen with the most successful heroes in cinematic history. 

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