There were plenty of things I gravitated towards as a geeky little brat– Star Wars, Saturday morning cartoons, US-made ninja movies– and for the most part there was no real connective tissue between them. I just happened to be the right age to catch certain things as they were popular, relevant, and directed at impressionable kids looking for escapism. The Universal Monsters weren’t exactly the hippest thing around when kids could watch Ghostbusters or have Michael Jackson’s Thriller playing in the background. Being the sort of kid I was, that didn’t matter much to me. I latched onto those monsters almost as much as I did Indiana Jones or GI Joe, and my favorite of the bunch was always Gill-man from Creature from the Black Lagoon. He was “the coolest” of the bunch for whatever reason. Maybe I just thought he looked the coolest or something. I’m not quite sure what my thoughts were at that time, but Gill-man always stuck with me after that.
What didn’t strike me at the time was how there’s a direct line from those Universal Monster movies to the birth of the Marvel-styled super hero.
The majority of the Universal Monsters are misunderstood abominations who are rejected by their surroundings. Many of them are cursed with existing when they shouldn’t– none of the creations that come from the Frankenstein series want to exist, and their violence is born out of the sins of others. Some are cursed to lose control of themselves, like The Wolf Man, and can only find solace in death despite literally not being themselves when they kill. Even the more classically villainous ones like Dracula and The Mummy are men who have lived so long that morals have lost all meaning, leading them to succumb to horrible acts when their driving goal is love. There is no cure and no escape for these beings. The world does not and cannot want them. The horror isn’t the monster but the fact that the monster must die.
The popularity of that archetype lead to Marvel Comics’ brand of monster comics in the 50s and early 60s. Tales to Astonish and the like were all about monsters and beasts from other worlds/eras/etc who could never find a place in the modern, civilized world, and much like the Universal Monster, their only respite was to be destroyed. The Incredible Hulk is one of these monsters, and his becoming a super hero comes more from the timing of his creation during the years where Marvel was transitioning from monster comics to super hero comics than anything else. The formula can be applied to most of the other early Marvel heroes. Captain America is a man out of time who can never go back to the time he knows. Spider-Man is a nerd rejected by the other kids who can only find “power” after being bitten by a spider, and his life only gets worse after that. The X-Men are outright genetic misfits, never able to be fully integrated with society and eventually hunted down as sub-human atrocities.
With how close his creation comes to the birth of this sort of super hero, it’s fitting that the Creature from the Black Lagoon is pretty much the pinnacle of this concept in the context of the Universal Monster Movies. He’s the last of the “core” Universal Monsters, coming out less than a decade before Marvel took the concept and turned it into something new. He’s a beast from another time– a living fossil who has evolved in a part of the world untouched by humanity’s “progress.” Gill-man isn’t even a monster in the same sense as the other Universal Monsters. The others are all beings created by mankind’s actions– whether it’s the folly of science or the works of ancient, dark magic. All of the other Monsters were, at one time, humans. Gill-man is only human in relative form, his appearance looking like that of a man’s through parallel evolution. The Creature is an animal, and his only sins are the sins of an animal whose goals conflict with that of humans. It’s horrific to us to see Gill-man kidnap a woman to take her off to become his mate, but this isn’t an act of malice– it’s simply Gill-man’s instincts at work. It wants to fulfill its genetic destiny like any other animal and be left alone. It can’t help that humans exist by different rules, and it can’t help that humans either tame, eat, or exterminate any living thing that doesn’t agree to humanity’s rules. The horror of the movie isn’t that this is some fiendish brute trying to “kill us all.” The horror is the fact that we as the audience understand that Gill-man has to die. Instinct may lead it to horrible actions, but they’re still horrible actions by out standards. If we can’t capture and study the beast, it must be destroyed for the betterment of individual lives and for humanity at large. That’s our genetic destiny– or moral code– and we have to embrace that monstrous side of our existence in order to truly be human.
Gill-man’s the hero, we’re the villain, and we have to accept our villainous role in his story.
It’s from that thread that the Marvel hero was born. It took both of those sides of the coin and forged them into a single piece. The guy in spandex is the monster and the hero, and that makes him more complete than his brethren elsewhere in comics.
Of course, that’s not the only reason why I love Creature from the Black Lagoon. There’s all of the underwater cinematography and swimming sequences which are still pretty amazing to behold. Someone with a better understanding of all of that can speak better to just how impressive it is, even by today’s standards, but that stuff alone makes Creature a worthwhile movie. I saw this in 3D at a theater a few years ago, and the 3D work is also pretty great. You get the lunging in “gimmicky” stuff and you get some cool layering of foreground and background details that gives everything depth, especially when underwater. It adds to the sensation that you’re really underwater (which the actors are in those scenes, but it adds to the effect as someone in the audience). There are few movies I’d say are improved by 3D effects, but this is one of them.
Yeah, if only we could all be as pure of heart and nature as good old Gill-man. Just without the lady-snatching. The Creature of our hearts can be improved upon.