A film review by Craig J. Koban
FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE
FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE
2007, PG, 92 mins.
Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic: Ioan Gruffudd / Ben Grimm/The Thing: Michael Chiklis / Sue Storm/Invisible Woman: Jessica Alba / Johnny Storm/The Human Torch: Chris Evans / Victor Von Doom/Dr. Doom: Julian McMahon / Alicia Masters: Kerry Washington / Voice of the Silver Surfer: Laurence Fishburne
Directed by Tim Story / Written by Don Payne, Mark Frost and John Turman, based on the comic book and characters by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
Some people think that the Fantastic Four pale in comparison to other super hero teams like…say…the X-Men. Yet, what those people fail to understand is that the Fantastic Four ushered in the renaissance of the modern Marvel super hero book. Characters like Spider-Man, The Hulk, and the X-Men owe them a considerable debt; without them, the massive enduring popularity of Marvel comics arguably would not have occurred. The FF put the contemporary super hero genre on the map by redefining what super hero comics were.
Having said that, I was never a huge follower of the team during my heyday as an avid comics reader (my tastes leaned heavily towards BATMAN and SPIDER-MAN), but I nevertheless respected the FF for what they did for the medium. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s 1961 creation kind of radically broke the rules and conventions of the spandex-clad hero saga. They did not have secret identities; rather, the world knew exactly who they were. The FF were celebrities in the eyes of their fan base and would undoubtedly be on every entertainment show this side of ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. They were also more of a family than a standard hero team. Reed Richards and Sue Storm had a rocky and tumultuous relationship. Johnny - Sue’s hot headed and egomaniacal brother - was a troubled and naive teen hero predating Peter Parker. Ben “The Thing” Grimm may have also been one of the first internally conflicted heroes whose own gross deformities were considered curses more than euphoric abilities. The FF simply felt more fleshed out and real as personas than the typical heroes of their time, and that’s what made them stand out.
Furthermore, those original Kirby and Lee books did not take themselves too seriously. They were light as a feather in terms of tone and mood and had a pleasurable and feisty vitality. In our modern world of angst ridden and solemn comic characters, the FF may seem like literary dinosaurs. Yet, sometimes too much somber and ponderous storytelling and equally gloomy characters can be seem equally perfunctory. I think that is why I had some modest respect for the first FANTASTIC FOUR film, despite its obvious faults. Coming during an age of introspective and serious super hero films like BATMAN BEGINS, DAREDEVIL, THE PUNISHER, X-MEN and HULK, FANTASTIC FOUR seemed to revel in its tongue-in-cheek, pop culture roots. The film and comics that inspired it had a sort of exuberant and carefree innocence about them and were not the nihilistic and raged induced stories that permeate far too many comic books. What FANTASTIC FOUR understood was that you could have fun with its heroes and stories.
I think that its sequel, subtitled RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, has the same sort of amiable traits. It never treats its heroes too seriously, but also never over-embellishes them to hammy, cornball levels. The film sort of has a joyful and spunky sensibility and those looking for well realized and defined characters and thoughtful storylines are sort of missing the point here. Reed Richards should be as square as his jaw line and the film's emotional content should be as thin as Mr. Fantastic’s stretchable limbs. Going into FF2 and expecting melancholic and grim super hero interplay will invite disappointment. Like Kirby original comic panels, a FF film should be bold, boisterous, action packed, colorful, and fun to sit through. For the most part, I think that RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, even more so than the original FF entry, succeeds on the level of being an enjoyable summer popcorn film that has no other preclusions other than to be just that. For soul-searching and inwardly tortured super heroes, you got the wrong heroes here. For something refreshingly lighter and with a gee-whiz sheen about it, this is your film.
FF2 essentially opens with the impending nuptials of Reed Richards – aka Mr. Fantastic (played with low key and suitably one note charisma by Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm – aka The Invisible Woman (played by the unattainably gorgeous Jessica Alba, equally wooden). It seems that they have had to cancel their wedding more than once…four times to be exact. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Reed is a ridiculous workaholic as a governmental scientist or maybe it has everything to do with the fact that they are a very public super hero team that is constantly interrupted by any type of criminal activity that occurs. Being huge celebrities also does not help. Their fifth attempt at marriage has every single gossip hound foaming at the mouth.
Behind the backdrop of Reed and Sue’s marriage is something far more sinister at work than Earth bound villains. Early on in the film we see some celestial force that looks like a comet speeding into Earth’s orbit and it starts causing all sorts of odd occurrences. Egypt starts to develop snowstorms, water off of the Japanese coast terns completely solid, and so forth; in essence, these are not good signs.
It seems that Reed and Sue’s walk towards the altar are again interrupted not only by these events, but by the reveal of who is at the heart of them. In this case, the villain is a silver bodied alien named Silver Surfer that rides on a galactic surfboard (cooool) and goes from planet to planet at the beckoning of his master, Galactus (who appears like an immeasurably large outer space tornado with finger tips). It seems that the Surfer is Galactus’ slave and he goes to planets in question and prepares them for his master to...well…ingest. The fantastic foursome soon realizes that New York’s paparazzi are the least of their concerns. With time they figure out that within days after the Surfer visits a world the planet becomes a midnight snack for Galactus. Not good.
The Surfer is one slick super villain and he gives FF2 a protagonist far more imposing and eerie than Dr. Doom. The character is an amalgamation of two performers. His movements were performed by Doug Jones and were later digitally augmented by computer effects courtesy of Weta Studios, who also were responsible for Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS films and KING KONG in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the classic film. The result is something that looks purposefully artificial, which gives the character his much needed ethereal and creepy vibe. He is voiced by none other that Lawrence Fishburne, who makes the Surfer sound remarkably like the actor doing a soft spoken and less bassy impersonation of Darth Vader with the grave-spoken speech patterns of Morpheus. He is a man – or alien – of few words and when he does speak, he keeps it short and sweet. When Sue has an intimate moment with him and asks him what his purpose is, he simply states, “All that you know is at an end.”
The Surfer is not a completely unsympathetic figure. Apparently he was once a well-to-do figure on his home world. He also had a name (Norrin Radd) and even had his own babe of a wife. Unfortunately, in swooped that damn, planet hungry Galactus and he made a pact with it to be its slave in order to spare his planet and his wife. Being forced to spend an eternity surfing from planet to planet in order for your master to eat it is just…plain sad. I mean, if you could be the soul savoir of your own planet and wife, would you not do the same?
For what its worth, the Surfer creates some modest intrigue that the first FF film lacked in its main villain. Comic purists will be happy with the faithfulness of his portrayal, but may be fuming when they see how Galactus is shown. To say that this gigantic entity in space is underwhelming is an understatement, but I am also entirely sure that showing him in his comic book form – that of a man in a purple suit and ridiculous helmet – could have been even more laughably cringe inducing.
However, all is not at a loss, because the heroes manage to discover a way to stop the Surfer and help to fend off Galactus. They find assistance with the most unlikely of partner in Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who has managed to discover the Surfer’s secrets. He has come out of hiding – and his own very public death – to assist the US military and the Fab Four with valuable Intel. He claims that all he wants to do is assist the heroes, which is as unreliable and untrustworthy of a promise that could come out of a super powered terrorist’s mouth. Considering the carnage he left in his wake in FF1, how the government would have freely allow him clemency is beyond me. Also, if you factor in the already very worthwhile crop of villains in the film, then Dr. Doom’s cameo here is a bit redundant. As I also felt with the first film, I still don’t entirely buy McMahon as the lecherous and dangerous fiend. Granted, he does snarl with a bit more obvious and manically glee in this one.
Overall, there was more to appreciate here than what was present in FF1. The Surfer is an undeniably nifty creation, and I also found myself laughing at and with the preposterousness of the characters. Some individual moments are cute, as is the case when Johnny tries to take Reed out on a bachelor party (Reed is quite good on the dance floor with multiple partners, especially with his incredibly flexible limbs). Reed also has a sly and funny rant directed at an army stooge as to why he should rightfully call the shots.
Chris Evans again plays the Torch as an affectionately goofy and narcissistic free-spirit (he’s such a self-serving media whore that he re-designs the groups' super hero tights complete with product placement ads). Michael Chikles also brings a silly and oddly amusing humanity to his rock-covered monster. His interplay with Evans is priceless at times, especially when Johnny mocks The Thing in spite of his faults. At one point he hilariously tells Ben that sex with his girlfriend must be scary, seeing as she must be worried about waking up and being the "victim of a rock slide" in her own bed.
FF2 also has stronger and more vivid production values. The story is able to sustain itself beyond the sluggishness of the first film’s origin narrative and the effects work this time around seems far removed from the inconsistent work done in FF1. The Surfer looks great, and many of the action set pieces are grander, but they still have not managed to make Reed Richard’s stretchable appendages look plausible. Thankfully, the director, Tim Story (who also helmed the first film) learned this time to not spend too much time making the Invisible Woman invisible in FF2. She is, after all, played by Jessica Alba, and not showing enough of her is wrong on many superficial levels. Despite my innate fondness for her physical assets, she still remains - as she did in the first FF film - to be the least plausible female scientist in recent movie history.
Curiously, I found myself a bit more forgiving of FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER than I did of its prequel film. On its own levels, this super hero sequel does a fairly good job of eclipsing the first film in terms of being of larger scale and more technically polished; it does a better job at finding an equilibrium between a special effects action extravaganza and a family friendly super hero soap opera. FF2 is a work not void of flaws (it’s a bit too short in running time and some of the humorous pratfalls are real clunkers), but it ultimately is a guilty pleasure hero epic in the sense that it provides for 90-plus minutes of harmless, inconsequential comic book silliness that, for what its worth, respects the tone of the original comics. RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER never has the gravitas of the great comic book films like SUPERMAN and BATMAN, nor does it ever want to achieve such lofty standards. It reminds viewers that some of the best comics we read as children were the most relaxed and unpretentious: they had simple, black and white heroes and villains. With a few recent super hero sequels that have drowned in their own ponderous excesses and more than wore out their welcome (see SPIDER-MAN 3), FF2 is a tolerably slight, undemanding and pleasantly entertaining comic book film.