It’s amazing how unmemorable a film like this can be. Twenty-four hours and it vanishes from your mind like a bad dream. Oh, to wake in a world where Marvel Studios did not chose to produce Fantastic Four films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.
At once flagrantly pandering and incoherently pretentious, Rise of the Silver Surfer is undeniably worse than its prequel. All thanks to production logic that threw aesthetics under the bus in favor of expediency and marketing tie-ins. Got to crank them out quick before the marks get wise, see? And we are getting wise, though the general mass (who still, even after all this, refuse to read comic books) continues to throw cash at whatever crap’s offered us. And so it goes.
After the pre-credit destruction of a planet…somewhere…we catch up to the Fantastic Four…as they stand stranded in an airport. How heroic of them. Reed Richards (still the perpetually uncomfortable-looking Ioan Gruffudd) and his fiance, Susan Storm (still the empty-looking Jessica Alba), are hoping to make it back to New York in time for their immanent wedding. A throw-away line informs us the Happy Couple’s Nuptials met with four (of course) previous postponements. Right away I’m wondering just what the hell those were…and would depicting them have made a better film than what I’m watching now?
Certainly…but such thought-wandering this early on is a bad, bad sign. Will the movie pick-up once we get past all these filler scenes of the Four “comically” negotiating American air travel with their superpowers? How in God’s name did Ben Grimm (still Michael Chiklis) get through the metal detectors? And whatever happened to that post-9/11 world where joking about air travel earned you a sound finger waving from Johnny “I’m a Douche, Too; and from Missourah” Ashcroft? Can Johnny Storm get sucked into a jet engine, please? At least that would give Our Heroes a chance to show off. Come to think of it, where’s the re-introductory Action Extravaganza I’ve gotten so used to criticizing? Remember Nightcrawler’s assault on the Oval Office in X2? And Peter Parker’s ill-fated attempt to start up Pizza-by-the-Webline? Weren’t those great ways to open a film? Now, contrast with this series of bad jokes Tim Story, Don Payne, and Mark Frost place under the credits.
Or do what I did and ignore them all. It’s time to return to the Baxter building for more tedious exposition, courtesy Reed Richards. A series of “global disturbances” caused by “cosmic radiation not unlike the kind that gave us our powers” are currently screwing with the world’s weather systems. Snow storms in Egypt; frozen Bays off Japan’s coast; black-outs in LA, like the one that stranded Our Heroes at LAX during the credits…the usual jazz. (Wait, black-outs? In California? Well I never.) Reed can’t know (since it occurs in the next scene) that these “global disturbances” have also resurrected one Victor Von Doom (still Julian McMahon)…somehow…but I’m sure he’ll find out by the half way mark. In the meantime “…not unlike the kind that gave us our powers.”
You’d think the film would make something out of a line like this. It doesn’t. Ever. Not even once. At all. I’m no fan of the Fantastic Four, but I can certainly extrapolate one hell of a film from that line alone. You’d think someone at Fox might be capable of this as well. For all I know, they were. Who’s to say some draft of this script didn’t explore whatever connection there might (or might not…I’m just sayin’) be between the Reed Richard’s modern Stone Age family and the Power Cosmic? The mid-90s Fantastic Four cartoon never quite dealt with what the Power Cosmic was…apart from a Magic Bag, allowing the All-Mighty Galactus to turn humanoids into chrome-plated, flying mannequins. It could just as easily turn four hapless losers into the superheroic equivalent of their own self-image problems…right?
“Wow,” Johnny Storm (still Chris Evans), the Human Douche, says to Reed’s exposition dump. “That’s really boring.” The filmmakers speak! And with undisguised contempt for their supposedly-target audience. Johnny’s more interested in throwing Reed (what else?) a bachelor party. Featuring annoying dance “music” and more flawlessly-airbrushed human tools than you’ll see this side of MTV studios. The bachelor party’s obligatory “dance” sequence strikes such a sour note that the Army (and Sue) arrive to break this bullshit up. You see, Douchebag (sorry, “Johnny”), it’s really bachelor parties that bore anyone not actually a bachelor. Why do you think everyone else gets so drunk so quickly? The lucky snag someone of their preferred gender and sneak off as soon as possible.
But forget all that. The army’s here, so it’s supposedly time for The Good Part. Homicide: Life on the Street fans will recognize Andre Braugher as General Hager, a Nick Fury-alike in all but name and eye-patch. (At one time, Fury was to appear in this film, but I’m betting Samuel L. Jackson had better things to do than hitch his star to this POS production. Notice he also failed to appear in Universal’s The Incredible Hulk, forcing Robert Downey-Stark to emerge from his Malibu beach-castle.) Hager’s come to recruit Reed, hoping Mr. Fantastic can aim his brain at the “global anomaly” problem. It’s leaving two hundred meter holes all over the world, and maybe Reed can whip up a little Scientific something to track it down.
Having noted Sue’s pouting from across the room (hell, the Surfer could make it out from orbit), Reed declines. “You see, I’m getting married.” And that, boys and girls, is much more important than any silly old rot about “saving the world.” In the endcap scene that follows we understand Sue is still the same myopic ditz she was in the last picture…and Reed is still whipped…for no good goddamn reason. He’s an apparently-rich, superpowered Super Scientist with prehensile everything. You’d think the hot grad students would be lined up three-deep all the way around the Baxter Building, and Mr. Fantastic would have his pick. Why put up with the Reality TV cliche you’ve mistaken for Sue Storm? Why are you two together again? Surely you could both find two other boring, horrible people of your preferred gender. Who knows…they might even share your interests, be they interests in Science (in Reed’s case) or bankrupting yourself with gigantic, one-day-only, self-aggrandizement parties (in Sue’s).
Reed (in true, browbeaten fashion) proceeds to build the “scanner” behind Sue’s back, finishing it just in time to join his own nuptials on his roof. Just before the “I Dos,” Reed’s PDA lets him know what I’ve known for the last twenty minutes: there’s a Surfer on the breeze and he’s making a B-line for Reed’s new tracking device but-quick. Deploy action sequence.
The “scanner’s” destruction leaves Sue crying at the alter, where she should be, and allows Johnny a chance to chase the Surfer across hell and back. By splashing him with a bath of Force Lightning…no, wait. I mean “cosmic rays”…Our Extraterrestrial Anti-hero easily hands The Human Douche his ass. The Surfer’s rays also destabilize Johnny’s molecular whosawhatzis, allowing him to trade powers with the other Three by simple physical contact.
He discovers this via yet another”comedic” sequence that results in a naked (but safely-PG) Jessica Alba. Again. “Why does this happen to me?” she whines, safely behind her invisible forcefields. Because you’re a woman trapped in a sexist, bullshit film. That’s why you go right from a team pow-wow to watching clips about yourself on Fox News (the only News outlet in this entire Universe…God help all its hopeless inhabitants). “I can’t ignore it, Reed, there’s no getting away from it.” Yeah, there is: turn your damn TV off, put Johnny on a fire-proof leash, and get your superheroic act together. Isn’t there some evil dictator oppressing someone somewhere? Isn’t an Evil Capitalist about to take over the world?
In fact, even now Victor Von Doom is ingratiating himself with the Military Industrial Complex. After Johnny’s power problems almost get everyone killed (and allow the Silver Surfer to carve a big bite out of Britain), General Hager turns to the ever-helpful supervillain for an assist. Doom’s figured out that the Surfer draws his power from (where else?) his board, and even come up with a plan to separate the two.
The Not-quite-so Fantastic Five’s snatch-and-grab operation goes much better than their attempt to save the Themes. (Bet Londoners are really going to miss that stench.) Thankfully, the film finally takes a turn for the real when General Hager orders the Four incarcerated down the hall from an impromptu Surfer Torturing Room. It’s too late to avoid fighting their way out of military prison, but it’s not too late for Doom to steal the Surfer’s board and trigger the lackluster, climactic action sequence.
After her wedding disaster, Sue makes the only astute observation she’s allowed in the film: “We will never have normal lives as long as we do what we do.” You think the intervening two years might’ve hammered this lesson into each of the Four’s heads. At least Ben, Johnny and Reed have come to terms with their condition. But, since this Sue Storm is Whininess Incarnate, if she weren’t bitching about something heteronormative she’d have nothing to do.
Because of this, Sue Storm has got to be one of the worst female characters in superhero movie history. She’s such a “girl” it’s grotesque. Actually I take it back. Sue, as the Token Girl (if this were a daikaiju film, she’d be The Chick) has one more thing to do: empathize with the Surfer, humanizing him to a degree Victor Von Doom apparently doesn’t deserve…despite being actually human.
The Surfer (played in body by Doug Jones, the Hellboy film’s Abraham Sapien, and in voice by Laurence “I am…Morpheus” Fishburne) is Rise of the Silver Surfer‘s real tragedy. He suffers from the same lack of characterization that turns everyone else into squabbling cliches. Rather than center the film on the Surfer’s journey from amoral Herald of Galactus to noble fallen hero, writers Mark Frost and Don Payne present a Surfer who’s already noble, needing only a kind word from, and eventual sacrifice of, Sue to turn on his master and save us all a journey through Galactus’ digestive system. This makes the Surfer a literal Flying MacGuffin, a criminal misuse of one of Marvel Comic’s most-nuanced heroes. It also insults both of the actors who give him form, neither of whom get to showcase much of anything. I already knew Larry Fishburne had a great voice…I spent the entire film waiting for him to actually say something. Other than the Moral of Our Story: “There is always a choice.” Yeah, great. Tell me another one.
In the comics – forty years ago – Alcia Masters (played here by Kerry Washington) provided the Surfer his moral compass, setting up one of the most philosophical, introspective, and down-right-thoughtful comics the Marvel Method ever churned out. (This explains why Alicia fills the same role for Johnny and Sue prior to the wedding disaster.) Without that moral education, there’s no story here. Rather, the story here is a haphazard journey from one equally-haphazard action sequence to another. Sure, the Four are supposed to learn something about togetherness and teamwork from this whole affair, and they duly (and dully) do…but not in any way that makes dramatic or thematic sense.
What am I even talking about “themes”? A film this dumb can’t have themes…but it can have product placement. A FantastiCar with DODGE stamped across the front sums up this film better than I ever could. And the fact that the Surfer can suddenly resurrect the dead. And destroy Galactus all by himself with nothing more than the power of kneeling.
This is not a proper sequel, but the second act in a trilogy we will, thankfully, never see. With the demise of the X-Men franchise, someone at Fox obviously hoped for a suitably franchise-able replacement. Something to rival Tristar’s Spider-Man trilogy and head off Paramount’s Iron Man at the pass. It’s right there in the title, smacking you in the face with its cynical usage of the team’s logo in place of actual words. Surely in some, even-worse parallel universe, the third “4” movie actually made it into the can. It no-doubt concerned Reed and Dr. Doom finally patching things up (after the inevitable fight scene-or-three) to battle two, four, or six other poorly-fleshed-out villains. Galactus and Mole Man, perhaps. Or Mole Man and the Inhumans. Or, in keeping with the idea of spin-off-generating special guest stars (a familiar tactic from Marvel made-for-TV movies of the 1980s), why not bring the Surfer back and throw the rest of the Defenders at Our Heroes? Let a battle between Edward Norton’s Hulk and Michael Chiklas’ Thing annihilate Wall Street. I’d pay to see that.
Everything I said about the Four principal actors goes double for this turkey. Gruffudd and Alba are miscast at best and incompetent at worst. Chris Evans can suck it, and Ben’s lack of angst give Michael Chiklis nothing to do but growl and occasionally hit Victor. At least Julian McMahon appears to be having fun playing one-dimensional Evil. I’d use the term “cartoonish” as a pejorative description of McMahon’s character and his acting…if ten years of watching cartoons that are much better than this film (some even featured…gasp…believably-“evil” antagonists) hadn’t made me realize just how trite McMahon’s Darth Vader impression really is.
Yes, I know I’ve got it backwards. In the really real world, Dr. Doom’s fashion sense inspired a young George Lucas to pit his Hero against a caped-and-helmeted Man in Black…which just goes to show how influential the Fantastic Four really are. And how ill-served they are by these over-marketed, assembly-line crap movies. I do not doubt Tim Story’s, or his writer’s, love of their source and I appreciate the fact writer Don Payne can name exactly which issues he plagiarized to help create this film. Those would be the original “Galactus Trilogy” from 1966, Fantastic Four #57-60 (December, 1966-March, 1967) and Ultimate Extinction #2, which supplies the one authentic moment in the film: Reed’s “good little nerd speech.” Delivering it to General Hagar provides Gruffudd with his only opportunity to really show off in two frickkin’ movies. For a moment, I almost caught a glimpse of what this film might’ve been in the hands of competent professionals.
Incompetents – like Tim Story, or his writers (assuming any of their stuff survived past the level of Broad Outline) – failed to realize what made each of those story arcs memorable in the first place: the fact that they were self-contained, with beginnings, middles and ends. Mashing all three together like so many Katamari objects robs them of the dramatic impact that probably inspired this shameless copycating in the first place.
Here’s a thought: how about launching these characters into a new adventure now that you’ve done the obligatory forty-years-of-continuity-into-ninety-minutes-or-less prequel (twice, now)? How about something I didn’t see twenty years ago on a Sunday morning cartoon? Because I gotta tell you: the cartoons did it better. You, on the other hand, are doing it wrong. Consistently. You should stop. Now.
I’m beginning to believe permanent brain damage is a necessary condition of employment inside Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Only those who make films aimed at slow two-year-olds need apply. A sharp blow to the head would certainly improve Rise of the Silver Surfer, for it commits a hell-worthy offense I heretofore thought impossible: it makes the Fantastic Four boring. So don’t let anyone ever tell you there are no more original sins.