Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I loathed and detested the first Fantastic Four movie. It felt like a 90 minute commercial, selling me on the idea of seeing a Fantastic Four movie, which was very silly, as I had already paid $10 to do that very thing. Like Bryan Singer's first X-Men film, Tim Story's Fantastic Four movie was all lead-in and literally nothing else. Just as the stories begin to get interesting, the thing's over.

Fortunately, Singer's X-Men series took a major leap forward with X2, a large and ambitious adventure film that massively expanded the scope of the original and took more advantage of the franchise's long history and enormous stable of characters.

Fantastic Four 2 isn't an improvement on that kind of level. A lot of the flaws from the first film remain: egregious product placement, a lazily-drawn, predictable, scattered narrative filled with logic gaps, as well as a general blandness. Story's film quite literally deals with the destruction of the entire planet, but there's never a feeling of high stakes or a moment of genuine intensity. Without hyperbole, PIXAR films uniformly have more urgency and place their characters in more directly threatening, dark situations than these Fantastic Four films. And though more of the jokes work this time out than the last, the humor is extremely corny throughout, almost as if Stan Lee himself had come out of retirement to ghostwrite some of the dialogue.

Still, having said all of that, this new film is significantly better than the first outing. I'd go so far as to say that it's better than this summer's more-anticipated Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Those films both felt like pointless and labored attempts to squeeze some more life out of their respective franchises, while the Fantastic Four universe, meanwhile, is just starting to come into its own.

The superhero genre has turned into such a dour snoozefest, I think a franchise like Fantastic Four starts to seem more appealing. Instead of taking the Raimi/Singer tack of setting fanciful, oversized comic book action in a realistic real-world setting, Story has really embraced the Marvel Universeness of the Fantastic Four's world. Admittedly, he's spared the cliched "secret identity" storyline by the comics themselves - Reed Richards and his amazing family are famous, after all - but his desire to just make a goofy live-action cartoon comes through in every frame. Whether or not it's entirely faithful to the comics, it's fun, and definitely in the spirit of the classic Fantastic Four cartoon series. On that level, I found it entertaining, and surprisingly nostalgic for a movie starring Jessica Alba.

The film opens in outer space, as a creepy space cloud named Galactus destroys a faraway planet. From admist the debris speeds a lone, silver figure atop a surfboard. His destination...EARTH!

The Surfer's arrival is poorly timed. He interrupts the wedding of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), which has already been put off several times for scientific/superheroic reasons. This conflict, whether Reed and Sue will ever get around getting married, actually takes up the bulk of the film's running time. Seriously, I swear. It's the main conflict; the stuff with the end of the world takes a backseat until the last 30 minutes.

When I said the film was scattered, I really really meant it. There's not really a logical progression of events. The Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) begins to visit random locations on Earth, digging large holes that create all kinds of destruction. The Fantastic Four try to intercept him a few times to figure out what the hell's going on, but he's too fast and/or powerful for them.

Also, contact with the Surfer gives the Human Torch (Evans) the ability to swap powers with his teammates. And a mean general (Andre Braugher) with nothing much to do in the story insists on bringing in Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, regrettably reprising his horrible performance from the first film) to help the Fantastic Four.

Bringing back Dr. Doom, the one character irredeemably botched in the first film, was just a terrible mistake. He has very little to do in this film until the end, when he steals the Silver Surfer's surfboard and flies around like an idiot and doesn't do a whole lot. This plotline actually fits the character better than his ridiculous storyline the first time around - Dr. Doom really did plot to steal the powers of heroes in the comics - but McMahon is just way too soap-opera hammy to feel threatening as Doom and the visual of him atop a flying surfboard is just silly, not cool in any way, shape or form.

The chases and fights between the Surfer and the Fantastic Four, on the other hand, come off really well in this entry. I particularly liked the initial scene, in which Johnny chases the Surfer down the Eastern seaboard. You really get a sense for the incredible speed at which the characters are flying. It's a great sequence.

So, just like after Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, I feel conflicted. Ratner and Story, unlike the top-tier comic book directors, apparently feel more free to take on large-scale, monumental, epic-scale stories and to play around with the canon a little bit. I admire the fact that their films aim high. I personally thought that all the Marvel outer space drama stuff could never really work in a movie, and that's some of the best material in Story's film. So there you go.

At the same time, these are hugely flawed films by guys who are either constrained by budget or talent. Some of Fantastic Four 2 is really good, and it's overtly bright, colorful, campy style really worked for me, against my expectations, but the finished product is still kind of disappointing. Still, I'd probably go and see a Part III, which is probably the only kind of endorsement Tim Story cares about.

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