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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


When I reviewed the original Fantastic Four a couple years ago, I gave it a mixed review and a 2.5 star review. As a fan of the Marvel Comics property on which it was based, my general gripe with the movie was that it wasn’t ambitious enough, especially coming on the heels of so many first-rate comic book adaptations such as the Spider-Man films, the X-Men pictures, and Batman Begins. It seemed to me that Fantastic Four was merely adequate, whereas the others had been superb. There was no visionary director like Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, or Christopher Nolan behind the camera; instead, it was Tim Story, whose previous credits were Barbershop 2: Back in Business and the dreadful Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon comedy Taxi. The movie also lacked the intense character development and thematic resonance that had elevated some of the other big-screen superhero adventures. This was the last line of that review: “We know what comic book movies are capable of being. They can have greatness in them. Fantastic Four has nothing more than okay-ness.”

Since that time, I’ve had a re-evaluation of comic book movies. It’s hard when a few of them raise the bar. Suddenly, you want all of them to clear it at the same height. We’ve been lucky enough to have a few of them that aspired to something greater than mindless entertainment. Some of them have been incredibly human and even artistic. But does that mean that there’s no room for one that simply wants to be a comic book brought to life? Must they all be two-and-a-half hour epics with deep psychological analysis of their characters and plots that reveal something about human nature? I’m certainly happy if they are, but in general, the answer is no. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a cigar can just be a cigar.

I think my attitude adjustment allowed me to better receive the sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (although, in fairness, it is marginally better than its predecessor). Here’s a movie that has all the brevity, succinctness, and charm of a good comic book. It runs only 92 minutes. It carries a new family-friendly PG rating. It draws its characters in broad-but-archetypal strokes, feeling no need to over-analyze them. Most of the criticisms I leveled at the original still apply to the sequel at some level, yet I found myself more accepting of those things this time. It was kind of nice to see a comic book movie that was just a comic book movie.

The story begins with scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) about to marry colleague Sue Storm (Jessica Alba). Their wedding is disrupted by the appearance of the Silver Surfer (played by Doug Jones in body, Lawrence Fishburne in voice). He’s been sent to Earth by a being referred to as “the Destroyer” – although fans of the comic book will know him by a much different name - to steal our natural resources. Richards figures out that the recent spate of natural disasters is being caused by the Surfer’s actions. Furthermore, he has visited other planets, and every place he goes is destroyed within a week of his appearance.

Richards gathers together “Invisible Girl” Sue, Johnny “the Human Torch” (Chris Evans), and Ben “the Thing” Grimm (Michael Chiklis), to stop the Silver Surfer from destroying the planet. They discover that his source of energy comes from his board, so if they can knock him off it, he will lose his power. However, when Sue ends up having a face-to-face with the Surfer, his motives turn out to be not as unsympathetic as they initially seem. The same cannot be said for Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), who escapes from his Latvian prison and sets out to steal the silver surfboard for himself.

In my review of the original Fantastic Four, I did manage to express some optimism amidst my griping, saying that it was “an adequate starter film” and that a sequel had the potential to improve on the things that were set up. Rise of the Silver Surfer isn’t a huge improvement, and it doesn’t even try to reinvent the wheel, but its minor upgrades here and there make a cumulative difference. For starters, there are much-improved special effects. The effects in the first one looked kind of cheap, probably because the studio was trying to keep the budget down. Since it ended up making crazy money at the box office and on DVD, FOX clearly had no problem springing for some better CGI this time around. The Silver Surfer is particularly cool, as is the new Fantastic Four plane that figures prominently in one action scene.

Also, the actors more comfortable in their roles now. They slip into an easy rhythm with each other, and we really do feel like they are a team. The shooting of the first film – as well as embarking on a global press tour to promote it – has visibly bonded the cast members, to this movie’s advantage. They are looser and funnier together, and we care about them more because of it. Whereas the Thing had the most developed subplot in the original, he’s largely relegated to comic relief this time around. Instead, the focus is on Reed and Sue, who must learn to balance their responsibility as heroes with their desire to live a “normal” life (an idea that was tackled much more in-depth in Spider-Man 2 but still has some juice left in it).

The selling point of this movie, for fans at least, is the appearance of the Silver Surfer. I found it somewhat distracting having him speak with the voice of a well-known actor like Lawrence Fishburne, but there’s little doubt that he’s an intriguing character to watch. The fact that he’s ambiguous is particularly appealing as it gives him multiple layers. The movie as a whole doesn’t explore those layers as deeply as it could have, although there is perhaps something to be said for their simplicity. We can fill in the blanks with our own mind, thereby allowing the character to maintain some of his mystery.

Like the Fantastic Four himself, the Silver Surfer could absolutely sustain a high-end comic book epic a la the Spider-Man series. That is not, however, what Marvel chose to do for this particular franchise. It’s light and loose, suitable for all ages, and with the primary directive of providing some simple comic-booky summer fun. And this time, I accept it happily on its own terms.

( out of four)

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is rated PG for sequences of action violence, some mild language and innuendo. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

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