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The Silver Surfer wipes out

by Glen Baity

After the second Saw movie, I was amazed that nearly everything these days seems to get a sequel, no matter the quality.

Well, “amazed” is probably the wrong word. Maybe “depressed.”

Fantastic Four was one of those throwaway summertime flicks nobody seemed to care for very much. Its most ardent fans, at least the ones I spoke with, said things like: “Eh, it was okay,” and, “It could’ve been worse.”

High praise, to be sure. Let’s get that “okay” movie a sequel!

Two summers later, like clockwork, one of Marvel Comics’ most enduring titles returns to theaters with the awkwardly titled Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. This time, the team has been tasked with saving the world from Galactus, a planet-eating cloud of dust that travels from galaxy to galaxy, sucking the life out of vibrant worlds and discarding the remains like chicken bones. His herald, the Silver Surfer, arrives on those planets eight days before their destruction to prepare the meal.

Here on Earth, that event coincides with the wedding of Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue “Invisible Woman” Storm (Jessica Alba), who are none too pleased when their nuptials are disrupted by the Surfer’s coming, nor are the other two of the Four, Sue’s brother Johnny, AKA the Human Torch (Chris Evans) and Benjamin “Thing” Grimm (Michael Chiklis).

Upon further investigation, the Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne, whose scant lines could’ve been swiped from The Matrix) isn’t the real villain here; he’s only doing as he’s commanded. The team, then, has to figure out how to stop an unstoppable force bent on destroying the world.

Full disclosure: Even when I was reading comics as a full-time job, I never cared much for The Fantastic Four. But I know its fans deserve better than this franchise. The second film is bad for pretty much the same reasons the first one was: The writing is cheesy, the acting is unimpressive and the characters, each and every one, are just fundamentally unlikable.

I usually don’t mark off points when a film diverges from the source material, especially when I’m not a huge fan. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to point out: Galactus isn’t a cloud of dust. He has the physical appearance of a man, but he’s gigantic (as the name implies), and one could argue he’s seminal comic artist Jack Kirby’s greatest creation. His helmet alone could crush Western Europe if its chinstrap came loose. Turning him into a giant, interstellar dust cloud is just a bad, bad move.

Of course, the film, which is full of visual excess and goofy characters (seriously, an alien on a surfboard?), for some reason draws the line at Guys with Awesome Helmets. Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), who was rendered inexplicably American in the first film, is back without his metal mask, having been cosmetically healed by the Silver Surfer’s cosmic power. Good for him, but that means his character becomes just some guy named Victor, whose superpower seems to be his underwhelming sneer.

He’s just one of a group of characters with virtually no redeeming qualities. Gruffudd’s Mr. Fantastic is a nice enough nerd, bland as he is, but he shares nearly all of his screen time with his three chatty, annoying teammates. The worst of them is the Torch, who is clearly meant to be loveable beneath his man-whore exterior, but instead comes off as oily and smarmy, with one of the most punchable faces ever to smirk all over a comic book franchise. The Thing, with his Archie Bunker grouchiness, is only slightly better, but an actor as good as Chiklis is wasted spouting lame quips from underneath those odd-looking prosthetics.

And then there’s Alba, the poor man’s Scarlett Johanssen, as wooden as ever as Sue Storm. There’s a certain strain of superstar that can be ultra-famous without ever having made a decent movie. Alba isn’t quite that bad – she was in Sin City, after all – but any good film I’ve ever seen her in has been good despite her presence, not because of it.

Only the Silver Surfer is a marginally interesting character, and it’s probably not a coincidence that he doesn’t talk much. Indeed, many of the film’s problems would be solved by better dialogue, but the non-stop corny jokes stifle everything potentially good about it, apart from one or two decent action sequences.

The first Fantastic Four was greeted with a collective shrug, and I don’t imagine this one will make the splash of a Spider-man 2 or X2: X-Men United. It’s one of those films that couldn’t exist outside the months of June or July, and I’m sure a nation in search of air conditioning will find it at least tolerable to sit through. If nothing else, it stands as a reminder that even in this era of decent comic book films, the script can still make or break a movie. It’s a lesson Fantastic Four still hasn’t grasped.

Devour Glen Baity’s world when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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