Friday, June 15, 2007

Movie Review: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Movie Review: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
released June 15, 2007, 12:01 a.m.

The mighty Marvel movie machine has risen to the occasion of another summer blockbuster weekend, and its third offering this year, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer integrates the best and the worst elements of this year's predecessors Ghost Rider and Spider-man 3 to lob a family-friendly softball of a film into its annals. Admittedly, I'm not as intimate with Fantastic Four lore as I am with, say, Spider-man's, but I have a general understanding and appreciation for the Storms as comicdom's first officially dysfunctional super-family. Retrospectively, when Stan Lee's publisher asked him to create the next superhero team to compete with National Periodical Publications' popular Justice League over forty years ago, the idea of a super-family seems like a natural next step; any combination of heroes similar to the happenstance camaraderie of the League would've been too obviously derivitive. Further, the FF's raw domesticity is what has set their adventures apart from other team books and in fact established them as a paradigm for similarly situated franchises, i.e. The Incredibles. With such a rich legacy, director Tim Story has a tremendous responsibility to get it on screen, if not for the long-time fans' sake, then to honor Lee and Kirby's undaunted creativity.

Again, though I'm not terribly familiar with the source material, I'm apparently in the minority that enjoyed this sequel. Based on its trailer, I anticipated that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was going to be a special effects free-for-all, since its two lead characters, the Surfer and the Human Torch, were shrouded by special effects. They'd have to be, to look right. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this film's semblance of subplots, culminating in a witty, romantic, action-packed story of globe-spanning proportions. (Spoiler alert!) Simply put, Reed Richards and Sue Storm's wedding is postponed when the Silver Surfer arrives to prepare Earth for destruction at the might of Galactus, a cosmic storms that feeds off of organic energy. In cooperation with the army, the Fantastic Four paralyze the Surfer and unexpectedly reform him when their nemesis Dr. Doom briefly acquires that uber-powerful silver surfboard. Together, thanks to the Surfer-induced anomaly that enables the quartet to share their powers, the Fantastic Four defeat Doom, and the Silver Surfer destroys his would-be master and saves Earth. What do I need to know from Lee and Kirby's original incarnation of this story that would strengthen my impression of this movie?

The critical reviews of Surfer denounce the film's grasp of the core characters and most specifically condemn the choice to depict Galactus as an interstellar funnel cloud rather than the purple garbed cosmic nomad from the comics. Regarding the latter, I'm grateful for the reinterpretation. First of all, the same purists that pledge allegiance to Kirby's devourer of worlds claim that Surfer's special effects were sorely lacking, so, what would they have thought of a galactic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, plunging his fingers into the Earth for a sip of planetary sustenance? Further, in an era when global warming is the crisis du jour, why not imply that "the end is near" thanks to an interstellar storm? The Storms versus a storm . . . Is that's ironic? Eh? Eh? I did agree with a comment I read on-line about Galactus' similarities to the Star Trek Doomsday Machine, giant maw and all, but if a cloud is going to devour something, shouldn't it have a mouth? Between the Surfer as a humanoid entity and Galactus as a cosmic enigma, I thought the two represented the usual forces the Fantastic Four fight . . . oh, yeah, and Dr. Doom.

Of the characters apparently misrepresented, I thought Dr. Doom was the weakest; in the issues I've read starring the villainous Von Doom, he is a monarch of Latveria with diplomatic credibility, making his schemes more multi-faceted than your usual mad scientist's. In this case, Doom is simply in the right place at the right time, a child of good fortune gone bad, with little real credit to his genius or power. Otherwise, I don't understand the criticism about these characters' authenticity. Mr. Fantastic is a stuttering genius that develops a sense of his own leadership potential through this adventure's circumstances, and Sue Storm is his strong, yet understandably sensitive better half. Yes, perhaps Jessica Alba wasn't the best choice for Sue, since Alba's dark complexion clashes with the Invisible Woman's blond-haired, blue-eyed features, but claims of her "whining" are greatly exaggerated. How would your girlfriend feel after five failed wedding attempts? Still, Sue adapts an understanding for her betrothed's penchant for heroics. Further, aside from the Thing's brutishness, she is definitively established as the most powerful of the group, single-handedly "holding up" a crashing Ferris wheel while her Alpha male teammates stumble over each other. So, lay off Sue Storm, already! Dunst's Mary Jane Watson she ain't!

However, my favorite scenes in this film were the moments shared by the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing and his buddy, "the matchstick," Johnny Storm. After his woe-is-me subplot in the first film, I was grateful for the inclusion of Alicia Masters here, though I half-expected some tragedy to befall her before film's end. I mean, Spider-man was hardly granted a happy ending, so I braced myself for a similar fate for the hard-luck Ben Grimm. Thankfully, Alicia maintains her role as benevolent girlfriend, an endearing element that sparks (pun intended) the Torch's sense of emptiness. Between his failed love life, impulsive hot-headedness, and unapologetic thirst for fame, Johnny is perhaps the most realistic of the group -- Who among us would maintain stability in face of sudden superpowers and subsequent fame? One review claims that the Torch's angst robs him of his charisma; I call it character development. Now, put the Thing and the Torch in the same room, and you have comicdom's first official buddy movie. They bicker at each other like that in the comics, right? What's so inconguent about that?

I'm not denying that this film isn't loaded with campy baggage; in fact, I think it uses its camp to its advantage. A guy that stretches, a guy made of rock, and human torch . . . what, you expected post modern dramatic dialogue? Waiting for Galactus by Samuel Beckett? Come on! I will concede that Mr. Fantastic's emo-Spidey-like dance scene was silly, but in the context of a bachelor party, it made more sense than the influence of an evil alien symbiote; plus, it's placement in the first act of the movie was a fair warning of what the audience was getting into. Peter Parker's twist-'n-shout was a definitive web-sling over the shark, and though Reed's rug cutting amounted to little more than another superfluous SFX sequence, what should a movie about a silver guy flying a surfboard through space offer? If anything, I wish the FF's dysfunction reflected the retrospective sensibilities of The Brady Bunch Movie, asserting an oblivious tenacity to the trends of their native '60s. Again, I'll concede that Ben Grimm should never utter, "My bad." Indeed.

Finally, and most perplexingly, reviews I've read criticize the film's appeal to children, as if that's a bad thing. I know that Stan Lee's original Fantastic Four scripts were subversively adult (and even more so in Uncanny X-Men), but who else than a child could really appreciate a heroic dude on fire? I know these characters are capable of incredible depth, but, for the sake of the comics industry's vitality, we adults must loosen our grip on these icons if they are to last for future generations. Further, as I learned from Spider-man 3, I'm not entertained when my heroes cannot overcome the personal odds against them -- you know, those definitively grown-up problems like, "I thought you were cheating on me, so I sought comfort with and accidentally kissed your best friend, and since he died redeeming his brief career as a villain, I guess I'll love you again, since we're really all the other has." I'll take the apparently childlike harbinger of doom/heroes save the day shtick anytime. (Incidentally, the Fantastic Four do actually save the world. What plot in Spider-man 3 didn't focus on Peter's personal stake? Some selfless hero!)

Interestingly, the same critics that dub Surfer as a "child's movie" would've preferred Galactus as a sun-sized purple giant striding star systems for food. 'Nuff said.

Action. Adventure. Humor. Romance. Aliens. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is a definitive summer flick, a popcorn muncher with its fair share of both flash and substance, with character archetypes that respectively appeal to all types while maintaining the superhero/supervillain standard. For a meager hour and a half, Surfer accomplishes more than the extra hour's worth in Spider-man 3, in that it doesn't resort to tying up dangling threads by simply killing the characters involved. It faces its own camp and embraces a tone that suits the story, plot holes and all. Remember, even Stan Lee couldn't explain the Fantastic Four's powers other than "a bombardment of cosmic rays." That's all we needed to know then and now, and to behold a character like the Silver Surfer retain his visual and emotional integrity forty years after his inception on the page is a testament to the timelessness of these heroes. I think Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer rose to the challenge of making an impression this summer, at least with me. Let's see if it's a harbinger for similarly successful blockbusters.

Blogger's note: Review originally posted at


Hero Supreme said...

Nice review. Bring on Norrin Radd's solo outing, and Galactus as a non storm cloud.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the 'popcorn-muncher' comment about this movie. Enjoyed it very much and all the kids in attendance had me clapping right along with them with the climatic scenes on the screen. Adult maturity be hanged, it was good enjoying a super-hero movie that was serious when it needed to be and funny when called for.

Keep rising Surfer