How do you finish off a fantastic Father's Day weekend? By seeing the new Fantastic Four movie, of course!
After a busy weekend visiting the old hometown (Duluth, MN), I made it home in time to catch a showing of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The ladies graciously bowed out, so it was just Dad and The Lad seeing what the sequel had to offer.
First, some credentials.
I've collected and adored Fantastic Four comics ever since climbing aboard the Comic Book Crazy Train way back in the early 70's, and I've got every issue (in one form or another) from issue #1 through the mid-300's, plus a smattering of more recent runs.
In short, I know what the heck I'm talking
about when it comes to the Fantastic Four.
Not that knowledge to the source material is required to comprehend and enjoy the movie...in fact, it would be a crashing failure if it did.
However, the "inside baseball" insight can certainly enhance an already good adaptation when you see many of the defining elements incorporated in economic and clever ways.
From this perspective, I enjoyed the original Fantastic Four movie in 2005. They did a pretty good job of introducing the characters to the general public through good performances and better-than-expected special effects. Through it all, the movie never seemed to take itself as seriously as many superhero movies tend to, which allowed alot of the lighthearted spirit and family dynamic of the comic book to shine through.
Okay, now that the set-up's out of the way, what did a self-proclaimed Fantastic Fan think of the sequel? Well, like I did for my Spider-Man 3 review, I think I'll give my impressions of the major characters, all of which will include SPOILERS (consider yourself officially Spoiler-Warned).
Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd): Of the four, the personality of the comic book Reed Richards is often as pliable as his body, and tough to nail down. Many writers err in portraying him as simply an absent-minded space case, or a coldly logical Vulcan, forgetting the laser-focused intensity and passion of Lee and Kirby's original. Gruffudd's performance strikes just the right balance between a mildly distracted and intensely driven Mr. Fantastic, as he simultaneously monitors a cosmic conflagration while helping Sue plan their wedding. With only a hint of the graying temples that define his comic book counterpart, Gruffudd still projects the required maturity and "gravitas" the role requires...despite the inherent goofiness of his stretching powers. Oh, and I can't forget to mention the beard stubble! Whenever Reed gets really intense in the comics, he ends up with a major case of five o'clock shadow....a great little touch they incorprated into the movie. Someone knows their stuff.
Sue Storm (Jessica Alba): You know, I see Alba getting knocked left and right by other reviewers, but I don't think she did a bad job at all. Would I prefer someone a bit older? Sure. Do those blue contact lenses give Alba a vaguely spooky Children of the Damned look? Admittedly, yes. Despite those mild distractions, Alba seemed to get into the Invisible Woman role more than she did in the original. In the comic books, Sue is sort of a defacto "mother figure" (in a positive, non-creepy way), and I thought they did a good job of suggesting that here and there. I was disappointed that they (once again) made Sue lose all of her clothes, and actually felt kinda sorry for Alba for having to endure yet another cheap laugh. Her "Why does this always happen to me?" line was a good question I'd like to see the filmmakers answer. I really enjoyed the scenes of Sue using her powers, which made it clear that she's one of the most, if not the most powerful of the foursome.
Johnny Storm (Chris Evans): As one of the highlights of the first film, Evans once again pulls off a great performance as the impetuous Human Torch. Like many cocky, charismatic cads before him, Johnny learns a Valuable Lesson in humility as his brush with the Surfer scrambles his superpowers...which Evans performs with real heart. We get a sense that Johnny has finally turned a corner in his extremely long path to maturity. I noted that the female military officer Johnny was hitting on was named "Frankie Raye", who, in the comics, was one of his major romances (and eventually became another herald of Galactus).
Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis): I have to admit, I was disappointed that the filmmakers decided to use a real-life body suit for The Thing. If any character cried out for an all-CGI interpretation, it was Ben Grimm. Perhaps the unconvincing CGI Hulk from Ang Lee's famous bellyflop of a movie scared the F.F. crew away from this approach, or maybe Michael Chiklis wanted to have more of a "real" presense in the movie. Whatever the reason, I wasn't too thrilled with the smaller version of Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew. Happily, the Thing suit grew on me, especially with Chiklis' spot-on performance. Simple without being stupid, gruff without being a complete crank, the movie Thing captured much of the character's humor and disarming vulnerability.
Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon): I was surprised to learn that Dr. Doom would return in the sequel, and I certainly wasn't expecting that he would also regain his looks and get a government pardon. Thankfully, he quickly reverted back to villainous form, echoing a classic comic book tale where Doom temporarily steals the Surfer's power. I question the wisdom of including Doom at all, but minus any real presence from Galactus, I guess the film needed something the gang could fight, and Doom once again filled the bill.
Doom steals the Power Cosmic
(Fantastic Four #57, 1966)
General Hager (Andre Braugher): Playing Hollywood's 10,478th take on the stereotyped stone-faced and morally compromised military big shot (ho hum), Braugher wasn't given much to work with here. He was basically just the "Corrupt Military Machine" foil to Reed's virtuous "Noble Scientist". I think the most memorable aspect of the character was his shockingly graphic death....especially for a mere PG rating.
Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington): Like Braugher, she wasn't given much to do, which was somewhat disappointing considering Alicia's huge role in the comic book version of the Surfer's comic book debut. It was the gentle soul of Alicia, not Sue, that inspired the Surfer to challenge Galactus and ultimately save the Earth, and it would have been great for that aspect of the story to make it into the movie. With Sue now in that role, it worked just fine and accomplished the same storytelling goal, but knowing the original source material actually hindered my enjoyment in this case. A wonderful, beautiful actress just the same.
The Silver Surfer (Doug Jones & the voice of Laurence Fishburne): From the first few promotional images I'd seen of him, I've been thrilled with the "translation" of the Surfer from comic book to film. I still recall way back in the 1970's, Stan Lee had been trying to get a film version of the Surfer made, at one point breathlessly reporting that a "scientist in Australia" had figured out a way to levitate a board a few inches off the ground...which, even with our naturally lowered expectations in the 70's, didn't seem all that impressive. I'm happy Stan's low-wattage Surfer movie never got farther than that, since nearly 30 years later, I was able to enjoy a near-perfect realization of Jack Kirby's original vision of the character.
The comic book version of the character has long been "tamed" by writers (including Stan Lee) who later took him in a more philosophical, self-pitying direction, but when he first appeared in Fantastic Four #48 (1966), he was a mysterious figure who seemed both noble and a little spooky. This is exactly the vibe the movie was able to capture, as the sightings and enigmatic activities of the Surfer truly seemed beyond humanity's understanding. Even in his leaden "non-powered" state (which I suspect might have been one of the original, non-CGI options for the character), he still emanated the mythic, otherworldly grandeur of so many Kirby creations. Fishburne's voicework complemented the physical presense, giving the Surfer the proper note of "serene fatalism". I've heard rumors of a Silver Surfer spin-off movie (which the final scene certainly paves the way for), and I think it would work. That is, if they actually showed Galactus. Which brings me to....
Galactus: I was really torn on this one. On one hand, I desperately wanted to see a "real" version of Kirby's armored space-god, such as the amazing version that briefly appeared in a cinematic for the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance video game (above).
On the other hand, I understand that some comic book images don't translate particularly well to the movie screen, and the elaborate Kirby headgear of Galactus might be one of them. I don't know how it would have come across...and it seems like the filmmakers might have faced the same dilemma. As it turned out, Galactus was portrayed as a sweeping "space storm", cloaked in cosmic thunder and smoke like God in Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments. I can get behind that interpretation just fine, as it really conveyed the awesome "otherness" of Galactus, perhaps much more effectively than a 50-foot man with a bucket on his head would have. Still, old-timers like me were thrown a bone with a very brief glimpse of his distinctive comic book silhouette during his final confrontation with the Surfer (if you blinked, you probably missed it), so there's at least the possibility of the Big Guy taking on a more familiar physical form in a Surfer "prequel" (chronicling his origin story, I presume). Whether visible or not, the Galactus concept made a successful jump to the movie screen...something I really wasn't sure would work in the context of a live-action Fantastic Four film.
Some other stuff to note:
1. The Fantasticar: Though not quite as vital to the Fantastic Four as, say, the Batmobile is to Batman, the Fantasticar is still a pretty important detail to get right. While I liked the general design of the Car, what I really appreciated was how it separated into different mini-fliers, just like in the comics. Nice touch.
2. The inevitable Stan Lee cameo was great, as Stan was refused entry to Reed and Sue's building-top wedding ceremony. Some people are mightily bugged by these, but I love 'em.
3. The fun quasi-nod to The Super Skrull, one of my favorite F.F. villains. In the movie, the Surfer altered Johnny's molecules, which allowed him to spontaneously "swap" powers with his teammates. In their battle with a super-charged Dr. Doom, Johnny absorbs all of their powers, becoming a one-man Fantastic Four...an obvious visual tribute to the Super Skrull. I had hoped the Skrull would be the villain for a (possible) third movie, but I'll settle for this if they go for something else.
4. The real sense of "family" the film captured. Unlike most comic book superteams who hang out for awhile at their headquarters and then return to their "real" lives, the Fantastic Four have always lived together as a family. Like any family, they've had their ups and downs, crazy arguments and bouts of cabin fever, but at the end of the day, their devotion to each other defines their unique place in comic book history. The film did a great job of conveying that without knocking us over the head with it.
Overall, I'm rating Fantastic Four: Rise of
the Silver Surfer 4 out of 5...er...Fours.