Surf Bored: On Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

In Uncategorized on June 18, 2007 at 1:30 am

[Spoilers Ahead]

I was hoping for “refreshing, weightless, and cheerfully dumb.” What I got was “a plotless, brainless, witless bore.”

I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. With the exception of Batman Begins and V for Vendetta (both flawed but in a different league than the rest), Hollywood has had trouble making aesthetically coherent, genuinely enjoyable superhero films with first-rank comics properties lately. Like the X-Men films, the Spider-Man trilogy started strong but stumbled with the histrionic weepathon, Spider-Man 3. Meanwhile, the equally grandiose Superman Returns collapsed under the weight of its own ponderousness and narrative bloat. Ghost Rider was a passable distraction, but only because it aimed so low.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer joins this distinguished company of creative misfires, but for different reasons. Spider-Man 3 and Superman Returns both fell short of lofty ambitions for pulp transcendence by taking themselves way too seriously. No such accusation could be levelled at FF2, a movie that reduces Ben Grimm’s existential angst to body humour. The occasionally charming imbecility of the first movie was supposed to have been the second film’s biggest strength. After the tedious self-importance of Superman Returns and the bathos of Spider-Man 3, how nice it would have been to see a dumb, good-natured, competently-executed comic book romp. Ghost Rider, but bigger and brighter.

FF2 doesn’t deliver on even this minimal promise, however. Not simply because half the main players (Alba’s Susan Storm, Chiklis’s Thing, McMahon’s Doom) are unbearable, but because the film’s script aims both too low and, in a curious way, too high.

The “too low” is easy to account for. This consists of the reduction of the already slim characterizations from the first movie to entirely one-dimensional cartoons, the film’s tireless cataloging of the Thing’s bodily functions, and Johnny’s dick jokes. When did the Hollywood suits decide that this was the only way to make a commercially successful all-ages film? Has everyone forgotten that kids will rise to the level of the material as readily as they’ll sink to it? George Lucas knew that–“once upon a time…”

The “too high” is relative to the “too low.” The one good thing about the film (though not enough to redeem it) is the Silver Surfer, who seems to have sailed straight out of the tip of Jack Kriby’s pen and onto the silver screen. The anguished cosmic slave takes over Ben’s traditional role of eternal sufferer, embodying exactly the kind of nobility and gravitas that one might have hoped to see in the translation of this character from comic to film. Unfortunately for the film, the Silver Surfer’s movingly visualized tragic plight seems to belong in a completely different movie than the one we are watching–that is, a movie for grownups and children with IQs higher than a pretzel’s.

The incoherent tone produced by the contrast between the Surfer and the FF themselves is evident throughout, but is particularly glaring at the climax of the visually stunning chase between Johnny and the Surfer when, just before being flung back into the earth’s atmosphere by the emotionally remote, god-like Silver Surfer, Johnny gets off some moronic wise crack that undercuts the awesomeness of the moment. The later scene in which the Invisible Woman first converses with the Surfer illustrates a related problem: the CGI’d Surfer appears to have more emotional depth and to be more convincingly human than shallow, doe-eyed Susan Storm (who is for some reason written as a selfish, shrewish ditz, leaving Alba once again with the most thankless role in the film).

Needless to say, I have a fair degree of ambivalence about the film’s tone. Part of me would be quite happy with a witty, well-crafted adventure pic, something like a super-powered version of the bubbly, ticklish Ocean’s 13 that I enjoyed the night before. But another part–the shameless geek who still pointlessly yearns for a truly great FF movie–sees reflected in the Silver Surfer’s gleaming form an image of what might have been, and starts to feel decidedly pissy.

Clearly, a “great” FF film isn’t in the cards and was never part of the mandate for the sequel, so at best I’m left hoping for the amusing romp. And this is where things get really irritating, because the writers of the film seem perversely intent on withholding even the consolation prize of a half-decent B-movie. How else to explain the script’s self-sabotaging impulse to curtail the sprightliness that was its only real hope for conjuring a bit of summer afternoon fun.

What is FF2 about? What’s its theme? Forget about Sue and Reed’s wedding shenanigans–this one’s all about educating Johnny, the only truly puckish one of the lot. Or at least, he was, until the Surfer showed up, scrambled his powers, and tutored him on responsibility and humorlessness.

The pedagocial subtext of the opening air-battle between the Torch and the Surfer is not immediately obvious, but acquires its symbolic meaning retrospectively, at the end of the film when our favorite “narcissist” (as Frankie Raye calls Johnny) soberly takes on the responsibility of saving the earth because he realizes “some things aren’t all about me.” This goofball epiphany about selflessness and sacrifice is, of course, the lesson of the Silver Surfer’s own tragic existence: he serves Galactus to save his planet and the woman he loves. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself to save the earth as well, anticipating and outdoing Johnny’s own transformation from horndog to savior.

Thus, in that earlier air-battle between Torch and the Surfer, Johnny trails behind the quasi-angelic Surfer, both literally and morally. That battle concludes with the Surfer extinguishing Johnny’s flame and throwing him back to earth–just as his example will later provide the model for the symbolic extinguishing of Johnny’s “narcissism” when he is brought “down to earth” by the impending destruction of the planet and the apparent death of his sister. It is of course Johnny who gives the Surfer’s board a final boost as the Surfer plunges into Galactus and destroys it in a sort of glorious cosmic crucifixion. Susan’s parallel, but more minor, transformation from sullen bridezilla to can-do superwife is similarly informed by the Surfer’s example (she reminds the herald of his beloved–why? because she’s a woman?).

This would all be fine if the film had enough gravity to convince us that it was sincere about its moral fable. But the movie’s indifference to its own moral is palpable, and the moralizing merely bogs the film down. Really, who wants to see the Human Torch mend his ways, anyway? Did we pay our two bits for “hugging and learning”? Is the domestication of the film’s only remotely amusing character really a good idea in a series that is already painfully short on the fun it promises to deliver?


Fortunately, FF fans have other options this summer. Despite the destruction of Reed Richards in Civil War, Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier, and Rick Magyar’s The New Fantastic Four is an absolute blast–and it looks sensational to boot. Its just-wrapped Glactus/Silver Surfer three-parter was infinitely more entertaining than the film version. I wasn’t sure about Storm and Black Panther replacing Reed and Sue at first, but the shift does liven things up, and Pelletier drawns a mean Black Panther. In fact, the quirky new team is just one other detail that harkens back to the glory days when Steve Englehart, Keith Pollard, and Joe Sinnott presided over the odd but wonderful FF team of Thing, Ms. Marvel, Torch, and Crystal, telling cosmic adventure stories with a classic look and feel. Their work really reignited my enthusiasm for the FF back then; perhaps McDuffie and Pelletier can pull off a similar renaissance for the title today.

As for the movies? I give up.


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