I blame Batman. Ever since he went dark in the mid-'80s with Frank Miller's take on his tortured soul, and ever since the first Batman film followed gothic suit, comic-book adaptations have shied away from the sometimes silly but always earnest, late-'50s to early-'70s Silver Age of comics. (Joel Schumacher's Batman films spectacularly failed to be both modern and Silver Age). The question most recent superhero movies ask seems to be, What would this comic story look like if it happened in the real world?
The result is a production like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The film opens perfectly: in outer space. This is the stuff of the Silver Age as we watch a planet being destroyed and a streak of alien light whipping away from it. The light is the Silver Surfer. C'mon, an alien that travels the universe on a surfboard? We're in the '60s, baby.
The Silver Surfer is the herald for the big, menacing blob of cosmic cloud that just ate the planet. The threat becomes human when it's revealed that the big cloud's next target is Earth.
But when the action returns home, with the reintroduction of the members of the Fantastic Four, the film immediately falls flat. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are set to marry and are the center of a Brangelina-worthy media fixation. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) basks in celebrity and the women it brings. It makes Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) grouchy.
The supergroup is a dysfunctional family, but what nullifies the setup is lackluster acting, infantile dialogue, a massive attack of product placement, and the miserable special-effect renderings of Reed's stretchy superpowers and Grimm's rocky exterior. Throw in returning bad actor Julian McMahon as Victor Von Doom, and FF shapes up to be one of the worst-acted ensembles in recent memory.
The only thing that saves the film is the return to Silver Surfer action. Everything with the Surfer is as good as the rest is bad. The story takes on a globetrotting scope, and the last third of the movie actually gets decent.
What finally keeps this second Fantastic Four installment from being a success, though, is its unwillingness to revel in its Silver Age roots. The story, ripped from arguably the best Fantastic Four comic arc, "The Galactus Trilogy," is missing one key element: Galactus. Reduced to that space cloud, Galactus lacks any personality, robbing the film of any of the comic's metaphysical implications. Slavish to the precedent set by Batman, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is the Silver Age refracted through the lens of modern-day cynicism and irony.
In the inevitable next sequel, the filmmakers should just go with it. Bring on the real Galactus. Bring on the Watcher. Fire everybody except the folks responsible for the Silver Surfer — and Jessica Alba's costumer.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer