I'm proud to say that I was one of the few movie critics who responded favorably to Fantastic Four, 2005's long-awaited big-screen debut of the superhero gang that put Marvel Comics on the map back in the early '60s. It wasn't a masterpiece or anything, but after enduring what seemed like several hours of birth labor in Batman Begins, I was primed for a comic-book movie that didn't take itself so seriously. "Clumsy, cheesy, chintzy," Owen Gleiberman called it in Entertainment Weekly. Well, I wouldn't go that far, but there was definitely a looseness there. And the art design, as I said at the time, seemed straight off the shelf. And the villain, Victor Von Doom, wasn't very villainous. And the story didn't really go anywhere. But dammit, the movie was enjoyable to watch. And other people must have thought so too, because it raked in $330 million worldwide.
Two years later, Batman and Superman seem as mopey as ever, and even Marvel's Spider-Man has become encased in his own web of doubt and despair. So it's nice to check in with a dream team that, instead of treating their personal problems like the end of the world, treats the end of the world as their personal problem. They still bear an uncanny resemblance to the Invisibles, what with their combined speed, power, elasticity and invisibility, but that's only because the Invisibles stole/borrowed heavily from the Fantastic Four when putting together their superpowers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby got there first, and one thing they never lost sight of was the sheer delight of being superhuman. When you're known as the Human Torch, you never have to worry about losing your cigarette lighter, for instance. And elasticity must surely have its uses.
Speaking of which, Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) and Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba) are headed down the aisle in the opening scenes of Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer. They've been here before, of course, but something always comes up. This time, it's a visit from Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds, a sort of cosmic force that moves through the universe, engulfing planets and extracting the nutrients, then spitting out the rest, like a cherry pit. Too busy eating to look for its next meal, Galactus uses the Silver Surfer as its intergalactic calling card. And the Silver Surfer, depending on your perspective, is either the coolest superhero-comic character of all time or a blatant attempt on Lee and Kirby's part to cash in on the '60s surfing craze. Perhaps both. Anyway, he has an undeniable presence, like Brad Pitt dipped in mercury. And he's, if anything, too powerful.
Ideally, we would receive, at the beginning of every superhero movie, a list of the various powers and where they fit in the rock-paper-scissors scheme of things. Without that, we can only, uh, marvel at the Silver Surfer's ability to manipulate matter to his own ends. He can move mountains, blow them to bits or pass effortlessly through them. And he can hang ten like nobody's business. Director Tim Story doesn't make the mistake of playing the Silver Surfer for laughs, but a little more character development might not have hurt. Still, it's nothing if not effective when he leans forward on his silver surfboard and, in the silver-tongued voice of Laurence Fishburne, says, "All that you know is at an end." Why Galactus would feel the need to tell us that in advance is anybody's guess, but it sends the Fantastic Four, who'd been experiencing some family squabbles, into action.
I still get a kick out of the Thing (Michael Chiklis), who throws his weight around with a kind of resigned esprit. ("My lips are sealed," he says when asked to keep a secret. "That is, they would be if I had any.") And the Human Torch (Chris Evans) still has a way with the ladies, although being literally on fire with desire is starting to take a toll. But Alba, as Invisible Woman, is still relying on her comic-book curves and roasted-marshmallow tan to get her through her scenes. The scriptwriters, Don Payne and Mark Frost, have beefed up her role in an attempt to equalize the sexes a bit, and if she were Angelina Jolie, who has some comic-book curves of her own but also some acting chops, it might have worked. As for Alba, her line readings are so clunky you start to suspect a parody. She'd have to be awfully good to come across this bad, though.
Gruffudd, now a bit of a heartthrob for the PBS set, thanks to Amazing Grace, also has trouble finding the right frequency. He plays it a little too straight, although the script doesn't give him many other ways to play it. But why can't Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman cut loose a little? One shudders to think how his elasticity might play out on their wedding night, should they ever have one. But it's the Thing who's made the butt of jokes about getting his rocks off. And that's what we love about the Fantastic Four, their all-too-human impulses and foibles. Other superheroes use their powers as a force for good. These guys also use theirs to, say, do their laundry, like Samantha on Bewitched. Early on in the movie, they're forced to fly coach on a commercial airliner, and when nobody's looking Mr. Fantastic reaches all the way across the aisle to claim an overhead baggage compartment.
More of that, please, and less of Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon from Nip/Tuck), who literally returns from the dead to gum up the works as the Fantastic Four prepare to do battle with the Devourer of Worlds. Story has given Von Doom a hooded cloak à la the guy who ran the Evil Empire in Star Wars, but evil isn't McMahon's strong suit, sleaze is. Unfortunately, that whole love-triangle thing with Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman has been dropped, so there's nothing to ooze sleaze over. Instead, there's only Armageddon, coming on fast. Story doesn't really try to summon up any majestic grandeur while the world as we know it is going down the tubes, and that's still the series' saving grace. It's out to have a good time. And with summer bearing down on me, so am I.