Well, first, a confession: I'm not a fan of Jack Kirby, the artist who collaborated with Stan Lee to produce the Fantastic Four comic, the self-described "World's Greatest Comic Magazine!!" In some circles, this is considered blasphemy. I find Kirby's work good in the macro--he knew how to design a page to draw the eye--but cringe-inducing in the micro--he had very creative ways to convey human anatomy, for which he is given a pass from the folks who usually complain about those things.* He would occasionally hit on a good idea, but usually the stuff he created was really "out there," if not downright juvenile. For every "Silver Surfer," (which is a pretty silly concept, let's face it, though it "worked."), there was his Apokolips Figure of Death, "The Black Racer," who was an armored black guy...on skis. The guy flew through the air...on skis...with poles...and would appear right before you died. If I was dying, I'd could buy my life passing before my eyes, or a winged angel, or Neil Gaiman's little Goth-girl. But, a flying guy on skis? Pretty stupid. At least I'd get a good laugh before I kicked the bucket.
But I was a big fan of the old Hanna-Barbera "Fantastic Four" cartoon in the 60's, so I've always been a little nostalgic (which means, I look at it with blinders on) for the FF, no matter how wide Kirby drew their fore-heads. I didn't see the first FF movie because the trailer looked atrociously cheesey. I just didn't bother. I figured I'd catch up with it on video (which I never did). But I did want to see "The Rise of the Silver Surfer," because if its one thing those early Fantastic Four stories did well, they produced a truly imaginative cosmic scope. I wanted to see how it re-produced on the Big Screen.
The answer: not bad. When FF2:TROTSS (what an unfortunate acronym!) concentrates on the heinous exploits of The Silver Surfer--the name says all you need to know, and as you might guess, he talks profoundly as if he was preaching Shakespeare--and the approach of its Master, the planet-consuming Galactus, it does a fine job, recreating that iconic Marvel sense of "I don't know what it IS, but it sure is BIG!" In fact, the climactic battle for this film is more focussed and a considerably better set-piece than the Big Events of the latest Superman, Batman, X-men and Spiderman films, which all tended to over-complicate things and fall apart at the end. There are shots that stay with you, like the one where The Surfer parts trees in a forest, and is, suddenly appears, incongruously non-organic in the natural setting. The Galactus-like shadow passing over and disrupting the rings of Saturn.
Where the thing (not "The Thing") falls flat is in the other 90% of the movie, and a lot of it is just inexplicable. The acting is...troubling. Andre Braugher's in this, and he commands the screen by holding back, while everybody else is busy flailing. Michael Chiklis' "Thing"/Ben Grimm is terrific, but the considerable make-up work doesn't suggest rock so much as the cracked surface of a chocolate cookie. I expected to hate Chris Evan's Johnny Storm, aka "The Human Torch," but I found the actor's take on the character fun and his portrayal of it very assured (and Johnny has the dramatic character arc in this one). But who told Julian McMahon that arch-villain Dr. Doom should be portrayed like an ineffectual Euro-trash fashion designer? And with all the blonde actresses in the world, whose bright idea was it to cast Jessica Alba who 1) can't act--her best scenes in this are when she's...unconscious--and 2) isn't remotely someone who could pass for a) blonde, or b) Johnny Storm's sister. And Ioan Gruffud just doesn't have the gravitas needed to pull off the role of uber-genius Reed Richards (he has hair problems, too--the grey at his temples comes and goes) and, if anything, he suggests the bland heroes that inhabited the Gerry Anderson puppet shows.
Director Tim Story keeps everything brightly lit, and it hums along editorially, but there are lots of things that just make ya wince--the usual Soap Opera, Marvel-style, here represented by Reed and Sue's difficulties dealing with fame and a celebrity wedding, an inexplicable and underdeveloped "Wedding Bells are Breakin' Up that Old Gang o' Mine" dead-end that makes a Big Unintended Statement against Diversity before it's abandoned, and another dance routine with Mr. Fantastic dancing his own version of the Funky Chicken, or is that the Rubber Chicken (Story does give him a wierdly apt Gene Kelly "Gotta Dance!" moment).
And, again, too much with the Stan Lee cameo! For any future Marvel movie, can we just give him a sign to hang around his neck that says "I USED TO BE STAN LEE," and place him randomly in crowd scenes? I think that would be more effective than stopping the movie cold so we can have an uniterrupted scene of Stan.
So, bad movie...with some good aspects to it. But if there's an FF3, they need to go back to the casting stage if there's going to be any improvement.
"Fantastic Four 2: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" is a cheap rental.
* I remember reading a letter in some comics magazine written by Bill Mumy (as "Billy" Mumy, he played Will Robinson on "Lost in Space"). He was responding to an interview with Carmine Infantino, who was editor-in-chief at DC when Kirby was working there, and Infantino had some critical things to say about Kirby's work, to which Mr. Mumy took great umbrage, and declared that he was going to have to re-evaluate Infantino's own artwork, given his words regarding "The King." I would say that my opinion of Mr. Mumy's work might have been influenced by his letter, but it wasn't--I've always thought he was a talentless hack.