DVD Review: Silver Sequel

by
F4: Rise of the Silver Surfer
The Power Cosmic Edition

Directed by Tim Story
20th Century Fox – MSRP: $34.98

I’M JUST GOING TO COME RIGHT OUT AND ADMIT that I liked both of the recent Fantastic Four movies. I harbor no illusions that either is a great film or as good an FF adaptation as could have been made, but they’ve been fun and have, especially in the sequel, nicely captured the feel of their comic book counterparts. By and large the sequels in each modern Marvel franchise have been better than the first tries, probably because, unlike the originals, they haven’t been in development for decades, and Rise of the Silver Surfer is no exception.

Rise makes several improvements over the first film. The action scenes are more exciting and benefit from giving the Four more to do than simply cleaning up their own messes, about all they did in the original. Mercifully absent this time are the Extreme Sports sequences, which seemed to be in the first film simply as an effort to increase the number of action scenes without having to figure out how they related to the plot. And, most importantly, the actors work better this time. In particular, Ioan Gruffud as Reed Richards and Jessica Alba as Sue Storm seem more comfortable in their roles on the second outing (Chris Evans’ Johnny and Michael Chiklis’ Ben already worked quite well in the first film). All four main actors have good chemistry with each other, really feeling like a family unit this time around. Alba and Evans especially have some nice scenes together, and the team of Evans and Chiklis is always fun to watch.

The story takes place an indeterminate amount of time after the original, but it’s clearly not right away. In Rise, the team is experienced in the superhero work of averting disasters and is a worldwide phenomenon, creating something closer to the status quo of the comic book. This is a good decision, as it removes the need to show the team come into its own. In a film series, where a new installment arrives every two years at best, you want to see the characters already established so that the story can get going.

In this case, the story is the most famous of the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby FF adventures, the arrival of the Silver Surfer on earth to prepare the planet for the coming of Galactus. This is combined with subplots involving Johnny’s contact with the Surfer causing him to switch powers with his teammates, and the return or Dr. Doom and his plan to steal the Surfer’s board. Some of these elements, and a lot of the comedy relief, are silly, but they feel very true to the tone of the 1960s comics. In fact, with the probable exception of Spider-Man 2, Rise of the Silver Surfer comes closest of any of the recent Marvel movies to capturing the feel of Stan Lee’s ’60s style. Stan’s cameo in the film actually comes directly from Fantastic Four Annual #3 (it’s just too bad Kirby didn’t live long enough to be involved).

Other details, like the inclusion of Frankie Raye (here a captain in the Army) are thrown in for FF fans. Oddly, as much as the filmmakers trust the audience to accept and go along with some of the more out-there elements, there are still some trust issues. We’re asked to accept Doom flying around on the Surfer’s board, but the movie can’t bring itself to call him “Doom,” which would apparently be too silly. Instead, the main characters call him “Victor” (interestingly enough, he’s called “Doom” throughout the discs’ special features).

I enjoyed that the filmmakers opened up the story by having the Surfer make landfall in Nepal, before traveling the whole world––portions of the film take place in London and Siberia, and the finale is in Shanghai––and gave an organic reason for him to appear above the Baxter Building when he does. The Surfer himself looks great and Laurence Fishburne, as his voice, lends him appropriate gravitas without making him too cold. Julian MacMahon’s Doom is nicely integrated into the film, both in his manipulation of the military and his ultimate plan to steal the Surfer’s power (another Stan and Jack plot), giving him plenty to do rather than repeating the mistakes of Superman II’s useless Luthor. He’s more the familiar comic book Doom this time around; his businessman front from the first film is not missed, but his embitterment from having lost it nicely drives his character. As for Galactus, I would have preferred seeing him over the cloud version that is in the film, but I appreciate the hints at his true nature sprinkled throughout the film, first when his shadow is shown against Saturn and later when his outline can clearly be seen during his fight with the Surfer.

Tim Story’s direction is workmanlike, never bringing in anything very complex or innovative, or rising far above what is necessary, but advancing the plot and introducing some clever visuals. What Story brings is an enthusiasm for the material and an understanding of the appropriate tone for it. Where the movie starts to fall down, as in the original, is the screenplay, this time by Don Payne and Mark Frost. The plot is sturdy enough and some of the gags hit, but others fail because the dialogue isn’t quite polished enough, which also hurts the more serious scenes. There are a few too many screenwriting shortcuts, like the Surfer telling Sue that he’s helped her because she reminds him of his beloved back on his homeworld. This is a fairly cheap method of establishing a connection between them when Sue’s compassion alone should have done the job. One annoying detail is a Fox staple: the tightly enforced synergy of News Corp. properties. Shots of newspapers and televisions carefully frame the New York Post and Fox logos. There is also some intrusive product placement.

Payne and Frost also seem not to have spent enough time working out their themes; they can’t decide if Johnny’s character arc needs him to overcome a crisis of confidence or if he needs to learn teamwork. They come closer to resolving the former, though of the two it seems less in keeping with Johnny’s character. More time is spent establishing that he needs to learn to work with the team. However, the finale involves him taking on Doom by himself, hardly a fitting end to a teamwork theme. Better served are Sue’s concerns about having a normal life, Ben’s growing relationship with Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington), and the tensions between Reed’s roles as scientist and celebrity.

As for the rest of the DVD, the special features add some insight into the film, but are less essential than those included on the 2-disc edition of the original Fantastic Four. In keeping with his directorial style, Tim Story’s audio commentary is mostly concerned with practical matters, such as scheduling, money and studio pressure. It becomes more interesting when he talks about the genesis of particular plot points and visual ideas, and expounds on things like his interpretation of Galactus’ appearance (the ambiguity apparently exists to leave wiggle room for the director of the Silver Surfer movie). He refers frequently to the comics, though he occasionally seems to mix up the original and Ultimate versions.

The other commentary has less to offer. Don Payne’s comments don’t add much, while producer Avi Arad’s seem generally irrelevant, sometimes contradicting what’s happening on the screen, and the two editors are most interesting for the fact that they don’t seem to like the movie very much. The “making of” featurettes are really great if you love location scouting and production meetings, though the special effects segments hold some interest.

There are fewer deleted scenes than Story refers to in his commentary, but a few of those that are there are worth checking out. Most come from toward the beginning of the film and reveal an editorial effort to get the plot under way quickly. My favorite involved the Fantastic Four Store, which I felt was a nice touch, but which, like most of the others, was cut for time (the scene really has two parts; I suspect that the first could have been salvaged without hurting the flow of the first act, but oh well). The uncut credit sequence is an odd inclusion, which seems to be there to fill out the deleted scenes runtime. The cut I’m most glad was made is a “montage” (a generous designation: it’s really just two insubstantial scenes inter-cut with each other, followed by a third) of Johnny and Ben doing unfunny things in preparation for Reed and Sue’s wedding.

A documentary on the Silver Surfer is interesting as long as Stan Lee is on screen talking about his and Jack Kirby’s work on the Surfer in Fantastic Four and Stan’s original Surfer series, but later writers like Jim Starlin and Ron Marz are too vague in discussing their takes on the Surfer and lack Stan’s charisma. The documentary misses an opportunity by mentioning the Surfer’s pop culture significance, but not going into much detail. A companion documentary on Galactus, from original to Ultimate to film versions would have been great and is sorely missed (maybe on the DVD of the eventual Surfer movie).

I enjoyed Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer; it’s a fun film and an improvement upon the original. However, a lot of the good historical material was covered on the 2-disc edition of the first Fantastic Four and the “making of” material is fairly average. Most people would probably do just fine with the cheaper single-disc edition, which features only the movie and Story’s commentary.


PS: The director and writer currently rumored to be attached to 2009’s Silver Surfer are Alex Proyas (director of Dark City, a personal favorite, so that’s a good sign) and J. Michael Straczynski (less exciting).

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