[15 June 2007]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Superstardom brings with it responsibilities. At the start of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the now incorporated superheroes are negotiating endorsement contracts. Yes, they’re also facing planet earth’s destruction, by some black-holeishly life-sucking entity, but they have few days before that apocalypse. And so human torch Johnny (Chris Evans) arrives at FF headquarters with a new idea, a sleek new costume splatted with NASCAR-like logos: Dell, Nestles Crunch, Keebler, Nokia, Gillette, Ray-Ban. Johnny smiles proudly. Ben, also known as the Thing (Michael Chiklis), groans. Aw, that Johnny.
In fact, as Johnny proposes, the commercial enterprising will help subsidize stretchy-man Reed’s (Ioan Gruffudd) incessant “little inventions.” And by the looks of it, the group needs even more immediate cash outlay, as he’s scheduled to marry Sue (Jessica Alba), whose obsessive focus on their tabloid-headlined nuptials during the film’s first 20 minutes is downright aggravating. Blond and scarily bright-blue-eyed, she’s a terror on the details, pressing Reed to give up all else—including that impending world’s destruction, in order that he prove his devotion to her, her, her, by picking place settings. As if her world-renowned status as the Invisible Woman were not sign enough of the franchise’s misogyny, Sue again displays the most boring superpower in comic book movie history (see: her laughable force-fielding pose), and longs for a “normal life,” with his-and-her jobs in the burbs and time to “raise kids.”
She voices her concerns repeatedly—to Reed, certainly, but also to Ben’s girl Alicia (Kerry Washington), who serves here as a kind of zen bridesmaid, soothing Sue, bolstering Ben’s eternally bruised ego, and training up ever-adolescent Johnny in the ways of adult interaction. None of Alicia’s scenes quite makes sense in the film’s general thrust—that is, toward the Four’s encounter with the Silver Surfer. Her frequently dispensed wisdom does showcase the team’s childish bickering, in case you forget at any point that they are a dysfunctional family.
In fact, the Surfer serves a similar function. Literally zipping through the sky on a silver surfboard, he brings with him cataclysmic climate changes, delivering snow and ice unto tourists photographing the Sphinx, freezing solid Japan’s Suruga Bay, and sucking dry the Thames (leaving behind a humongous digital crater and devastation while traffic continues to pass over the bridge). While scientists are probably worried and tracking these alarming developments, the movie focuses on two responses: Fox News reports on “extraordinary climatic events” that scientists insist are “not caused by global warming” (reports immediately superseded by updates on the supercouple’s upcoming event) and the arrival of grim-faced General Hager (Andre Braugher) at Reed’s lab.
The General notes more than once the team’s bad behavior (“What the hell is wrong with you people?”), but he also needs Reed’s help to discover the cause of the climate zooiness. Apparently, saving the world is a guy thing, for though Reed insists to the General that he doesn’t have time to help because he has a wedding to plan, he secretly does his duty anyway, and depends on Ben and Johnny’s manly collusion to keep his secret. (This after they’ve thrown him a supposedly covert bachelor party, where Reed demonstrates his elastic arms for a couple of enthusiastic “hot” babes, deploying digital effects that are, in a word, pathetic.) By the time the Surfer crashes the actual wedding ceremony, Sue is quite beside herself, left crying amid wrecked bunting and trashed hors d’oeuvres, while the men gather themselves to, uh, save the planet.
Sue does salvage some measure of dignity once she dons her costume and undertakes the actual mission. That is, she plays the girl’s part, empathizing with their target and trying to learn his name even as the military sets up for a full-on assault and extreme rendition. The Surfer’s story is increasingly complicated (he’s got a home planet and a much-missed “beloved,” he works for some life-force-feeding, planet-destroying entity called Galactus), but it’s plainly secondary for the Four, who need to learn to appreciate their teamness once and for all. In part this education process is jumpstarted by Johnny’s convenient affliction, when an encounter with the Surfer leaves him able to switch powers with his cohorts by touching them. Thus the Surfer becomes a life-changing teacher of sorts, though Johnny’s absorption of any specific lesson is left to your imagination (or maybe, heaven forfend, yet another film in this exceedingly feeble franchise).
What Rise of the Silver Surfer does make explicit is the US government’s propensity to abuse what it doesn’t understand or know; the fact that Hager pairs up with the resurrected Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) is surely a clue that something is wrong with the mission. Hager locks up the Four in one chamber and the Surfer in another, the latter with the exceedingly squirrelly civilian Mr. Sherman (Zach Grenier), who brings along a giant needle and set of chest-zapping electrodes. Separated from his super-powered surfboard and strapped onto a platform, the Surfer convulses with pain on each electric jolt.
Watching from down the hall, the Four ponder their errors in judgment: how could they not have seen that the Army was going to be so unfair and willfully ignorant? Suddenly the Surfer, erstwhile intergalactic villain, is made into a Guantánamo-like victim. The image gives brief pause, suggesting that distraction by trivial, tabloidy celebrity events allows terrible injustice to prevail. Not to worry though: the Four provide plenty more distraction.