4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“All that you know is at an end” — Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

While it was far from a critical success, and while the fan community seemed pretty divided on it (a common refrain was that Brad Bird had already done a better Fantastic Four movie with Pixar’s The Incredibles), Fantastic Four made a pretty penny in 2005, riding the new wave of Marvel films suddenly seemed to be all over the filmic landscape.

Green-lighting a sequel seemed a no-brainer, and so they brought most everyone back two years later, and decided to adapt one of the most iconic Fantastic Four comics stories ever: the coming of Galactus.

During their lengthy run on Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created many brilliant stories and introduced many amazing characters: villains like Dr. Doom, the Mole Man, Rama-Tut, Annihilus, the Puppet Master, and the Skrulls, plus nicer characters like Wyatt Wingfoot, the Black Panther, Alicia Masters, the Watcher, and the Inhumans.

But one of the biggest villains was Galactus, introduced in the lead-up to the landmark 50th issue of Fantastic Four in 1966. A creature as old as the universe itself, Galactus travels throughout the cosmos consuming the energy of whole planets for sustenance—and should that world be inhabited, so be it. (This was part of a particularly strong run that was preceded by an Inhumans story that ended with the Torch being brutally separated from his lady love Crystal and also introducing the Wingfoot character, and followed by the classic “This Man, This Monster,” as a scientist switches places with the Thing to get revenge on Mr. Fantastic, only to realize that the man he hates and is jealous of is truly a hero, and sacrifices his life to save him; and also the introduction of the Black Panther.)

Galactus has a herald, the Silver Surfer, who seeks out worlds for Galactus to consume. In the original storyline, the Watcher tries (and fails) to hide Earth from Galactus. The Fantastic Four do battle with the Silver Surfer, who winds up befriending Masters (the Thing’s girlfriend) and is convinced by her to plead with Galactus to save the Earth.

In the end, thanks to the FF’s resistance, the Watcher’s sending the Human Torch to retrieve an ultimate weapon, and the Surfer’s rebellion, Galactus is driven off, the first time he’s been denied a world. He punishes the Surfer by trapping him on Earth, which would remain the character’s status quo until the debut of his second solo monthly title in 1987, when he was finally freed from his imprisonment on our world.

In 2000, Marvel started their “Ultimate” line of books, with new versions of all their classic characters. The idea was to provide new stories for their iconic characters without forty years of continuity baggage. It was, in this reviewer’s opinion, a bad idea—why have two competing versions of the same characters?—but there were some good stuff in there. (Among other things, the Ultimate line gave us the Miles Morales Spider-Man and the African-American Nick Fury.) Ultimate Fantastic Four did a particularly radical new take on the FF, and the Ultimate universe also had its own version of the world-devourer, this one called Gah Lak Tus, and it was a hive mind of robotic drones that consumed worlds.

It was this version that the screenwriters used as inspiration as much as the original 1966 story, as Galactus was written here more as a force of nature than as a fifty-foot-tall white guy with a purple W on his helmet.

In addition to bringing back Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis as the titular foursome, as well as Julian McMahon as von Doom and Kerry Washington as Masters, this sequel brings in the great Andre Braugher as a new character, General Hager, as well as Beau Garrett and Vanessa Minnillo as, respectively, Frankie Raye and Julie Angel, both based on FF supporting characters. (Raye, here a captain in the U.S. Army, was a girlfriend of the Human Torch’s who wound up becoming a herald of Galactus in the comics.) Doug Jones plays the Silver Surfer but, for the second time in this rewatch, his character is voiced by someone more famous—in Hellboy it was David Hyde-Pierce, and here it’s Laurence Fishburne.

 

“I like the part where he knocks you on your ass”

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Written by John Turman and Mark Frost and Don Payne
Directed by Tim Story
Produced by Avi Arad and Bernd Eichinger and Ralph Winter
Original release date: June 15, 2007

We see a world being completely destroyed—and a silver streak leaving the scene of destruction. That streak arrives on Earth, causing a river in Japan to freeze, a power outage in Los Angeles, and snow in Egypt.

On Earth, Reed and Sue are planning their wedding—for the fourth time, as each previous attempt was interrupted by a need to do something superheroic. Plans are not aided by Reed being regularly distracted by work. Johnny drags him and Ben to a club for a bachelor party, which is interrupted by the arrival of General Hager. (Sue arrives with Hager and his staff just as he’s dancing with two beautiful women, making good use of his stretching abilities. Sue pretends to be mad in front of everyone, but later privately admits to being glad he’s having fun.) Hager and Reed have history: Reed testified before Congress that Hager’s proposed missile defense system wouldn’t work.

Hager doesn’t want to approach Reed now, but he’s been ordered to. What the general public doesn’t know is that, besides the odd occurrences mentioned above, there are also gigunda sinkholes showing up at various points around the world. Hager needs Reed to build a scanner to detect this creature. Reed, however, refuses, as he has a wedding to plan. Sue is very pleased that he’s finally prioritizing their relationship.

Except he isn’t—he’s still building the scanner for Hager on the sly, and finishes it right before the wedding. Said nuptials take place on a rooftop in New York, with tons of guests, Johnny trying to monetize the wedding, including auctioning memorabilia, and also Stan Lee trying to get in but being turned away by an usher who doesn’t believe that it’s really him. (This may be the only Stan Lee cameo in which he actually plays himself…)

Unfortunately, the scanner goes online and detects that the entity is heading straight for the wedding. It causes a massive power failure all over New York, regardless of the item’s power source—it includes a drill being used by a ConEd worker and the paparazzi helicopter flying over the wedding. Reed, Sue, and Ben manage to save folks from being killed by the crashing helicopter while Reed sends Johnny after the entity.

Said entity turns out to be a silver humanoid on a silver surfboard. Johnny chases him all the way from New York to Washington D.C., and the Silver Surfer finally grabs Johnny by the throat and brings him into the stratosphere, where there isn’t enough air for him to maintain his flame. He plummets to the Earth and manages to flame on long enough for a barely controlled landing somewhere in the Middle East.

Johnny gets back to New York, er, somehow and reports to the rest of the team and Hager. The Surfer destroyed the scanner, apparently having recognized it for what it is. Hager directs Reed to build another.

At one point, the Surfer flies over Latveria, and his proximity causes von Doom to awaken within his frozen armor. He is cut out of it, and he covers his ruined body in a cloak and tracks the Surfer to the Russell Glacier. He proposes an alliance, but the Surfer just blasts him. The blast hurts von Doom temporarily, but also restores his physical form to its old self.

Proximity to the Surfer doesn’t just affect von Doom, though—every time Johnny touches one of the other team members he switches powers with them. It happens accidentally with Sue, and then Ben touches him on purpose so he can be human again, however temporarily. Sue is also worried about how they don’t have normal lives, and how can they hope to raise a family when they’re superheroes? Reed proposes that after this crisis and they’re married, they go off somewhere away from New York, stop being heroes and raise a family.

Johnny overhears this and shares it with Ben. Neither is particularly happy about the idea.

Reed figures out the pattern of the sinkholes and determines that the next will be right in the middle of the Thames near the London Eye. The Surfer arrives and makes the hole—which drains the Thames—and also starts to knock the Eye over. It takes all of Reed, Sue, and Ben’s efforts to keep it from collapsing. When Johnny goes after the Surfer, he doesn’t notice a whipping broken cable, which knocks him into Reed, and they switch powers—except Reed’s flexible form is bracing the Eye. However, Reed instead uses his newly acquired flame abilities to weld the broken part of the Eye back into place.

Hager—who was already annoyed with the FF for bickering about Reed and Sue’s plan to leave the team and not tell Johnny and Ben in the middle of a mission—is fed up with their complete inability to actually do anything about the Surfer. He brings in someone else: von Doom, now fully restored to his old self, and who has footage of his confrontation with the Surfer. They realize that his power seems to derive from his board. They have to separate him from the board. Reed and von Doom are put to work on that. Reed is not happy about working with von Doom, telling Hager that he can’t trust him. But von Doom himself says the world is at stake, and they all have reason to save it.

Johnny tries, not for the first time, to flirt with Hager’s aide, Captain Frankie Raye, and she rebukes him for almost getting his teammates and innocents killed with his irresponsible behavior.

Reed figures out how to separate the Surfer from his board: with a tachyon pulse. They track the Surfer to the Black Forest in Germany, and the FF set up the pulse generator (after Reed has to remind Hager that he’s in charge). However, the Surfer arrives before Sue can finish her part of putting it together—so Hager sends missiles after him to distract him. (This mostly results in Hager’s command center getting blown to bits by a pissed-off Surfer.) However, Sue is able to activate her pulse generator, the Surfer is separated from his board and brought to a base in Siberia. (Why a U.S. Army task force brings him to Siberia is left as an exercise for the viewer, though it will have to get in line behind how that same task force operates in England and Germany…)

With the Surfer captured, von Doom gets from Hager what was promised: a shot at the surfboard. Meanwhile, the FF are put under virtual house arrest. Sue uses her invisibility to sneak out and talk to the Surfer, who reveals that he is not here to destroy the world, but to prepare it for a cosmic creature called Galactus, which devours worlds. He agreed to become Galactus’s herald in order to spare his own homeworld. He left everything behind, including the woman he loved. Sue reminds him of her, which is why he saved her life from Hager’s missiles.

Elsewhere, von Doom informs Hager that he should have listened to Reed when he said not to trust von Doom, and he blasts the general and another soldier, puts on his armor, and connects himself to the board. Now possessed of the power cosmic (which is never called that), he kills Hager and flies off on his own.

The FF take advantage of the chaos created by von Doom’s departure to escape their own house arrest. Reed summons the Fantasti-Car and they put the Surfer—who gives his name as Norrin Radd—inside to help them. Radd explains that Galactus is drawn to the board. (At one point, Raye tries to stop them—though the gun she’s holding wouldn’t really be all that effective—but Johnny is able to convince her to let them go.)

They track von Doom to Shanghai, and he pretty much kicks their butts. They try to explain that Galactus is using the board to track Earth and come to it to destroy it, but von Doom is too consumed with power to give much of a damn. At one point, Sue gets between von Doom and Radd to try to save him, but von Doom’s cosmically powered spear penetrates both her force field and Sue herself. Reed holds her mortally wounded form. Reed can separate von Doom from the board, but only if he can get close enough. It would take all four of them to do so—or one of them with all four powers. Johnny touches all three of them at once and he winds up with everyone’s powers—er, somehow. He flies after von Doom doing his Super-Skrull act, eventually managing to use all of the team’s powers to bring him down.

Radd regains the board and uses his powers to restore Sue, then flies into orbit to confront Galactus and stop it from consuming the planet which he does, er, somehow.

The world is saved and Reed and Sue decide to have a small wedding ceremony in Japan—and as soon as they’re done, they have to stop Venice from sinking into the Adriatic Sea…

Meanwhile, the Silver Surfer floats in space, and opens his eyes, his board coming toward him.

 

“This is the end for us both”

As a live-action portrayal of the Fantastic Four comic book characters, this movie is much better than the first one. Gruffudd’s Reed is much more sure of himself, for one thing, while Evans and Chiklis remain superb. Alba’s Sue is—okay, I guess. Her best moments are her interactions with the Surfer and her work helping save the Eye is well done, but Alba still feels wrong in the part. (It doesn’t help that the wig she wears is awful.)

McMahon is actually worse as von Doom in this one, though it’s mitigated by his greatly reduced screen time. Actually seeing von Doom’s scarred face feels wrong on every level, since the one constant over the last sixty years has been that we never see Dr. Doom’s face. And what we do see is kinda disappointing. (It’s right up there with Dredd unmasking in Judge Dredd, though there at least we have the excuse that it’s Sylvester Stallone and his very famous face. What do we gain by seeing Julian McMahon covered in bad makeup?)

Still and all, the banter among the main characters is fantastic. (Sorry…) They sound like the bickering family we’ve been reading about for decades. I especially approve of seeing Reed as a great scientist who is consulted by militaries and governments, rather than the ineffectual dunderhead of the previous film.

Unfortunately, the actual storyline is a disaster. So many things here don’t make sense, starting with how, exactly, the U.S. Army is able to run operations on foreign soil like the UK, Germany, and especially Russia without any kind of presence from local military forces. (Apparently, early drafts of the script had Nick Fury in the role that eventually became Hager. This would’ve worked way better with S.H.I.E.L.D. than it does with the Army.) How does the Fantasti-Car get literally halfway around the world in ten minutes? How does Johnny exchanging powers with anyone he touches translate to him getting everyone’s powers at the end, which is contradictory to how it worked in the movie up to that point? (At the very least, his flame powers and ability to fly should have been transferred to one of the other three.) How does the Surfer actually stop Galactus? (He just sorta flies into him and Galactus collapses in on itself, and that’s it, and holy shit is it anticlimactic.)

Hager himself is a straw bad guy, elevated only by the magnificent Andre Braugher, who can make a silk purse out of any sow’s ears. Beau Garrett’s Raye goes from disdaining the FF to suddenly and unconvincingly being Johnny’s date at the wedding and trying to catch the bouquet, a transition that makes nothing like sense. Doug Jones does his usual amazing work with body language as the Surfer, and much as I love Laurence Fishburne, I wish Jones had been able to do the voice himself, especially since his own voice is actually much closer to how I always heard the Surfer in my head when I read his adventures than Fishburne’s is. Still, whatever its other flaws, the movie captured the Surfer’s regality and nobility and look beautifully.

The same cannot be said for the character to whom the Surfer is herald. Changing Galactus from a character to a monstrous force-of-nature style entity was stupid when the Ultimate line did it in the comics, and it’s just as stupid here. The power of the original Galactus trilogy in 1966 was in challenging Galactus, particularly the Silver Surfer betraying his master when he sees the good in humanity that should be spared.

By making Galactus a force of nature cloud of whatever-it-is, it just becomes a hurricane they have to stop. You don’t get the Watcher pleading on humanity’s behalf, you don’t get Alicia Masters pleading with the Surfer to spare humanity (Sue’s conversations with the Surfer in the movie are decent, but pale in comparison to the original), and you don’t get the power of the Surfer’s rebellion, nor of Galactus condemning him to Earth at the end (which doesn’t even happen in the film).

This is a better Fantastic Four adaptation than the previous film, but it’s also a much dumber movie. The general public seemed to agree, as this one had a smaller box-office return despite a bigger budget, and the planned third film never got off the ground.

Several of the actors in these movies would go on to other comic book roles. Alba is in both Sin City movies. Chiklis has a starring role for a while in Gotham (as well as the short-lived superhero semi-sitcom No Ordinary Family not actually based on a specific comic). Fishburne will play both Perry White in Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Justice League and Bill Foster in Ant-Man & The Wasp. Jones will reprise Abe Sapien in Hellboy II: The Golden Army and also play Deathbolt on both Arrow and The Flash. McMahon will be in both RED and Runaways. Braugher will voice Darkseid in the animated Superman/Batman: Apocalypse.

Oh yeah, and that Evans guy starred in a movie or two, playing some obscure Marvel hero. The Patriot, or somebody…

 

For the next three weeks, we’ll look at Christopher Nolan’s trilogy about the dark knight detective, starting with Batman Begins.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be one of the guests at “Author’s Day” at the Star Trek Original Series Set Tour in Ticonderoga, New York on Saturday the 23rd of June, alongside fellow Trek scribes Peter David, Dave Galanter, Robert Greenberger, and Scott Pearson. He’ll be selling and signing books all day, and also giving a talk from noon to 1pm. Come check it out!

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