In November of 1961, readers of Marvel Comics readers witnessed four intrepid explorers be forever changed by mysterious cosmic rays. On that day, they became known as the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes, and went on to be the first of many colourful superheroes for Marvel Comics as well as feature in numerous cartoons, videogames, and live-action movies. This year, I’ve been dedicating every Friday in November to commemorating the debut of Marvel’s most famous dysfunctional family.
Released: 15 June 2007
Director: Tim Story
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $120 to 130 million
Stars: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, and Doug Jones/Laurence Fishburne
Now regarded as popular celebrities, Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (Gruffudd) and Susan Storm/The Invisible Girl (Alba) find their attempts to get married constantly interrupted by a media circus. Just as they are about to tie the knot, an extraterrestrial dubbed the “Silver Surfer” (Jones/Fishburne) arrives, causing havoc with the team’s powers and catching Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom’s (McMahon) attention as it prepares the world for consumption by a cosmic being known only as “Galactus”.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s family of dysfunctional superheroes have had quite the chaotic journey to the big screen; their 1994 movie was never released and the eventual big-budget adaptation was met with mixed reviews after being in Development Hell for around ten years. Still, Fantastic 4’s (Story, 2005) modest box office success of $333.5 million saw not only the release of an Extended Edition but also the return of director Tim Story and the entire cast for a sequel. Screenwriters Mark Frost and Don Payne came onboard to pen the screenplay and the duo drew significant inspiration from both the original “Galactus Trilogy” (Lee, et al, 1966) and an altered version of that same story seen in Ultimate Marvel (Ellis, et al, 2004 to 2006). The duo aimed to focus more on the enigmatic Silver Surfer than the Devourer of Worlds and there was a lot of speculation and anticipation surrounding the design of Galactus. Much of the film’s promotion was also focused around fan-favourite elements from the original Marvel Comics, such as the Fantasti-Car and the wedding between Reed and Sue, and practical elements such as Ben Grimm/The Thing’s suit were redesigned to allow actor Michael Chiklis to slip it off between takes. The titular Silver Surfer’s digital effects were the work of Weta Digital, who not only completely replaced stuntman Doug Jones with a sleek CGI model but also contributed to the design of Galactus. Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer made about $32 million less than its predecessor, coming in with a box office of $301.9 million; though the film’s average review score is higher than the first film, it was also met with mostly mixed reviews, although the general consensus was that it was at least more entertaining than the first film. Plans for a sequel and a spin-off for the Silver Surfer were eventually quashed due to the overall lacklustre response to Story’s films and 20th Century Fox made the disastrous decision to reboot the franchise some eight years later.
Fantastic 4 wasn’t really a bad film, really, just quite underwhelming considering some of the outlandish cosmic adventures Marvel’s First Family often get up to. Do I expect them to battle the likes of Galactus and Kang the Conqueror in their first movie? No, of course not, but maybe exploring the Negative Zone and encountering someone like Annihilus could have been possible with a script re-write (Reed discovers the Negative Zone and that’s where they get their powers from, rather than them going to space) while building towards a showdown with Dr. Doom for the sequel (since he was so underutilised and bland in the first film) and maybe, maybe Galactus for the third and final movie. I can’t, however, say that I’m too surprised that Fantastic 4 got a sequel; back then, mediocre movies were getting sequels all the time and it just seemed natural to do, though I definitely am not a fan of the overly long and wordy “Rise of…” title (Fantastic Four: Doomsday would’ve been better in my opinion, but what the hell do I know, right?)
Since the end of the last film, the Fantastic Four have become wildly beloved, popular, and successful superheroes; while Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (Evans) continues to revel in their celebrity status and indulge himself with merchandising and sponsorship deals, Sue is troubled by the constant media storm that surrounds their lives. It’s bad enough that the interference of the press has caused Reed and Sue to continuously postpone their wedding, but Sue worries about what sort of impact the attention they bring and the circus of their day-to-day lives will have on any children she and Reed may have in the future. Sue’s characterisation seems to have taken a bit of a step back in this regard; she actually seems to think it’s acceptable to prioritise her wedding day over the fate of the world, arguably costing Reed valuable time in finding a way to track the entity causing worldwide havoc, and while Alba seems more comfortable in the role of the team’s matriarch, something seems a bit…off about her this time around (I think it’s her dazzling contact lenses). The world is thrown into chaos when the mysterious entity known as the Silver Surfer arrives; wielding the same cosmic powers that gifted the Fantastic Four and Doom with their abilities (a neat little wrinkle that I actually really enjoyed), the Silver Surfer is able to dramatically affect weather patterns across the globe, drying up lakes, bring snowstorms to deserts, and disrupting electrical devices the world over.
Reed is troubled by the disruptions; despite promising Sue that he is going to focus on the wedding, he can’t help but investigate the disturbances and is intrigued to find a link between the cosmic radiation and their powers. Johnny is able to turn Reed’s fascination with the ongoing global disturbances to his advantage and blackmail Reed into having a bachelor party, and though Reed adamantly turns down General Hager’s (Andre Braugher) request that he and the four lend their expertise in solving the global crisis, he ultimately goes back on his word and develops a way of tracking the anomalies out of his desire to help and sheer scientific curiosity. Obviously, Sue is angered by this as she’s obsessed with having that one perfect day even if the entire world is being thrown into chaos around them; Reed is trying to please everyone, as always, but ultimately chooses to stand up to Hager’s abrasive nature and demand a little respect for him and his team if the military actually want them to help. When he sees how upset Sue gets by the whole media circus, however, Reed proposes that they leave it all behind after the wedding, but ultimately they’re both able to come to terms with their crazy lives by the conclusion of the film. The Thing, easily the heart of the team, is in a far better place this time around; having taken to wearing an array of clothes and noticeably much more comfortable with himself and being out in public, he’s developed a brotherly relationship with Johnny and has absolute faith in Reed, even when he predicts the end of the world and suggests the team go their separate ways.
Although Reed discovers that the Silver Surfer has been preparing worlds for their eventual destruction all across the universe, the entity’s arrival has a more direct impact on the team when it passes over Latveria and awakens Victor Von Doom. A scarred and ruined mess of a man, Doom begins the film in a much more fitting place than he left it (holed up in a grand castle, glaring at an array of monitors, filled with egotistical mania, and fully embracing his role as a scheming and bitter supervillain). After encountering the Silver Surfer, though, Doom’s appearance is sadly restored by the Surfer’s cosmic powers, ruining any menace he may have had in his armoured guise, and he goes right back to being a sleazy, suit-wearing scumbag. Doom even weasels his way into studying the Silver Surfer further by sharing his data with Hager, who orders him to work alongside the Fantastic Four, much to their chagrin. Of course, Doom’s intentions are far from virtuous; realising that the Silver Surfer draws his powers from his “board”, Doom seeks to separate the silver-hued entity from it, depowering the once-might Sentinel of the Spaceways, so that he can claim it for himself. This allows Doom to briefly come close to matching the formidable threat he poses in the comics, and even don a far more impressive and visually interesting set of armour and spit his famous “Richards!” line, but once again it’s too little too late and Doom gets far too little time in the spotlight.
Instead, much of the film is focused on exploring the impact that the Silver Surfer has on the Human Torch; although he seems perfectly happy living a shallow life of materialism and still likes to crack jokes at both Reed and the Thing’s expense as often as possible, Johnny doesn’t hesitate to take off after the Silver Surfer when he disrupts Reed and Sue’s wedding and finds himself changed as a result of physical contact with the entity. Consequently, Johnny switches powers whenever he touches his teammates, which allows the Thing a brief return to his human form (something that never comes up again, despite Ben’s promise) also causes chaos when the Fantastic Four try to intercept the Silver Surfer in London. Feeling isolated because of the danger he now poses to the team, Johnny is distraught to learn that Reed and Sue are willing to break up the band so that they can lead “normal” lives and is forced to learn to set aside his ego and put the team before himself. This all culminates in him absorbing the powers of the entire team in order to match Doom’s stolen cosmic powers in the finale, basically transforming him into a version of Kl’rt/Super-Skrull and kind of negating his character arc since it takes one individual with all of the team’s powers to defeat Doom rather than the combined efforts of the team proper.
Strangely, considering that Rise of the Silver Surfer essentially deals with the impending destruction of the entire world, the film’s tone is as light and whimsical as the last film, for the most part, but the comedy definitely lands a lot better this time around. Johnny’s wisecrack about the Thing’s blind girlfriend, Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington), potentially dying in a rockslide is hilarious, as is Sue using her powers to force Reed to listen to her, her “I’m on fire!” exchange with Reed, and Johnny’s all-too-brief transformation into a Thing-like creature. Having lived and operated together for some time now, the team has settled into their dysfunctional family dynamic quite nicely; out in the field, they tend to quarrel and discuss their personal dramas, which angers Hager, who sees them as freaks who can’t take threats seriously as they’re too busy bickering with each other. This leads to an impressive moment for Reed as he finally stands up for himself, and his team; in fact, Reed has adjusted to his role as the team’s leader extremely well compared to his characterisation in the first film. He’s still an easily distracted and awkward nerd, but he’s much more confidant in directing the team and keeping them focused in the field, at least until Johnny’s new powers cause disruption amongst the team.
Sue ends up playing a pivotal role in humanising and characterising the mysterious Silver Surfer; a stoic and wholly alien lifeform, the entity is like living liquid metal, reflecting everything around him in his silvery skin and slicing through the air and even the vastness of space with a fluid-like ease. Impossibly fast and incredibly powerful, the Silver Surfer can not only cause chaotic events to happen all over the world and create ominous craters in the planet’s very crust, he’s also easily able to shrug off Doom’s electrical bolt, out-pace and exhaust Johnny in the upper atmosphere, and pass through Sue’s invisible barrier. Fascinated and intrigued by the Silver Surfer’s beauty, Sue questions the entity as to his motivations, which causes enough of a distraction to separate the Silver Surfer from his board and allow him to be captured by Doom and Hager. While the Silver Surfer has never exhibited such an obvious weakness in the comics, as far as I am aware, it’s necessary to render him vulnerable and exposit key information about the Silver Surfer’s master, the malevolent Galactus. Helpless and powerless without his board, the Silver Surfer reveals to Sue that he was once known as Norrin Radd and is bound to lead the entity to worlds for it to devour in order to spare his own, but takes no pleasure in this fact and finds himself besotted by Sue as she reminds him of his lost love. The Silver Surfer also reveals that his board draws Galactus closer, but initially refuses to use its power to repel his master since he dare not defy the World Devourer.
Surprisingly, the Fantastic Four’s costumes haven’t really been changed all that much from the last film; they seem a little darker, and maybe a little more refined here and there, but mostly appear to be identical, which is very unusual as superhero sequels usually always introduce new costumes for the characters. Thankfully, Doom definitely looks much better this time around; I could have done without seeing him return to normal in the middle there, but he definitely makes up for it in the finale with his more regal and detailed armour. The four have firmly established themselves in the Baxter Building and no longer have any money troubles; instead, they have all the resources they could ask for thanks to Reed’s patents and Johnny’s endorsement deals to franchise the team out to anyone and everyone. Reed’s focus is still on the science, and using his genius and the team’s abilities to help others, but he’s not above creating new toys for the team to use, such as the futuristic and criminally underused Fantasti-Car. While the Thing looks just as good as ever thanks to the impressive practical suit, some of the CGI and special effects have taken a bit of a hit, most notably Reed’s stretching powers (though this could just be because they’re showcased more often here). Still, the film has some impressive action set pieces on offer, such as the team’s efforts to repair the damaged London Eye, and the effects used to bring the Silver Surfer to life are absolutely top-notch. The Silver Surfer appears unsettlingly alien and unnaturally fluid; the chase between him and Johnny is quite exhilarating and the way he just kind of hovers and slips into frame is incredibly unnerving, and I think it was a wise move to spend more of the film focusing on the Silver Surfer as an antagonistic and mysterious force rather than the Devourer of Worlds.
Speaking of which, you can’t talk about this film without mentioning Galactus; one of Marvel’s most iconic and destructive cosmic entities, Galactus gained notoriety for being represented as a gigantic, abstract space cloud. I can understand the backlash about this as Galactus represents one of the most morally grey entities in the Marvel universe (he has to “eat” worlds in order to satisfy his great hunger, and does so not out of malice or evil but simply because he has to in order to survive and his existence is part of the cosmic balance of death and rebirth) and reducing him to a swirling, indistinct mass of cosmic energy is quite an insult to die-hard comic book fans. I can also understand the apprehension; these Fantastic Four movies are clearly drawing inspiration from Fox’s original X-Men trilogy (Various, 2000 to 2006) and going for a more grounded take on the comic’s more fantastical elements and the filmmakers definitely seem to have thought that a gigantic humanoid clad in purple armour stomping around New York City was probably a step too far. I, however, disagree and think these films (and any future Fantastic Four films) should totally embrace the more bonkers aspects of the source material, but I do have to applaud the filmmakers for even using Galactus in the first place. They didn’t have to do that and it’s pretty ballsy to jump into the character for the team’s second movie as how the hell do you top a world-devouring entity? Also, they seem to have pulled inspiration from “Gah Lak Tus”, the Ultimate version of the character that was a swarm of robotic drones rather than one massive being; the shadow and fiery silhouette of Galactus and his ship can also be briefly seen, hinting that the cloud is masking the being’s true form, and the proposed Silver Surfer spin-off was also supposed to reveal the character in full. Additionally, seeing Galactus’ smoky tendrils devour that world at the start, watching it ominously advance through the galaxy and learning about its destructive history, and the shot of it preparing to swallow the Earth whole are all really effective at building a sense of awe and dread around the entity. I can definitely see that the filmmakers had some good intentions with the character but the execution does fall a bit flat; I think maybe it would have sufficed to see a gigantic hand reaching out from the cloud, or see hints of Galactus’ helmet poking through the storm and maybe his eyes glistening, but, again, I admire that they even tried to use the character, if nothing else.
Despite the threat of Armageddon looming ever closer, Doom manipulates events to get his hands on the Silver Surfer’s board; conveniently cobbling together a wrist-mounted device that somehow allows him to assume control of the board, and thus the Surfer’s Power Cosmic, Doom kills Hager in spectacular fashion and refuses to give up his newfound power even in the face of worldwide destruction. In the process, Doom kills Sue when she takes a shot to protect the Silver Surfer, which finally convinces him to rebel against Galactus. After Johnny absorbs the abilities of his teammates in order to separate Doom from the board in an all-too-brief fist fight, thus restoring the Silver Surfer to full strength, the Silver Surfer uses the Power Cosmic to resurrect Sue and heads up into the atmosphere to confront Galactus as the titanic cloud prepares to drain all life and energy from the planet. There, in the centre of the swirling, chaotic mess of cosmic energy, he renounces his service and uses all of the board’s power to dissipate Galactus in a very obvious Christ metaphor, presumably transporting it away or destroying it outright, and is assumed dead from the exertion. In the aftermath, Johnny is returned to normal (though I think it would have been a nice touch to allow Ben to change to and from the Thing at will as a result of contact with the Silver Surfer), Reed and Sue finally marry in a small ceremony away from prying eyes, and the team resolves to stick together, even with the chaos of the superhero fame, while the Silver Surfer is revealed to have survived in the depths of space.
Well, this was certainly a step up from the last film; the cast, dialogue, and world definitely all seems to feel a lot more comfortable and work a lot better, and overall Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer feels like a much more enjoyable movie since it doesn’t have to be bogged down with an origin story or explaining and exploring the team’s powers. The characters all seem very familiar with each other and gel as a dysfunctional family, operating as a cohesive team in the field while still bickering and having interpersonal dramas regarding their superhero celebrity status. The banter between Ben and Johnny remains the clear highlight of the four, though I much preferred Reed this time around (leadership definitely suits him), with Sue remaining the weak link for me just because of the way Jessica Alba is presented and the fact that she’s so woefully miscast as the Invisible Girl. Doom looked and acted a bit more like his boastful comic book counterpart, but was again way too underutilised for a villain of his stature, but thankfully the film does a brilliant job of bringing the Silver Surfer to life. Mysterious, powerful, and inhuman, the Silver Surfer is also vulnerable and tragic and a true visual marvel. Yes, it’s massively disappointing that one of Marvel’s most enigmatic and iconic entities is reduced to a mere cloud, but I do admire the filmmakers for daring to even utilise Galactus and it’s clear that they had plans to do him justice in a later film, but again I feel like if you’re going to go big like that just go all-in and leave it all on the table.
What did you think to Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer? Did you feel it was an improvement over the last film or were you just as disappointed with this effort? What did you think to the sub-plot of Johnny being able to absorb the team’s powers? Did you like the depiction and characterisation of the Silver Surfer or do you feel he was a little underpowered compared to the source material? What was your reaction when Galactus appeared as a giant cloud and would you like to see the character done justice in the Marvel Cinematic Universe some day? How have you been celebrating the debut of Marvel’s First Family this month? Sign up to share your thoughts on Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer in the comments below, or drop your thoughts on my social media, and check back in next Friday for one last Fantastic Four review.