Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Kerry Washington, Andre Braugher, Beau Garrett, Laurence Fishburne, Doug Jones
Dark times, it seems, call for dark heroes. The post 9/11 superhero tends to be a brooding, angst-ridden loner – but is there any space in this sombre, neo-gothic universe for the happy-go-lucky Fantastic Four, appearing in their latest big-screen SFX extravaganza?
Today’s superheroes are a serious bunch. Batman begins again as a deadly serious vigilante working through the politics of fear in his caped ‘crusade’. Spiderman must grapple with his own venomous side and learn to ease up on the will to revenge. The X-Men struggle with their image as the hated Other. And even though he is the most wholesome and positive of American icons, Superman returns to a postmodern world that feels it no longer needs him (although of course it does), and that replaces his jingoistic catchphrase with a more diffident “Truth, Justice – all that stuff”. Batting, meanwhile, for the Republican cause are the Punisher and Man on Fire, who smash, bludgeon and torture their way through the criminal underworld in a campaign of unapologetic shock and awe.
Compared to all these gothic mopers, the Fantastic Four are a laugh a minute. Sure they squabble, but only the way any loving family does, and they spend much of their latest film, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer fussing over that well-established institution of comedy, a wedding. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) uses his limb-stretching plasticity to perform super moves on the dance floor. Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) resolves a zit “crisis” through a localised application of her powers of invisibilty. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) accidentally sets a dartboard on fire in jolly old England. As stone man the Thing, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) is the group’s fast-quipping heart and soul. Even mad, bad Dr Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon) mocks, preens and sneers like a pantomime villain. All of which is to say that this amazing ensemble definitely occupies the lighter side of the superheroic spectrum, and is as family-friendly as Pixar’s animated The Incredibles (2004) – who, coincidentally or not, share exactly the same powers.
Yet like compulsive clowns who crack jokes even at a funeral, the Fantastic Four seem strangely – even at times grotesquely – at odds with these troubled times. It is one thing to pretend that there is no such thing as the War on Terror, and to use old-school superheroics as fantasy escapism from bleaker contemporary realities – but that is not quite the path chosen by Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. On the contrary, it includes a torture sequence with topical references to external rendition and the US’s disregard for foreign captives’ human rights. Where exactly such adult material is supposed to fit in a film otherwise squarely aimed at kids is beyond the understanding of this critic. With The Rise of the Silver Surfer, might we also be witnessing the rise of a new genre in which edgy political commentary is turned into fun-loving entertainment for pre-teens? Let’s hope not.
The plot is simple, but at a compact hour and a half, never less than busy. The wedding of the century, between Sue and Reed, keeps getting interrupted by global emergencies, but this time round, beauty and the brain are determined to tie the knot like any normal couple – and maybe even to retire from world saving altogether and raise their own mutant brood. Trouble comes in the form of the Silver Surfer, a powerful spacewave-riding alien who always brings chaos and destruction in the wake of his cosmic board – and when he gate-crashes the pair’s would-be happy day, it becomes clear that once again their nuptials must wait while they and their two colleagues avert another apocalypse (this time involving a giant sentient cloud named Galactus for whom entire planets are mere snackfood). Problem is, US General Hager (Andre Braugher) insists that the Four work in collaboration with their old foe Dr Doom, who will of course turn out to be far more malevolent than the sleek-skinned dude from outer space. Surf’s up.Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer has lots going in its favour. It is packed to the brim with child-friendly messages about cooperation, responsibility, moral choice, sacrifice; and skincare. Its special effects – especially the all-CG Surfer – will have most younger viewers in slack-jawed wonderment, declaring along with Johnny Storm: “Oh, that’s cool.” Stan Lee (who co-wrote the original Marvel comics with Jack Kirby back in the 1960s) has his funniest cameo yet, unable to get on the guest list for Reed and Sue’s wedding even though he is their creator. And 2005’s Fantastic Four was just so execrably godawful, that even if this sequel is no The Godfather: Part II, it still manages to be a considerable improvement upon its original.
Unfortunately, though, like the original, this Fantastic Four is all CGI fireworks and surface noise with very little substance. Our familiarity with the Four hardly adds to their depth, and nor does their constant banter, too superficial even to hint at much else going on below. They are, in a word, cartoonish, breezily sketched rather than meticulously detailed, with their outlandish powers a poor substitute for real character. Sue Storm may be the Invisible Woman, but in fact all her teammates are equally inscrutable ciphers, hiding behind their makeup-and-SFX forcefields in the hope that no-one will notice how unengaging they are as people. Adults, at least, will notice, and will be thankful for the film’s short duration. Kids will probably have a blast – but pity their parents having to explain afterwards what exactly those American federal agents were doing torturing a gurneyed prisoner in a secret Siberian base. Light heroes really do not belong to such dark times.