Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

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As far as “sequels to bad movies that no one wanted to see a sequel to” go, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” isn’t bad. It’s a vast improvement over 2005’s laughably dim-witted superhero tale, though it still lacks any major high-stakes excitement or surprises. In fact, it’s still not very good at all. But at least it’s not aggressively stupid! Baby steps, people.

Again directed by Tim Story, who apparently can never turn off the light touch he exercised on the comedies “Barbershop” and “Taxi,” even when he should, the sequel begins with Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) preparing to marry. The Fantastic Four are media celebrities, though, and they live under constant scrutiny, making a private wedding hard to plan. Plus, they’re always being pulled away to save the world and whatnot.

Sue, who can turn invisible and make forcefields, wonders if she and Reed and can raise a family under these circumstances. Reed, whose body can stretch unbreakably in any direction, has a hard time getting out of scientist mode and cutting loose. Sue’s brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), uses his fame to date supermodels and secure endorsement deals. In fact, call him John: “Focus-testing showed that ‘Johnny’ skewed a little young,” he says. And Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), made of rocks and empowered with mighty clobbering capabilities, um, has a girlfriend. That’s sort of all that’s going on with him.

Into this mildly interesting realm of vague tension comes something slightly more dire: THE WORLD IS GOING TO BE DESTROYED! But don’t worry, not yet. In a few days. See, there’s this alien being called the Silver Surfer (body of Doug Jones; voice of Laurence Fishburne) who can move through solid things and change matter on a molecular level, and he has a pattern of going from planet to planet, and after he arrives at a planet, eight days later it’s toast. So, you know, they’ll need to stop him.

(By the way, the Silver Surfer character first appeared in the “Fantastic Four” comic books in 1966. I assume it happened because Stan Lee said, “Hey, you know what the kids are into these days? Surfing! Somebody work on that!”)

But what about Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), the Four’s archenemy, you ask? Turns out he’s not as dead as he was believed to be, and now, thanks to his possessing exactly one piece of useful information about the Silver Surfer, the U.S. military is letting him work with the Four on developing a plan to stop the madness. Naturally, he has a double-cross in mind.

The screenplay is by Mark Frost, who cowrote the last one, and Don Payne, who wrote “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” That movie wasn’t very good, either, but it had its moments, and bringing Payne onboard puts the “Fantastic Four” on the right track. There are some actual laughs in “Rise of the Silver Surfer,” mostly situational, as the superheroes deal with using their powers in an ordinary world. The “Spider-Man” films, in particular, have shown how to mix the comic and dramatic in a superhero story, and it goes a long way toward making your audience feel connected to your characters.

So now that the humor angle is covered, what this franchise needs is to figure out how to raise the stakes and be deeply serious when deep seriousness is called for. Despite the fate of the world being threatened, nothing in the film ever feels tense or important. There are no epic battles, no real life-or-death scenarios. It could easily be a two-part episode of a “Fantastic Four” TV series — and a blockbuster summer action movie ought to be much more intense than that. These flat, emotionless characters just aren’t going to cut it.

C+ (1 hr., 32 min.; PG, a little very mild profanity, a fair amount of mostly bloodless action violence.)

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