Rise of the Silver Surfer: Michael H. Price’s View
Long before an emerging Marvel Comics Group dared to hope its upstart super-hero funnybooks might attract the attention of corporate Hollywood, the comics fans had started speculating about how The Fantastic Four – the colorful exploits of a circle of powerful misfits, united by reciprocal affections and resentments – might weather a transplant to film.
Dream-casting fantasies abounded during the early 1960s: How about Neville Brand or Jack Elam – popular favorites at portraying plug-ugly tough guys – as the misshapen Thing, test pilot-turned-musclebound rockpile? Or Peter Lorre, as a recurring villain known as the Puppet Master? (Something of an easy call, there, inasmuch as lead artist Jack Kirby had modeled the bug-eyed Puppet Master after Lorre in the first place.)
It took a while for such wonders to develop – well past the mortal spans of Lorre and Brand and Elam and a good many other wish-list players. And in the long interim, the Marvel line of costumed world-beaters made lesser leaps from page to screen in a variety of teevee spin-offs, both animated and live-action, that never quite seized the cinema-like intensity of the comic books themselves. A live-action Fantastic Four feature of 1994 fared unexpectedly well on a pinch-penny budget, although this version has gone largely unseen outside the bootleg-video circuit.
The Marvel-gone-Hollywood phenomenon escalated around the turn of the century (beyond all early-day fannish expectations) with a big-studio X-Men feature, concerning another team of misfits in cosmic conflict. Success on this front brought an onrush of adaptations.
Prominent among these, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series launched in 2002. X-Men has sequelized itself repeatedly. Ang Lee’s take on The Hulk proved as indebted to Nietzsche and Freud as to the Jekyll-and-Hyde bearings of the earlier comic books. A 2005 Fantastic Four feature won over the paying customers but irked a majority of the published critics: Bellwether reviewer Roger Ebert called that one no match for Spider-Man 2 or the DC Comics-licensed Batman Begins. No accounting for taste.
Now comes Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (due June 15), which raises the cosmic-menace stakes considerably while keeping the continuity anchored with director Tim Story and a familiar basic-ensemble cast. The story derives from the comics’ episodes about a planet-destroying being whose scout, the Silver Surfer, arrives to determine whether this particular planet is ripe for plunder.
If the notion of a surfboard-jockey space traveler sounds intolerably silly on first blush, consider that the character proved persuasively earnest from his first appearance – thanks to Jack Kirby’s vigorous drawings and Stan Lee’s gift for making arch dialogue seem right for the circumstances. As impersonated by Doug Jones (of Pan’s Labyrinth and the 1994 Hellboy) and voiced by Laurence Fishburne, the movie’s Silver Surver nails the spirit of the funnybooks. The Surfer’s attraction to the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), who owes her greater loyalties to team boss Mr. Fantastic, lends a jolt of intimate conflict to the larger crisis.
The collaborative screenplay allows sharper exposure for Ben “Thing” Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Ioan Gruffud’s Mr. Fantastic, along with a more richly conceived characterization for chronic villain Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon). Gruffud develops confidence and wisdom on a level with his character’s essential intelligence. Chris Evans remains fittingly temperamental as the Human Torch.
Improved visual effects stem from a refined job of make-up prosthetics for the Thing – Michael Chiklis’ tragicomic emoting comes across more effectively – and from the polished work of the Weta Digital CGI crew. The Silver Surfer tends to upstage the central characters in terms of spectacle, but the key performances are uniformly well matched.
The deeper history of such pop-literature as moving-picture fodder has suggested that comics heroism belongs in the B-movie ghetto, more so than comic-book movies should entertain epic pretensions. Prominent reinforcement of that stereotype can be found in such examples as Sam Katzman’s endearingly shabby Superman serials of the post-WWII years, not to mention any number of teevee-toon comics adaptations.
But then, Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons of the earlier 1940s had served to literalize the grand struggles that the comics’ stories had suggested. A handful of the Batman adaptations since 1989 have done likewise. And in trying somewhat too hard to intellectualize its funnybook inspiration, Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) suggests that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were summoning ideas bigger than their sector of the comic-book industry had come prepared to convey during the early 1960s.
The new Fantastic Four movie occupies a more tenable middle ground between epic pretensions and gee-whiz sensationalism. The film recaptures primarily the spectacle that has belonged to the comic books all along – becoming, in the process, the movie that a good many fans have been seeing in their heads for a couple of generations, now.
Contact Price at firstname.lastname@example.org