When their first Fantastic Four flick grossed more than three times its production budget in 2005, the hoped-for sequel quickly left the realm of the hypothetical for home studio Twentieth Century Fox. And with the cast locked into the kind of multi-picture deals that are standard for these kinds of pictures, they moved to lock in director Tim Story as well as screenwriter Mark Frost for a follow-up that (they hoped) would up the ante in both scope and box office returns in the same way that the X-Men sequels had for the same studio.
When attempting to find a story to hang the sequel on, it makes sense that the filmmakers turned to the iconic “Galactus Trilogy” from the 1960s. Not only is this three-part story by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby considered one of the definitive FF opuses of all time, it also introduced one of the definitive FF villains in the form of the planet-eating giant Galactus. Perhaps even more importantly than that, it featured the first appearance of the Silver Surfer, an iconic Marvel hero in his own right.
And so, with a June 2007 release locked in for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the teams in front of and behind the camera got to work planning a wedding. The wedding of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), that is. Having gotten engaged at the close of the previous entry, the impeding nuptials of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman are being eagerly reported on by the tabloid press, leaving Sue little time to plan, and Reed little time to monitor ominous climactic disturbances across the globe such as snowstorms in Egypt and frozen bodies of water.
Just as the glitzy ceremony is about to commence, a silver-skinned figure atop a metallic surfboard appears in the skies over New York. After being pursued by the flaming Torch (Chris Evans) over a considerable distance, the Silver Surfer grabs him and takes him so high into the sky that he loses consciousness. When Johnny revives, he finds that his powers have become volatile, transferring to any of his teammates he happens to touch. Meanwhile, Reed has learned that the Surfer is merely the harbinger of a destructive cloud called Galactus that travels the galaxy and leaves dead planets in its wake.
After the team fails to capture and/or question the Surfer (played by Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence Fishburne), hard-nosed General Hager (Andre Braugher) calls in Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), recovered from the circumstances he found himself in at the close of the previous film after himself coming into contact with the Surfer (though why suddenly they’d trust an avowed psychopath is never explained). Now the FF is in a race against the clock as they try to connect with the Surfer, stop Galactus, and prevent Victor from orchestrating his devious plan to transfer the cosmic energies coursing through the Surfer’s chrome body into his own.
At this point it’s worth acknowledging what a wondrous achievement the Surfer himself is. Between the motion-captured performance by actor Doug Jones (who also played the amphibian Abe Sapien in the two Hellboy features) and the resonant vocals from Fishburne, we have a fully — pardon the expression — fleshed out character who effectively commands the screen — and our sympathies with it. It comes as no surprise at all that before this one was even released Fox was busy putting plans in motion to spin the character into his headlining vehicle (with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski scripting).
Of course, that opportunity never materialized. While critics were just as down on the sequel as the first one, Rise of the Silver Surfer actually managed to best the first film’s opening weekend, bringing in $58 million (as compared to $56 mil opening of the previous one). Unfortunately, things pretty quickly tapered off from there. By the time the sequel left theaters, it had taken in $131 million domestically — less than the last one and just a hair more than its production cost. And while its global total was a not-insubstantial $289 million, that was still down almost $50 million.
Why didn’t Rise of the Silver Surfer do better at the box office? There are at least a couple of factors that could potentially be to blame. Unlike last time’s PG-13 rating, the sequel was given a PG, which might well have turned off folks who expect their superhero movies to be slightly more mature (whatever that entails). Also likely: audiences might simply have been apathetic at the thought of another FF opus so soon after being underwhelmed by the first one. Whatever the reason, the result was the same: the Fantastic Four’s first movie series, launched to much ballyhoo just two short years before, had come to a screeching halt.
I’ll go ahead and say it though, I enjoy this one, and was a little bummed that it marked the end of the line for this iteration of the Four. More than the first film, which gets stuck nursing a case of ”origin-itis,” this one moves the ball ahead, and benefits not only from the chemistry and camaraderie that the cast had already developed with one another, but also from being able to actually progress and deepen those inter-relationships. Gruffudd and Alba are both improved, and the banter between Johnny and Ben (Michael Chiklis) is textured by the fondness that the two characters obviously share for each other.
At ninety-minutes, the movie whizzes along efficiently and isn’t around long enough to really overstay its welcome, which also ends up playing to its advantage. However, the same lack of ambition that proved such a debit last time rears its head here, and in turn prevents the sequel from achieving the same transcendent quality as the comic book storyline it’s (loosely) based on. With a $130 million budget, Rise of the Silver Surfer had more to play with, but it was still relatively low budget for a production of this kind (by contrast, the third X-Men was made for $210 mil the last summer).
While I don’t think the FF needed that much, the limitations of the budget become clear when we see what Story and Co. did with Galactus. Or rather, once we don’t see what they did with Galactus. Instead of even attempting to translate the distinctive armor-clad character from the books to the screen, he’s presented here as a nebulous, formless entity that we are told is malevolent without seeing any evidence of actual self-awareness. As a result, the third act turn with the Surfer protecting the Earth against his master — probably one of the most seminal moments in Marvel history — lacks the necessary punch to really hit home with audiences.
My complaints about the previous flick (“lightweight”, “enjoy-it-in-the-moment, forget-it-when-it’s-over”) are still in effect, but even taking into the account the Galactus misstep and Story’s general lack of authorial voice, Rise of the Silver Surfer is still superior to its predecessor. While these things are always gambles, I feel like Fox might have been better served by proceeding with a third installment and making adjustments on the fly rather than simply throwing in the towel. (Of course, the flipside there is that if they had, Evans probably wouldn’t have been free to play another Marvel character, which would have been a darn shame.)
With the Fantastic Four sputtering to a premature stop after two less-than-stellar entries, Fox was left to reconnoiter. Surrendering the rights back to Marvel was a non-starter, so in ’09, the studio announced they were starting over from scratch. And while it took six years for said reboot to actually hit the screen, this announcement actually preceded Sony’s similar plans for their Spider-Man franchise (which had its second sequel released just a month before Rise of the Silver Surfer). Would the third time be the charm for Marvel’s First Family on the big screen?
To Be Continued…