So far this summer, I’ve swung dizzy on the thinning web of a spider, gotten sea sick while sailing with pirates in the Caribbean, and gambled successfully on a bunch of con-men. This weekend, I decided to spend some downtime with a super-powered family as the Fantastic Four returned to the silver screen along with the Silver Surfer. Among superheroes, Marvel’s First Family has always been a comedic anomaly of light-hearted proportions. Unlike the brooding X-Men or the tormented Hulk or the vengeful Batman or the alienated Superman, The Fantastic Four bask in the warmth of celebrity status, revered by the world over as superheroes, embarking upon adventures both dangerous and scientific. Now the cosmic foursome return to face a platter of fearsome foes in the resurrected Doctor Doom, the silvery herald of a destructive cosmic entity, and the critics who universally (and rightfully) panned their first outing two years ago. On top of this, they’re taking on “The Incredibles,” Pixar’s own family quartet of superheroes.
“Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” opens with more of a whimper, which is odd since the opening is the destruction of some generic planet by an off-screen entity. After this, the narrative whisks away to the Fantastic Four. Here, Reed Richards and Susan Storm’s media circus wedding is used to explain the family’s feelings over their celebrity status — Susan hates it, Johnny Storm loves it, Reed and Ben Grim don’t care. However, all superficial lamenting or basking stops as the chrome herald for the Devourer of Worlds thankfully arrives, causing chaos across the planet, resurrecting Doctor Doom, and forcing the Fantastic Four into an action-packed adventure to save the world from his master, the planet-eating Galactus. With a lighter tone than the recent comic book films, some improved action, and an incredible CGI character, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” manages to introduce some rather fantastic elements into the mundane world director Tim Story slapped together in 2005 based on a Michael France script re-written by Mark Frost. This time he’s working off a Mark Frost original that looks to have been re-written by Don Payne. All of these writers are, of course, working off the character given us by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, lo, those many years ago.
The Defending Champion
Written and directed by Brad Bird, “The Incredibles” tells the tale of the parents of a small suburban family who used to be famous superheroes. Holding a job that makes “Office Space” look exciting, Bob Parr struggles with his middle-aged suburban lifestyle, while wife Helen Parr loses hair keeping their two super-powered children in line. Soon Bob begins moonlighting as Mr. Incredible and an old disgruntled fan rises from Parr’s past to kidnap him. Forced from seclusion, Helen must again become Elastigirl and enroll her children in the adventurous hunt for their father. Clever, funny, and a tad too long, “The Incredibles” is one of the Pixar’s strongest — if unoriginal — films, earning them a hefty return at the box office while miraculously avoiding any copyright lawsuits from Marvel Comics.
Both “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “The Incredibles” are aimed at younger audiences, with adult themes and jokes sprinkled in to entertain the people who are financing their cinema outing. However, “FF: ROTS” feels a bit odd existing in such a kiddy universe considering that its fanbase mainly consists of older moviegoers who remember their 1961 comic debut. Although Tim Story justifies this by evoking the comic’s whimsical jollies, one can still see 20th Century Fox executive Tim Rothman shoehorning the Fantastic Four’s dangerous battle with an apocalyptic herald into a PG rating. Thus, the film never really seems to understand the gravity of the Fantastic Four’s situations, never letting the characters experience anything truly catastrophic or discuss their impending doom with serious import. During the film’s climax, when one of the main characters is seriously injured, the shooting and execution of the scene is so obviously edited for children that it’s almost insulting.
Now, “The Incredibles” does seem to understand the gravity of its characters situation. And this is because, unlike both Fantastic Four films, the creators behind “The Incredibles” spend a substantial time developing the love, frustration, and humor playing between the Parr family members. Thus, when the fates turn against the Parrs, the audience is tied to the action, rooting them on as they head off to save their father and the world from the villainous Syndrome. A particular scene, which has a shackled Mr. Fantastic…oops, I mean Mr. Incredible…watching his wife and children being shot out of the sky, is more emotional and serious than anything in “FF: ROTS” because of this development. This is also because “The Incredibles” has a better villain in Syndrome, the disgruntled fan that Mr. Incredible spurned years ago — a wonderful parallel that broadens the Bob Parr’s journey in understanding his fame.
While trying to deal with those same celebrity issues, “FF: ROTS” throws the Fantastic Four up against a slightly improved Doctor Doom, whose “I want more power” motivations in this film are just as arbitrary as the plot device used to bring him back to life and the cheesy one-liners he spits out while battling the Four. But Tim Story’s treatment of Doctor Doom is really just symptomatic of his tendency to spend too much time on jokes and plot and not on serious character development. All character development and themes are kept at a first-grade equation level, forgoing any sort of layering that would allow multiple demographics to appreciate the subtlies of a family growing together or apart. This is odd since “The Incredibles,”an animated film, deals with multiple character issues and does so while engaging multiple age levels.
So, the winner…
While “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” certainly is an improvement over its predecessor in terms of plotting and action, it still wastes too much time joking about Marvel’s First Family rather than developing them. “The Incredibles” make the Parrs something real, selling the audience on their unique make-up and then putting it all on the line against a serious villain who relates to the family’s journey. Thus, the events of “The Incredibles” seem larger, scarier, and more relevant — which is odd considering that the Fantastic Four face a….well… they face a gigantic, fiery cosmic hurricane that’ll feast on Earth. In the end, 20th Century Fox and Tim Story should seriously examine “The Incredibles” before the Fantastic Four’s next outing. “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” may earn dollars at the box office, but it’s “The Incredibles” that truly goes to task in showing us that “family matters.”