In 2005, I subjected myself to the Fantastic Bore… watching Jessica Alba failing to act intelligent, while Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Chiklis looked around nervously, hoping no one would notice them as they collected a nice paycheck; the charming Julian McMahon smirked his way through a doomed role that was both poorly written and miscast, appearing about as comfortable as a Clooney in a Bat-suit. Watching a movie about the superteam that inspired The Incredibles, I found myself watching instead what appeared to be a concerted effort to undo all the work done by intelligent handling of comic book properties in the last decade.
This was the Fantastic Power Rangers.
Still, the autonomic response that drives me to almost all comic book to film projects drew me to the sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, with a sigh and prayers for patience. The sequel to 2005’s Cardboard Four promised a more ambitious story, with a world-devouring nemesis coming to earth, preceded by his polished and reflective herald. As dark forces rise, two of the titular four find their wedding plans hampered by their fame and high demand – not to mention the end of the world – and the team’s literal hot-head is forced to come to terms with the reasons for his superficial attitude. The film is not fantastic, but enjoyable, and a vast improvement on the original. While still nowhere near the bar set by Batman Begins or Spider-man 2 for 21st century superhero cinema, this film is a passable 92 minutes for parents wanting to watch a fun heroic movie with their kids, without feeling like you’re having your teeth drilled (if you truly want cinematic superhero pain, see Zoom).
For parents, the film has some family dynamics much like The Incredibles that are worthy of note. Stretchy Reed Richards wrestles with putting his bride-to-be first, ahead of his work, his love of science, and his superheroic calling. This is particularly resonant to me… as a pastor, it’s extraordinariliy easy to prioritize “ministry”, “leadership”, and “the mission” ahead of spending proper time with my wife, pouring into her life, when she is the one I’ve been called to pastor, lead, and love first as my primary mission and most important adventure. Johnny Storm sees the love people around him have and realizes that he’s been playing at life and heroism as though it were a game; he realizes that life is more than fun and self-indulgence… that people are truly hurt all around him and he has the power to use his gifts to make a difference… and that truly loving relationships are more lasting than the hedonism he’s been steeped in.
Much like The Incredibles, the Fantastic Four conveys a message which also strikes a chord with the Christian. Gifted naturally and miraculously to work together as a made family, Christians are called by God to live corporately like Jesus, walking together humbly, acting justly and showing mercy. More than a “Spider-man” or “Batman” character, where the work before them seems very individualistic, the “Fantastic Four” work as a unit, parallelling the hope of Christian family seen in Ephesians 4, where the goal is to work together as one unified body, “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” The idea that all four heroes need to function together – their powers and personalities – to truly achieve their objective makes for a salient teaching point.
The Surfer himself, a tragic “hero” forced into a villainous deal with a world-destroying devil in order to save his planet, comes to terms with the fact that he has saved his people at the price of his very soul, and the lives of billions. The depiction of the Surfer is what truly makes this film rise above its predecessor, his moral dilemma not unlike his comic series where, even after the threat of Galactus had passed, he interacted with old Mephistopheles himself, arguing and warring over human nature and social injustice. Voiced by the 21st century James Earl Jones (Laurence Fishburne), the alien character with impenetrable mirrored skin is actually the deepest character in the film. I find myself hoping the rumors of a Silver Surfer flick turn out to be true.
At the very least, the Surfer raises this film above the injustice of the anything-but-fantastic first. With the second outing of this franchise actually turning out palatable, we can hope that the third will actually be good, and that by the time they reach four it will actually be fantastic.