Cinema Autopsy: Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer
An appropriate tagline: A COSMIC commercial for Dodge, Circuit City, Nokia, Keebler, and Ray-Ban that’s $130 million in the making!
In 2005, superhero movies were red hot. Okay, not “$1 billion in a matter of weeks” hot, like 2012. But they had just emerged as the newest “sure thing” project for Hollywood to make some dough.
So, during the initial gold rush of superhero character licenses (before Marvel had their own studio to…you know, do things correctly and make a profit from it), Twentieth Century Fox sure knew what they were doing, business-wise. They missed out on Spider-Man, and all the DC characters were de-facto property of Warner Bros, but Fox got the lion’s share of other bankable properties.
Daredevil, The Punisher, Blade, The X-Men, and the Fantastic Four were the most notable, along with all of the supporting characters and villains associated specifically with them. Wow. That’s a sizable claim.
So, back to 2005. Fantastic Four is directed by Tim Story, a family comedy director specializing in cheap humor aimed at black Americans. Despite being an unfunny feature-length sitcom with superpowers and very little conflict, it was a pretty big success. With an obscene budget of $100 million it made $154 million domestically, but a whopping $330 million worldwide (thus proving the theory that movies with more sight gags than coherent dialogue will do pretty well in non-English-speaking countries). So…cue the sequel.
Oh, God! Un-cue the sequel! Un-cue it, damn you!
[Note: Oddly enough, the first film in this franchise is titled Fantastic Four, with the number spelled out. This sequel, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, has the numeral “4” instead. I can only assume this was to cut down on the length of the title, which was only long because it had to have a colon-and-subtitle set-up. Why? Because calling a movie “Fantastic Four 2” sounds dumb as hell. Anyway, I’ll be referring to them by the designated titles. Good luck acclimating to that!]
A BRIEF SYNOPSIS:
The heroic and dysfunctional family of the Fantastic Four are preparing for Reed Richards (the impossibly stretchy Mr. Fantastic) and Sue Storm (the remarkably bland and ineffectual Invisible Woman) to tie the knot. Some goofy hijinks ensue, mostly because Reed is a workaholic whose advanced mind never stops trying to learn/study/puzzle/experiment. But also because Johnny Storm (the flying douche bag Human Torch) is a cocky attention-whore bent on pimping their superhero brand out to literally any company possible. Oh, and the guy from “The Commish” is the Thing, a Brooklyn stereotype made of orange rock that looks suspiciously like foam rubber
Meanwhile, there’s a comic book superhero movie happening somewhere. The mysterious (re: silent and emotionless, i.e. boring, ipso facto unnecessary) Silver Surfer appears to put some big-ass craters in the Earth. When his rampage heads for Manhattan coincidentally during the lavish wedding, Reed reveals that he’s able to track the alien thingy with his handy-dandy Nokia cellphone. Great. But does it have unlimited texting, smart-ass? Oh, speaking of smart-asses, Johnny flames on and flies to confront the Surfer, only to get his ass handed to him and plummet back to the ground. It’s official. This wedding is ruined.
This leads to the plot development that was used the most in the advertising for this movie: Johnny’s molecular blueprint has changed to give him the ability to switch powers with the other members of the 4. Hijinks ensue. And I mean three-camera, canned laughter, commercial-break kinds of hijinks. With this new…um…problem?…the team tracks the Silver Surfer to London and then Latveria, where he has unintentionally awoken their old nemesis, Dr. Doom. After a brief struggle where Doom gets his ass handed to him by the Surfer, Doom is…miraculously cured of his scars and deformities from the first movie. You know, so we can see Julian McMahon’s beautiful face instead of a mask. Because he’s way too big of a star to hide behind some mask…that completely defines his character.
Just plain cheesed off by this Surfer character mucking up the works, U.S. Army General Hager arrives to enlist everyone’s help with stopping the chrome menace. And by everyone, I mean the Army has also made a deal with the corrupt billionaire with electrical powers who outright murdered several people and threatened to tear up the city two years ago.
Great plan, Nick Fury–um, er…General Hager.
So, after a brief struggle in the forest, Reed uses some pulse generator gadget to separate the Surfer from his surfboard (the obvious source of his power, because…things). When the Surfer is captured and tortured by Hager—who is already on thin ice for working with Doom and calling Reed a nerd—it is revealed that the alien being is not a bad guy, just a slave working for a vague space-cloud that devours planets: Galactus. Ever the Hollywood liberals, the Fantastic Four free the Surfer from his afternoon of water-boarding, but only just as Dr. Doom steals the Magic Surfboard of Cosmic Tachyon God Powers and brutally murders General Hager with what appears to be the basic tools of Adobe Photoshop. He just, sort of waves his hand and the General is frozen stiff (no ice or anything) and pieces of him amounting to half his physique are blown off. It’s very cheap-looking.
[Sidebar: Can we all agree on a few words in the English language that no longer fly in relation to sci-fi exposition? Tachyons, Radiation, or “Cosmic” Anything. Seriously, it’s as if we still found the “electricity + flesh = sentient life” from Frankenstein plausible. End of Sidebar.]
So, the Fantastic family and their guest climb into the Fantasti-Car, which flies to meet them…in Siberia…from their building in Manhattan…in about five minutes. Also, this Jetsons-quality flying car that runs off clean energy and emits cinnamon-roll-smelling exhaust (I admit that I’m guessing on that one) is a Dodge brand car.
Yes. The flying car that runs on clean energy. That Reed Richards himself invented and built. Is a Dodge brand car. With a Hemi brand engine. I can’t even express all of the ways in which this is stupid. For starters, Reed built the damn thing himself! Shouldn’t Dodge be ready to sue him for using their brand name and logos on the hood of this thing? Also, how does a Hemi engine which (being a petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine) must run on gas also do the clean energy thing? Did Reed sell the design to Dodge, and that’s why they’ve endorsed this flying dinner-plate?
Well, anyway…they chase Plastic Surgeon Doom to a soundstage that’s supposed to be Shanghai, but looks more like Chinatown in LA. Johnny uses his newfound ability to take everyone’s powers at once and fight Doom, while Vic Mackey, now out of his Halloween-level prosthetics, swings a crane at the chaos. Doom is knocked into the sea and seemingly defeated, the Surfer is reunited with his board, and everything is cool.
Except it isn’t, because Sue has been impaled to death and Galactus is approaching Earth. Good thing Groovy Silver Jesus is here! The harbinger of alien genocide happens to have the ability to raise the dead in this movie (certainly not in the comic books), and then he simply surfs into the stratosphere to meet his master, the omnipotent “cosmic” cloud that destroys worlds. Then there’s a flash of light, and everything’s cool.
No, seriously. That’s how the Fantastic Four deals with Galactus. They hang out and do fuck-all while the Silver Surfer merely flies into the Galactus cloud and it dissipates. Hmm. If he could do that the whole time, why didn’t he do it like seven hundred destroyed planets ago? And what exactly did he do? And did it kill him? We don’t know, because we don’t see him again.
Ever the comic book superhero story, the film just seems to accept this as the climax and we cut to a small wedding ceremony on another soundstage that is supposed to be Japan, but instead looks like the Japanese Gardens in my hometown of Portland. Sue and Reed finally get their wedding ceremony, but the wacky family is forced to make it very brief because of a new “cosmic” threat. Just as the last film, we end on Johnny wasting time and energy by flying into the sky and sky-writing the “4” logo, instead of going to stop the new threat that’s probably killing folks somewhere. But come on, what do you think these people are? Some kind of superheroes?
Oh, post-credits we see the Surfer floating through space, and his board is returning to revive him for the sequel/spin-off that never happened for a variety of obvious reasons. I wonder how many people stuck around in the theaters long enough to see that.
I try to pepper my synopses with some humor in order to make up for the piss-poor stories that I’m recapping. But taking out my jokes, my tangents, and my questions regarding the logic, feasibility, and necessity of the more stupid aspects of Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, take a good look at the chain of events:
Surfer shows up, shows that he’s tough. He brings Doom back. The Army gets their shit together. They capture him. They torture him. Doom steals the board. The heroes rescue the Surfer, catch up to Doom, and knock his ass out pretty easily. Sue dies, the Surfer revives her. Galactus appears, the Surfer defeats…it. Then a wedding. The end.
That’s a paper-thin plot, just like the first Fantastic Four (which basically consisted of “let’s go to space, now we have powers, let’s all live together like a wacky sitcom, Victor has powers too but he is bad, let’s stop him, that was easy, celebration!”). As Batman & Robin before it, this movie merely exists so the characters can banter back and forth with each other and show what goofballs they are with these cartoony powers. That’s a vast disservice to one of the greatest (and uncharacteristically successful and happy) love stories in comic books, along with a complete dismissal of Ben Grimm’s inherently tragic existence.
Add to those basic plot problems the awful lack of explanation regarding the central character of the film, the Silver Surfer. All we ever find out is that he scouts worlds for Galactus in order to spare his home planet the same fate. We know that his powers come from the board, which is patently false in the comics. We also know that he has limitless power, as he can reanimate the dead and defeat Galactus like it ain’t no thang. These are also totally inaccurate facets of the character according to comic book lore, but I would consider forgiving that if it were explained at all.
This is all more infuriating that it should be, mostly because the Surfer is our protagonist here. He sets these events in motion, and he ultimately brings them to the conclusion. This movie is a back-door pilot for a Silver Surfer franchise, and he is the most inconsequential main character in the entire film. And let’s not forget the other one-dimensional characters spouting inane dialogue, including a Brilliant Hollywood Scientist™ whose field of study seems to veer wildly depending on the plot, the moustache-twirling villain that everyone decides to trust despite his total lack of repentance, and the bull-headed General who shoots, tortures, and barks orders first and then neglects to ask a rational question at all.
Let’s talk about something else besides the script, though. We should. Right? Let’s see…there’s the direction. Tim Story clearly knows how to line up a shot, but there’s a reason why this globetrotting, world-threatening, star-studded special effects extravaganza looks like a really expensive made-for-television sequel. You know, like Lake Placid 2 or a High School Musical sequel. It’s because it is directed like a comedy. Matter of fact, the entire production reads like a comedy that happens to have lots of special effects.
This is why Jessica Alba is in a very obvious and very low-quality wig. This is why Michael Chiklis’ Thing prosthetics look cheaper than the first movie. This is why Story cannot decide to make the Silver Surfer a purely CGI character, a purely practical effect suit worn by Doug Jones, or a combination of the two. It literally changes from scene to scene. And this is also why we have to endure Julian McMahon, sans mask, as Dr. Doom and other cost-effective changes.
While on the subject of McMahon, let’s talk about the casting. Of course, the majority of casting issues in Rise of the Silver Surfer are problems that stem from casting the first Fantastic Four, particularly McMahon himself. He really sucks. But let’s look at the poor choices made in this sequel alone: Andre Braugher is a respectable character actor, most known for playing tough guy cops in “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and made-for-TV “Kojack” movies. But as a gung-ho military strategist comparing himself to a quarterback and mocking Reed for being a nerd, he’s quite ill-equipped. Somehow I don’t buy the book-smart cynical lawyer from the city in The Mist as a weird amalgamation of General Thunderbolt Ross and Nick Fury (which is exactly who this character is, by the way).
And then we come to the Surfer himself. Doug Jones has a certain physicality and willingness to punish his body with makeup, effects, and costumes that has made him a Hollywood mainstay since appearing as a very limber clown in Batman Returns. This was an interesting choice for the Silver Surfer, and not only that but he was cheaper than Andy Serkis, and this was to be his biggest break since Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. His star was on the rise. That is, until some jackass decided that Jones’ voice wasn’t a deep enough timbre and not a recognizable, bankable star. So unbeknownst to Jones (who performed the entire part, dialogue and all), Laurence Fishburne was brought in to dub the Surfer. Now, as I watch this character that is essentially the only reason the movie exists (the rights to him and Galactus came as a package with the Fantastic Four, so he was shoehorned into an already full story much like Venom that same summer), I can’t help but realize that Fishburne has been cursed to only play Morpheus for the rest of his career.
The final thing that I wanted to touch on is the most obvious and annoying reason why this film is painful to watch: the product placement. Superhero movies are far from devoid of real-world products. Hell, look how hard James Bond has been pimping the cars, watches, vodkas, beers, and guns that he has favored for the last five decades. But Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer is far and wide the most blatant advertising whore of superhero cinema. I recently saw Superman’s last film used as an ad for 7-11, Nikon, Sears, and IHOP. And it was positively subtle compared to the entire scenes of this movie devoted to a heated discussion of Johnny’s NASCAR-looking jumpsuit with logos all over it (a gag that was handled in a funnier and more intelligent way by the superhero spoof Mystery Men) and the Dodge/Hemi commercial laying waste to any goodwill from comic nerds who recognize the Fantasti-Car.
A common defense of product placement in film is the idea that it grounds the fictional story and fictional people in the “real world.” Whether seeing Iceman frost up a prominently showcased Dr. Pepper for Wolverine helped you believe that their powers were real or not, I can at least verify that in this “real world” of ours, no one refers to their mobile phone as “my Sony-Ericsson Xperia” and no one takes care enough to hold every snack food and beverage label-out. It may ground the plot in the world we, the audience, live in. But it also takes us out of magic movie-land to remind us, “At its core, this piece of entertainment that you’re watching is still a soulless business. Just like everything else in the real world!”
Threadbare Plot Lacking Explanation- There’s no real mystery surrounding the Silver Surfer, no conflict with Dr. Doom, and no real impending danger from Galactus (being that his own servant was able to wave him off). This is less of a superhero film and more of an expensive hang-out show.
Made For Television, for $130 Million- Despite being more expensive than the first film, this one looks cheaper. Add to that the pathological need to miscast television actors in roles clearly not meant for them, and you start to see that the budget probably went toward enticing the same actors back for what was probably a straight-to-video production at one point.
Not Product Placement, But Product Assault- While a bad movie is a bad movie. But this had to be a bad movie with so much advertising in it that it crossed the lines steadily and rapidly like an NFL Running Back: noticeable…silly…annoying…insulting…detrimental to the plot…touchdown!
Cause of Death: Not Product Placement, But Product Assault
I’ve seen both Fantastic Four films. The first one isn’t good, but it really isn’t terrible. This movie is much, much worse. Anyone who claims that the two are comparable must not have seen both.
The only unforgivable misstep with the first one was really a lack of conflict for three quarters of the film. But really, one could even make the argument that the first film captured the tone of the old “Fantastic Four” comics—a largely internal focus on the heroes themselves and how they adapt to their powers, their weaknesses, and each other. In other words, it felt like a dysfunctional family sitcom because the original comic is a dysfunctional family sitcom. This doesn’t make the film any better, but it lends it a legitimate aim to the filmmakers.
This one, meanwhile, is that same sitcom, but it also carries the smugness and self-referential pleasure of a sitcom on its ninth season, despite how cheaply it is presented. And it interrupts its revelry every five minutes for a commercial.
But why? Why was the advertising so prominent that it took an already lame-duck film and made it horrendous?
There are big-budget blockbusters that use product placement all the time, and for different reasons than you may think. Sometimes the products just happen to fit the characters, the setting, or the plot. There’s no financial arrangement with the product’s owners, just usually a licensing permission to use the logo. Other times, the product is hawked onscreen in exchange for some freebies, like a certain brand of soda available for free to the crew of the movie. The third arrangement is the more obvious…financial agreement. And it works just like it sounds; the more conspicuous the product, the heftier the compensation is. For instance, the Coen brothers probably had to obtain permission to use In-and-Out Burger and Kahlua in The Big Lebowski, there was probably a lot of free Pepsi Blue on the set of The Italian Job in 2003…and then there’s Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
So, the studio budget is reported at $130 million, and add to that the tens of millions from Dodge, and maybe another ten to fifteen million from the combined payouts from Dell, Nokia, Ray-Ban, Keebler, and even all the free Burger King that Julian McMahon could eat…this movie might have grossed more from advertising than it did ticket sales.
The most plausible explanation: the budget spiraled out of control early in production. With the new Silver Surfer effects, developing a new set of prosthetics for Michael Chiklis (while cheaper-looking, this new Thing suit evidently was better at not giving Vic Mackey a heat-stroke), and paying the returning cast, writer, and director their sequel bump*, one can understand how the money started to pile up. Let’s also not forget that Hollywood doesn’t factor in the advertising costs to a film’s reported budget. For a comic book superhero sequel released the same summer as Spider-Man 3 and Transformers, let’s call the advertising somewhere around $50 million.
[*While Robert Downey, Jr. has altered the typical contract norms with his Avengers pay, the standard contract for the main cast is a three-film deal, with the pay for each increasing incrementally. So Jessica Alba may have been given, hypothetically, a $30 million contract that paid her $5 million for FF, $10 million for F4:ROTSS, and $15 million for Fantastic 4: Huge Crossover With X-Men.]
So clearly the amount of product placement in Rise of the Silver Surfer can be explained as an attempt to fight the rising cost of a superhero flick. But who should take the blame for ballooning budgets and attempting to offset them with blatant commercials?
Producers. Sure. It is their job to manage the financial aspects of a production. While some producers are more focused on the creative side of the project—bringing the film to fruition, acting as liaison between the creative professionals and the studio, etc—there are always several names in the credits in charge of time management, logistics, personnel…you know, the really tedious and business-oriented necessities that get a film made and make a film profitable.
This film has 14 producers listed, but that’s including Avi Arad, the CEO of Marvel and master of all things Marvel in feature film since the mid-1990s. This guy is listed as Producer on every single Marvel film (regardless of the studio rights) up through the first Iron Man. Suffice it to say, anything in a Marvel character’s film in the last fifteen years that was faithful to the comics, this guy was probably behind it.
That list also includes Stan Lee himself (strictly tribute being paid to the Godfather of Comics, along with his fee for giving this piece of crap his seal of approval) along with Chris Columbus, a capable director/producer who specializes in bland and/or schmaltzy family films like Nine Months, Mrs. Doubtfire, Bicentennial Man, and the first two Harry Potter films. Hmm, I’d peg him as another creative Producer, possibly specializing in helping Tim Story direct without spending the Gross National Product of Latveria. Oh, and we also have Kevin Feige, another Marvel executive and possibly one of the three most responsible people for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yeah, let’s just go ahead and move down the line from him.
Then we can cut out some Line Producers, Chris Columbus’ regular collaborators Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan, a former assistant named Allison Calleri making her bones as Associate Producer, and a couple of old salts who helped produce the X-Men trilogy….
Honestly, no one jumps out. I think the producers on this film were all very competent folks who knew what they were doing.
We at the made-up Film Forensics Dept. cannot give a positive ID of the killer, but I advise the investigators to look closely at Tim Story.
Story is such an oddball choice to direct a big-budget comic book superhero film, let along two of them. This is the director of Barbershop, for crying out loud. Lucky for him the first movie was an origin story (one hour of which was spent on the heroes just living together and using their powers for day-to-day things like reaching for toilet paper). This second film may be much worse because it required a more action-oriented director. But if Story is the problem, what does that have to do with the product placement?
I can only hypothesize that the “commercial break” moments of this film seemed so blatant because they were directed by someone who lacks subtlety. It’s possible that, faced with such an overwhelming amount of products to sling, Story decided to crank the salesmanship up to eleven in order to poke fun at it.
But if that’s the case, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer is merely another typical Tim Story film…an unfunny comedy.