Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's 1960s pop art masterpiece humbly billed itself as "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine," and in its heyday it was. So far, the film series about the first family of superheroes has been something less than stellar, with a first effort that largely failed to capture the mix of action, adventure, wit and pulpy sci-fi that helped the Fantastic Four launch the Marvel comics dynasty. Given a shot at redemption, director Tim Story doesn't exactly knock the cover off the ball, but he manages to find the ballpark. The improvements are obvious, the effects are cooler, the storytelling is tighter and the global scope of the action is bigger and better than the original.
That doesn't mean the film is problem-free, there's still plenty wrong: Jessica Alba is brutal and terribly miscast, the slapstick is juvenile and Julian McMahon's Dr. Doom is still more of an obnoxious yuppie than menacing supervillain. Fanboys will revolt at the sacrilegious changes, and the jokey product placement that brands the sleek flying "Fantisticar" as a Dodge, but laypeople will likely be more forgiving.
Fortunately, the fun factor is enough to override the crappy bits, and that starts with an improved handling of the team's personalities. The stiff and static Ioan Gruffud is a bit looser this time as the fluid Mr. Fantastic, and Chris Evans continues to nail the cocky essence of the Human Torch. Michael Chiklis carries the comedy workload as the granite-skinned Thing, though he delivers one too many "mega burps" for comfort. Andre Braugher gets the thankless role of a hardcore Army general, and Alba bats her eyelashes effectively, though her line readings are so bad you wish her superpower weren't invisibility but silence.
The real star of the show is the Silver Surfer, an elegant fusion of CGI and the mime work of actor Doug Jones, who glides through space and speaks in the foreboding baritone of Laurence Fishburne. This menacing and extremely powerful E.T. is the advance man for Galactus, a massive, planet-devouring entity that looks like a purple-helmeted god in the comic book, but here looks a lot like a worldwide thunderstorm. Deep under his shiny hide the Surfer has a noble soul, and the challenge becomes changing his mind and altering his job description from harbinger of destruction to metallic savior. Two guesses as to the outcome, but extra credit if you can turn off your brain long enough to ignore the giant plot holes.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.