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Four superheroes, one inconsequential film

You have to give the people cranking out these "Fantastic Four" movies credit. They know some of their audience extremely well. The early dilemma in "Rise of the Silver Surfer " (installment two, opening everywhere today) is this: Save the world or marry Jessica Alba . Your conscience says, "Save the world." But the Maxim reader in you knows better.

And so Reed Richards, the bio physicist with the elastic body, played by Ioan Gruffudd , proceeds to head down the aisle with his sometimes invisible girlfriend, Sue Storm, played by Alba. Meanwhile, the planet is engulfed in a major "global disturbance," in which the movie's special-effects department has fun creating massive conical orifices in such places as the dry bed of the Thames.

To be fair, Reed winds up building a device that tracks down the source of the disturbance. But that this movie would even try to drum up a dilemma for Reed, however comic, speaks to the dopiness of this flimsy series: it's "Yes, Dear" in tights.

The disturbance happens to be the Silver Surfer from outer space. He's part special effect, part dude in a suit -- to be precise, it's Doug Jones , who also embodied the demanding faun in "Pan's Labyrinth ." The Surfer rides a matching board, looks like a really fit SAG Award, speaks in Laurence Fishburne's voice, and has basically come in peace. He's only following orders to season Earth to be eaten by an omnipotent dust cloud, whom fans of the Marvel Universe -- and Fantastic Four issue #48, I believe -- will know as the entity Galactus. The Surfer and his own dilemma are a fine addition to this series. He exposes everything around him as shallow.

Could there be a more inconsequential superhero blockbuster than the Fantastic Four? These are flavorless, unbearably light movies, lighter than "X-Men ," "Superman ," "Batman ," and "Spider-Man ," lighter than paper, thinner than air. Lightness might be the filmmakers' mark of distinction, an antidote for the crises of identity and existence in those other movies. But the stakes are so intentionally low that there is nothing to care about. "Rise of the Silver Surfer" revels in the celebrity of its four heroes -- Reed and Sue's nuptials are "the wedding of the century"! But no one involved has the satirical chops to say anything witty or new.

The Marvel comic book this movie is based on was never as sitcom-ish as the two films it's inspired. "The Fantastic Four," with its quartet of earthlings turned superhuman, wed scientific data and family dynamics into a world of life-size concerns often played out on a galactic scale. The comic was rarely as ludicrous as it seemed or as it sometimes should have been. This made it square, but it made it solid, too. A fan could rely on its commitment to intelligent story arcs and absorbingly drawn action.

I suppose the only way to go with an expensive movie adaptation was to dumb it down, gratuitously set it in key international markets (the big showdown here is in China), and wink. But tongue scarcely touches cheek in these two movies, which Tim Story has directed with patchy fits of competence. For "Rise of the Silver Surfer," Julian McMahon, playing the thorn in the gang's side, Dr. Doom, goes for camp. He looks ready to burst into a number from "The Phantom of the Opera." But his one louche mood doesn't cut it.

As Ben "The Thing" Grimm, Michael Chiklis appears to have the hang of his bulky orange costume, but, if it's possible, his growling dialogue is more embarrassingly Kramdenesque than in the first movie. "I'll show you a rock slide" is yea-close to "To the moon!" His Norton is Chris Evans's Human Torch, and, like many fresh one-note character tics, his surprising conceited sarcasm from the first movie has stiffened into shtick. But he does raise some burning -- sorry -- questions about how Ben and his girlfriend (Kerry Washington, luminous but thankless again) manage to make love.

This leaves the rise of the Silver Surfer itself as the movie's only remotely interesting development. He causes the gang to switch powers occasionally, which is enjoyable. But it's his infinite sadness that sticks with you. This shiny, synthetic creature is more human than anyone else here. If he's smart, he'll ditch these chumps and ride that board into his own movie.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to movies/blog.


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Directed by: Tim Story

Written by: Mark Frost and Don Payne

Starring: Ioan Gruffudd , Jessica Alba , Michael Chiklis , Chris Evans , Julian McMahon , Andre Braugher , and Doug Jones

At: Boston Common , Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 92 minutes

Rated: PG (sequences of action violence, some mild language, and innuendo)