'Fantastic' sequel an improvement

"Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" is a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but it still comes up a tad short in terms of deserving the adjective "fantastic."

New York's most famous super-team, the Fantastic Four, is at the height of its popularity, and the upcoming nuptials of team leader Mr. Fantastic, aka Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), the Invisible Woman, adds to the media frenzy.

More pressing matters come when a mysterious being of cosmic energy (Doug Jones) causes various disasters across the globe.

Reed is approached by the Army to find a way to stop it, and it just so happens, the alien life force buzzes by the Big Apple just as he and Sue are about to tie the knot.

When Sue's brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), the Human Torch, takes on the extraterrestrial, he finds that the Silver Surfer (which Reed dubs him because of his metallic appearance and hovering surfboard) is much more of a threat than they first perceived.

Even worse, the FF's former foe Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) has his own ideas on how to deal with the Surfer.

The cast is substantially better this time around; Gruffudd is more confident as the man of elastic, Mr. Fantastic, and Alba is much less transparent as Sue.

Evans gets a little ingratiating as the Human Torch at times, making the character more of a hotshot than he really needs to be, but Johnny finally matures somewhat in this installment.

Michael Chiklis is easily the standout as Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing, whose rocky exterior belies the big teddy bear inside.

Jones (in a guise not unlike the ones he donned in "Pan's Labyrinth") gives a graceful performance as the Surfer, although the voice is dubbed by the pensive tones of Laurence Fishburne.

The one failure is McMahon, because no matter how hard he tries, he cannot embody the megalomaniacal Dr. Doom in the proper spectrum.

He is fine as a villain, but he has no business playing Doom, one of Marvel Comics' greatest antagonists.

The first "Fantastic Four" was poorly paced, completely effects driven, and an overall disappointment.

"Rise of the Silver Surfer" has a number of improvements: the characters are slightly more developed and truer to the comics (with the exception of Dr. Doom), and the story is much more concise than before.

The first half is slow, but at the midway point things really get rolling, especially once Reed unveils the quartet's new mode of transport, the Fantasti-Car.

Still, as the third Marvel movie of the year (following "Ghost Rider" and "Spider-Man 3"), even the most loyal comic fan will get antsy sitting through this, particularly the conclusion, which will prove frustratingly simplistic for anyone who is familiar with the saga of the Surfer.

The main problem is that director Tim Story feels the need to make a joke out of everything, and this makes it difficult to take the film seriously.

Sure, it is amusing when Johnny starts switching powers with his teammates (as a result of coming into contact with the Surfer), but after a while, enough is enough with the gags.

Just one of many gratuitous summer sequels, "Rise of the Silver Surfer" is better than average, but if you want real entertainment, pick up one of the comics that inspired it.

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