The sequel to the worst film in the current superhero movie wave has an exceedingly low bar to clear, so the mere statement, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is one hell of a lot better than Fantastic Four" is actually kind of value-free. Lung surgery is also better than Fantastic Four, and given that I endured both of those things in the space of about one month, I'd like to suppose that my opinion on the matter can be considered "definitive."
In this new film, eagerly scraping whatever money it can from the gaping pockets of enthusiastically undemanding tween boys in the lull between POTC3 and Transformers, the Fantastic Four have become beloved celebrities - hey, just like in Spider-Man 3! - but for Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), this comes at an unacceptable personal cost - hey, just like in Spider-Man 2! - when it interferes with their desire to just settle down and have a nice little wedding that isn't turned into the biggest media event of the year.
Unfortunately for their privacy, they make their decision to retire from superheroing just as a mysterious force comes from outer space - hey, just like in Superman II! - in the form of the Silver Surfer, embodied by Doug Jones of Pan's Labyrinth and voiced by Laurence Fishburne, of all painfully overqualified people. Where he goes, destruction follows: frozen oceans, electrical failures, snowstorms in Egypt. So Reed and Sue, along with Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) agree to the demands of General Hager (Andre Braugher!) that they team up with arch-nemesis Dr. Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) - hey, just like in X2! - to fight the greater threat.
It is well that not all superhero movies indulge in the existential darkness of Batman Begins or the Bryan Singer X-Men films. It's good to have fun, and that's a major part of what comic movies in the Elder Days used to be all about, so finding that a franchise is based on the concept of silly, PG-rated play is actually kind of nice. But it is also well that a film does not achieve lightness by means of flailing about in utter stupidity, and that is what FF: Surf's Up does. We can be generous and ignore the plotholes, which are mighty, and perhaps even the dreadful, jokey dialogue - hey, just like in Batman & Robin! - for in both cases, these are improved over the dire original largely because there are no glowering chasms of origin story exposition to fall into. What that leaves is a story of such straightforward predictability that it begins to resemble Medieval street theater, product placement that verges on parody (the Fantasticar is a DODGE!), and direction by the professional joy-eater Tim Story that endeavors to sanitize the tiniest gobbets of entertainment value out of the action sequences.
For a film that's supposed to be playful, it's an awful, tedious drudge. The interplay between Chiklis and Evans (the one and only good element of the first film) has been reduced to canned hilarity, and the plot proceeds with such a complete absence of tension that the many scenes of Reed bustling about figuring out what's happening have the feeling of padding, even though they are the only parts of the movie that actually advance the plot. Once the Four meet the Surfer, and Johnny gets zapped with some kind of power-devouring mutation, it switches gears to become incredibly goofy. This particular combination of goofy and slow turns into something that I can only call "shrill - and if shrill movies are bad, shrill action/adventures movies are worse, and watching FF: Surf Ninjas is sort of awfully zany in the way that watching a clown screaming at children is awful - hey, just like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace!
But if you can get past the hideously awful storyline, it's not all bad. The characters are all a bit looser and more interesting than the first time around. Which is not to say that they are all better-performed; Michael Chiklis still owns everyone around him, and Chris Evans begins to be worth more than a well-developed torso, but Ioan Gruffudd doesn't seem to give two halfs of a damn anymore, and Jessica Alba is now and ever shall be fuck-all hopeless - hey, just like in Sin City! I have no clue why Andre Braugher is in this film, and it's pretty clear that he doesn't either.
More importantly...and it makes me sad that it really is more important...the effects are pretty much top-notch. The first film didn't just look like a video game, it looked like a bad video game. Here, though...It's not Pirates of the Caribbean or Lord of the Rings good, but it gets the job done, a lot better than the last Marvel film, Ghost Rider. Even when the effects being depicted are horrible (the giant cloud-Sarlaac variant of Galactus leaps to mind), they are well-executed horribility. And the Surfer is so much better than he looked in the trailers. Metal always makes for good effects - witness the T-1000 lo these many years ago - and there's not much to be said against the design or animation of the title character.
Y'know, other than how the title character exists in this movie.