At a time when tortured superheroes like Spider-Man, Superman and Batman would benefit from some serious psychotherapy, it's almost refreshing to see a comicbook caper as blithe, weightless and cheerfully dumb as "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer."

At a time when tortured superheroes like Spider-Man, Superman and Batman would benefit from some serious psychotherapy, it’s almost refreshing to see a comicbook caper as blithe, weightless and cheerfully dumb as “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” Faithfully mining one of the Marvel franchise’s more intriguing mythologies, the sequel proves every bit as disposable as its predecessor, with even less character definition and several tons more poundage in the f/x department. Original grossed a surprising $330 million worldwide, and “Silver Surfer” should ride a heady wave of fan nostalgia and an audience-friendly PG rating to similarly golden returns.

It’s always a drag when the threat of apocalyptic doom intrudes on one’s personal life, as Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are about to realize. Publicly known as Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, respectively, the Gotham scientists-turned-lovers are now planning a splashy celebrity wedding.

But to Sue’s frustration, Reed is constantly distracted by reports of what appears to be a giant comet circling the globe, causing snowstorms, blackouts and all manner of meteorological mayhem. After a strike on New York disrupts the wedding (in the first of many set pieces entailing the destruction of buildings and aircraft), it’s clearly a case for the Fantastic Four — rounded out by Sue’s reckless brother Johnny (Chris Evans), aka the Human Torch, and the rock-bodied, super-strong fighter Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis).

Villain turns out to be the enigmatic Silver Surfer, a metal-based intergalactic traveler (sonorously voiced by Laurence Fishburne) who’s left a trail of dead planets in his wake. To stop the gnarly destroyer, the foursome will have to contend with a surly U.S. Army general (Andre Braugher) and, in an even more unpleasant development, the unsubtly monikered Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), having escaped his frozen captivity from the first film.

A gleaming marvel of 3-D animation, the Silver Surfer (who from certain angles resembles an iridescent shop manikin or a wicked-cool hood ornament) will deservedly command most of the attention here. Comicbook fans in particular will be pleased to know the character’s mysterious origins and more-complicated-than-meets-the-eye motivations have been left gratifyingly intact, giving the pic a stronger narrative thrust than the first film’s more straightforward origin story.

That somewhat offsets the sad fact that the Fantastic Four themselves have even less dramatic stature this time around, as scribes Mark Frost and Don Payne fail to develop them beyond the requisite one trait apiece. Thus, Gruffudd’s Reed is still a lovable geek. Evans’ Johnny is still a self-aggrandizing horndog. Alba’s Sue is still, um, pretty. And Chiklis’ Ben, the only figure who showed any semblance of a soul in the first place, is here reduced to belching comic relief.

To some extent, the noncommital perfs, lazy dialogue and retro-cheesy visual effects could be chalked up to the pic’s refusal to take itself too seriously; one would be hard-pressed to recall the last time the apocalypse was treated this breezily onscreen. But at a certain point, even the most popcorn-hungry moviegoers may find themselves craving something in the way of real dramatic stakes. To defend “Fantastic Four” on the grounds that it is unpretentious is to make too generous an excuse.

Back in the director’s chair, Tim Story ensures the pic’s stylistic consistency with its predecessor, though the finale — with its images of the Earth beset by cataclysmic forces — suffers from visual bloat. F/x work overall is a mixed bag, lacking the polish and seamless integration most auds have come to expect from superhero extravaganzas.

Globe-trotting sequel could set a record for most international landmarks damaged in the course of a 1½-hour action movie, laying waste to the River Thames, the London Eye and the Great Wall of China, for starters.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Production

A 20th Century Fox release, presented in association with Constantin Film and Marvel Studios, of a 1492 Pictures/Bernd Eichinger production. Produced by Eichinger, Avi Arad, Ralph Winter. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan. Co-producers, Ross Fanger, Lee Cleary. Directed by Tim Story. Screenplay, Don Payne, Mark Frost; story, John Turman, Frost, based on the Marvel comicbook by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Larry Blanford; editors, William Hoy, Peter S. Elliot; music, John Ottman; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; supervising art director, Daniel T. Dorrance; art director, Sandra Tanaka; set designers, Bryan Sutton, Peter Bodnarus, Rodrigo Segovia, Jay Mitchell; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Mary Vogt; sound (Dolby/DTS), Eric Batut; supervising sound editors, John A. Larsen, Craig Henighan; sound designer, Henighan; special makeup effects, Mike Elizalde; visual effects supervisor, Scott Squires; visual effects, Weta Digital, Hydraulx, the Orphanage; special visual effects, Giant Killer Robots, Hammerhead Prods.; creature and makeup effects, Spectral Motion; associate producers, Allison Calleri, Stewart Bethune; assistant director, Lee Cleary; second unit director, E.J. Foerster; casting, Christian Kaplan (U.S.), Corren Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter (Canada). Reviewed at 20th Century Fox studios, Century City, June 13, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Reed Richards - Ioan Gruffudd Sue Storm - Jessica Alba Johnny Storm - Chris Evans Ben Grimm - Michael Chiklis Victor Von Doom - Julian McMahon Alicia Masters - Kerry Washington General Hager - Andre Braugher Voice of the Silver Surfer - Laurence Fishburne
With: Doug Jones, Beau Garrett, Brian Posehn, Zach Grenier, Kenneth Welsh.

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