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'Silver Surfer' director knows his audience

The Baltimore Sun

VANCOUVER, CANADA -- As director Tim Story tells it, he seemed like just another perpetual adolescent, gleefully flipping through the pages of a comic book at Comics Ink in Culver City. But Story was doing more than merely getting his comic-book jones on; he was on a market-research expedition that July of 2005, one that would help lay the foundation for Twentieth Century Fox's summer tent pole, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

"Somebody came in [the store] and started talking: 'So what did you think about Fantastic Four?'" recalls Story on a rainy morning here as he munches on snow peas and rolls of sliced turkey between takes on the set of Silver Surfer. Speaking with Zen-like calm and wearing glasses and a baseball cap snugly on his head, Story doesn't throw his weight around like the man in charge on this massive production that takes up three football fields' worth of hangars. So, it's easy to see how he could go unnoticed at that comic-book store as the customers began chatting about his Fantastic Four.

"One guy goes, 'Oh, it was terrible,' and starts going off on that theme. And the guy behind the counter was like, 'Well, I don't think so.' And before you knew it, four other guys joined in, and I sat there in one of the aisles and was able to hear what they thought the weaknesses and strengths of it were."

That was just two weeks after the release of Story's unlikely 2005 box-office hit, which opened with a $56-million domestic weekend and topped out at $329 million worldwide. A franchise was born -- yet because the movie was derided by fans and, at best, deemed a mild diversion by most critics (The Sun called it "blessedly unimportant") -- Story is that unusual species of director delivering a sequel to his success in an almost defensive crouch.

"I'll be the first to say that before I was able to get enough of the audience response, I was pretty down on myself about what it was," Story says of the first movie. "I didn't have a chance to do all the things that I wanted to do with it. And later on, I had to realize that the audiences had a fun time."

In Story's reconnaissance missions, including setting up a MySpace page where he invited discussion about the first film, the director gleaned two major needs for the next movie. "I want to be sure that in this one, we have enough action for the fan boys," he says. "And most importantly, I want Doom to really be the badass and the cool villain that I think he can be."

To find the right tone for Silver Surfer, Story says on this November day, he is tapping into why the first Fantastic Four was so successful. He had originally thought that movie was for comic-book-crazed teenagers and twentysomethings. "The film actually played younger than we thought. We found that 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds and even 6-year-olds were able to go watch this movie and have a ball," he says. "And because it's younger, we also found that we also got people on the other side of the 25 range because they have to take their kids."

That's how it played out even with some of his cast. Says Michael Chiklis, who plays Ben Grimm/the Thing and has two young daughters, "When we go to the movies, the kids win. And this was great because Fantastic Four was a movie that I could bring my kids to, but I wouldn't be sitting there in a coma going, 'Oh, my God. I can't wait for this to be over.' I could go for the ride and be a kid and enjoy it with them."

'It's just cool'

Story is also pulling out some new ammunition: a bigger budget (about $30 million more than the original, which reportedly cost $100 million); grander scope (the movie goes from New York to Washington, D.C., to London, to Shanghai and on to Iceland); more action; a cool gadget (in this case, the Fantasticar); and a gem in Marvel's coffers -- the Silver Surfer himself.

"I don't think I could have gone where I did with this movie without the Silver Surfer," Story says. "The character brings us a lot of edge. And he's the conduit that bridges the generations because, at the end of the day, he's just cool."

The character, as originally scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby in 1966, is the herald of a planet-devouring creature called Galactus. Riding a surfboard, with awesome powers of destruction and an inclination to philosophize, the Silver Surfer has all the qualities in an antagonist that Story required. Marvel had a Silver Surfer movie in development, but Story persuaded the company to introduce the character in the Fantastic Four sequel. Rendered by special-effects house Weta, the company that made Gollum for The Lord of the Rings, the Silver Surfer is being positioned front and center in the poster campaign and trailer.

The comic title has always had something of a goofy reputation, thanks largely to the ribbing Johnny Storm/the Human Torch and Grimm/the Thing subject each other to and to Mr. Fantastic's oddball power to stretch his body.

No one ever said summer blockbusters were meant to be pillars of artistic integrity, but Fantastic Four had a whole summer's worth of shlock in its 106 minutes, including such moments as the Human Torch discovering that he can make a hot tub out of snow so he invites a fetching young nurse to join him, and the villainous Dr. Doom firing electricity at his former employee, Sue Storm/the Invisible Woman, and telling her, "You're fired."

Daytime characters

It was clearly a distant cousin of The X-Men, Fox and Marvel's wildly successful franchise, which has its comedic beats but is ultimately grounded in the grim reality of mutant life.

"The X-Men movies are the nighttime movies, and the Fantastic Four are daytime movies," says Ralph Winter, producer of the three X-Men films as well as the Fantastic Four franchise. "The X-Men characters look better at night, and there are darker themes. [With] Fantastic Four, the characters are naturally more out in the public, more out in daylight."

Story says he is doing his best to respond to the perceived needs of the audience, but he's not letting himself be pushed around. "I made myself more accessible," he says of listening to the criticism. "But not too accessible, because you still got to do your thing." And he is not going to make excuses for the tone of the first movie. "What's cool about the Fantastic Four comic books is that they were always fun," he says. "The studio and I always saw it the same way, that this was a humorous, more relatable, lighter version of the comic-book movies that are out there." Still, the critical bashing "always bothers you," Story says.

But he's far less concerned about critics than he is about the guys at Comics Ink and all the people who have been posting on his MySpace page. They will see that for the sequel, more brow has been added to the Thing's bulky head -- a seeming imperative from the comic-book crowd.

He says he's doing what he can. And he's sorry that he hasn't been able to respond directly to everyone online who has riddled him with scorn, engaged in some nitpicking or, yes, offered praise. But, on opening day, he says, gesturing toward the production in front of him, "This is going to be my answer."

Tom Roston writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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