Superhero fans have got it made these days: You want dark and gloomy, you head for the newest Batman movie. You crave earnest and wholesome, you pick one of the three Spider-Man flicks. Whatever mood you happen to be in, there's now a superhero movie (or series) to pick through: Hulk, Daredevil, Hellboy, Superman, Ghost Rider, you name it. Just about all the classic superheroes are now available in cinematic form, some good and some bad, some "dark and gloomy" and others all "touchy feely" ... but where's the "family friendly" superhero movie? The one that doesn't deal with tortured psyches, metaphysical angst or some form of anguished misery? Well heck, here's one: It's called Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and while it's often a pretty goofy little movie, it's also a perfect flick for young dads and their 9-year-old sons.

To call FF2 an improvement over its predecessor would be damning the sequel with faint praise. Aside from a few editorial missteps and a leading lady who still couldn't act warm if you set her hair on fire, there's quite a lot to enjoy in Fantastic Four 2: The actors seem a lot more comfortable with their strange roles, the jokey material is a lot less dorky, and (best of all) the sequel has an actual STORY that's both cohesive and surprisingly compelling. Sometimes it's OK to enjoy a mindless piece of popcorn escapism, one that's as broadly silly as it is colorfully exciting -- and maybe it's just a case of "lowered expectations" (seeing as how I didn't much care for the first FF entry) -- but there's something strangely infectious about the Fantastic Four sequel. (Plus, the flick clocks in at 91 minutes and is firmly PG-rated, which should be double good news for the movie-hoppin' parents out there.)

The plot is, of course, pure comic-book nuttiness: Reed Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are planning to wed, but as two of the planet's only "outed" superheroes, their mega-celebrity status prevents anything close to "private and personal" from taking place. Every time Reed and Sue line up for their nuptials, something (literally) explosive takes place. This time around it's the unexpected arrival of an interstellar mystery man dubbed "The Silver Surfer." Turns out that wherever the shiny alien being goes, crazy stuff happens: Snow in the desert, giant craters popping up all over the globe, massive power outages, stuff like that.

Without spoiling too much I can tell you that The Surfer is not actually a malicious villain, but is actually an extra-terrestrial herald for a being called, well, the head villain sometimes goes by the nickname "Eater of Planets" -- so obviously the Fantastic Four has got their work cut out for them. Not only do they have to deal with the freaky alien dude and his slow-arriving mega-boss, but also a bunch of gung-ho military types who are more interested in blowing things up than in befriending invincible shiny aliens. Of course it will take a complete team effort to save the world this time around, which means that Reed's powers of "stretchiness," Sue's inviso-force field talents, Johnny's flaming skills and The Thing's brute force are going to come in very handy indeed. (Ah, and nasty ol' Dr. Doom is back too!)

Those who've grown a little weary of the angst-laden superhero stories may find themselves surprisingly captivated by FF2. It's not nearly in the same league as the very finest Marvel adaptations, but it seems pretty clear to me that series director Tim Story paid close attention to most of the complaints surrounding his first entry ... and actually fixed those problems for the sequel! True that FF2 suffers from some really choppy editing (particuarly near Act III) and yet another one-note performance from the curvy-yet-vacant Ms. Alba, but just about all my other complaints on Fantastic Four have been addressed and remedied in FF2: The humor is just a little less dorky, the flick moves forward like a shot, the special effects (especially the Surfer) are really quite nifty, and it feels like Story and his screenwriters have finally struck a solid balance between high-end heroics and light-but-amusing sitcom-style humor.

In a move that might strike some of the FF purists as heresy, the filmmakers figured out a way to bring Julian McMahon back (without the Dr. Doom helmet), but it's a decision that helps the movie a whole lot. In only a few scenes, McMahon delivers a smoothly diabolical performance that'll leave you wanting more. Chris Evans is still a lot of sarcastic fun as the girl-crazy Johnny Storm -- while leading man Gruffudd seems to have really settled in to a comfort level with his Mr. Fantastic character. In the first flick I found the guy too stiff and robotic; here he cuts loose a little and makes for a mega-smart super-hero we can actually get behind.

So, no, it sure isn't brain surgery, but if you're looking for a superhero movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, is perfectly safe for family viewing, and capably blends action, sci-fi and comedy into one colorful concoction, you could do a whole lot worse than FF2. Plus it's got one action scene that's cooler than anything offered up in Spider-Man 3 -- and I never would have expected THAT!