In every sense, Thor needed a haircut. The Marvel movie universe—which, like the real universe, is pitiless and has no end—featured this character to passable effect in its Avengers movies and with lesser results in Thor’s starring vehicles. Something had to change, especially since a very funny actor, Chris Hemsworth, was visibly hamstrung by the Nordic gloom of his character.
A haircut—literally and figuratively—is exactly what Thor gets in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel thing. And like Samson in reverse, Thor thrives when his 1970s thrash-rock locks are shorn, finding new life as a comic character
Chris Hemsworth’s performance as Thor looks like a triumph of realism next to his turn as a Nantucket whaler in In the Heart of the Sea. I know it must be difficult for an Australian actor to master a New England accent, but Hemsworth sounds like he’s choking on Boston baked beans for the duration of the film.
Of course, who knows what a Nantucket whaler sounded like in 1820? But the accent is the least of Hemsworth’s problems in Heart, an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller about an incredible sea disaster.
In 1821, in the South Pacific, the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a huge whale. The surviving sailors endured ghastly hardships in the following weeks, including starvation.
The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.
Given a junky script and inert lead actors, director Michael Mann does what he can with Blackhat. The result is an occasionally intoxicating mess of a movie.
It’s about a world-class hacker. Which means the whole thing takes place as he sits at his keyboard and never leaves his parents’ basement. Just kidding. However, it is never explained why our hero needs to traipse across half of Asia if he’s supposedly a genius hacker who can re-wire a financial system through his smartphone.
Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) begins the movie in prison for past hack attacks. Sprung by an international plan to catch a cyber-terrorist responsible for shutting down a Chinese nuclear reactor, Nick joins a skeptical FBI agent (the great Viola Davis, who has a few signature moments) and a Chinese lawman named Chen (Leehom Wang, a cool singer-actor) on the case.
The Avengers (Disney), the Marvel comics superhero all-star team, is the most impressive example of synergy in the comic book movie industry to date.
Unlike The X-Men, which arrived full formed in 2000, The Avengers is the comic book version of the supergroup, with stars in their own right coming together (not without some friction and ego-thumping) for a battle royale. So Marvel put together a long term plan, launching their stars in a series of solo films and building an entire universe of heroes and villains for the screen.
They teased audiences with brief cross-overs and then, after years of setting it all up, brought together the team: Robert Downey’s cheeky, cocky Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s warrior prince Thor, Chris Evans’ earnest Captain America, and Mark Ruffalo taking over as Bruce Banner and The Hulk (the third actor in as many films), giving the character a haunted, embittered edge. To round out the team, the film expands the role of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a slinky superagent, from the second “Iron Man” film, and adds Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an archer marksman briefly seen in “Thor.” Samuel Jackson presides over it all as Nick Fury.
It could have been a disaster, with so many characters to juggle and personalities to respect while engaging in a big, noisy, apocalyptic battle with no less than gods and aliens. And it was a measured gamble to bring in Joss Whedon, a man with well-earned fan credentials and an affinity for this kind of genre storytelling. No question that he brings smarts and style and self-aware wit to his productions (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on TV, “Serenity” on film) but his audiences have been, shall we say, small and passionate.
It was the perfect marriage of subject and sensibility. You wouldn’t accuse The Avengers of being good drama but the sprawling, splashy spectacle and its much-much-much-larger-than-life heroes makes for a genuine comic book epic for the big screen.
The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate) – There’s more knowing horror comedy and meta-horror commentary than actual tension and thrills in the self-aware, awfully clever love letter to the horror movie fandom from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. That’s fair, because scares or not, I had more fun watching Cabin than almost any other film this year.
Whedon, producer and co-writer, first established his fan credentials with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a self-aware, pop-culture strewn horror show in weekly installments, but he and co-writer Goddard, a Buffy writer making his directorial debut, take a different approach here. No spoilers, just in case you’ve managed to steer clear of them so far, but the first scene isn’t about the five kids headed off for a weekend in the haunted woods. It begins with the quip-laden banter of lab-coat technicians (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) as they head to work in their quasi corporate bunker culture. That work has something to do with the kids’ weekend plans, and the rest of the film shows us just what and why that is.
As far as the fresh meat college kids go, keep an eye out for the handsome young guy playing Curt, the smarter-than-he-lets-on football player. Back in 2009, when the film was made (release was delayed by the bankruptcy of MGM, which produced the film), Chris Hemsworth was an up and coming actor with a lot of promise. Now he’s Thor. And he’s still upstaged by Fran Kranz as the twitch stoner Marty, who makes the case that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Unabashed horror movie fans Whedon and Goddard let their monster mash impulses go wild, riffing on every “kids in the woods tormented by supernatural killers” film ever made (with special affection for the Evil Dead films) before launching into a pulp rumination on our need for scary stories as a kind of ritual.
Which is not to say it’s pretentious or, you know, particularly intellectual. It’s just clever, a fun riff on the clichés, conventions, and expectations of American horror movies. That it tries to make sense of all the bad decisions and unbelievable coincidences that drive the stories, and mostly succeeds, is just part of the fun.