There are two mainstream comic book publishing houses, DC and Marvel, and choosing between them as a kid was a bit like choosing between The Beatles and the Stones. They had different styles and sensibilities (and philosophies) and after a little bit of experimentation you could find a fit with one or the other.
DC had Superman and Batman — big, bold and (dare I say it) one-dimensional characters with limited or opaque inner lives. When Stan Lee created Spider-Man, a teenage photographer with powers he neither asked for nor appreciated, he created a soap opera — a soap opera with aspirations to high art. As you might be able to tell, I was a Marvel kid.
Now the battle between DC and Marvel is taking place in cinemas rather than the high street. Nolan’s Dark Knight re-boot of Batman has been a phenomenon but like the comic book the central character is the least interesting. Superman is stumbling with many failed attempts to get off the ground. On the Marvel side Spider-Man is getting another go around with great young English actor Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) as the web slinger and we are only a few weeks away from another X‑Men film.
But for a particular generation of Marvel fans (i.e. a generation roughly my height, weight and age) the success of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man series has opened up the exciting potential for the whole Marvel Universe to be brought to the screen — a grand unified theory of Marvel if you like. We’re about to get a film introducing Captain America and then in 2012 The Avengers bring him, Iron Man, Hulk, etc. together for the first time. This is also, not coincidentally, a license to print quids in serious denominations.
But before we get there we have to get past the tricky Thor problem. The Mighty Thor was a key member of The Avengers, and a character beloved of many, but frankly he is the silliest of a potentially very silly bunch. He isn’t a normal guy who finds a magic hammer, he isn’t particularly tormented and he isn’t very deep. He’s the real God of Thunder, from Asgard the home of the Norse Gods, banished by his father Odin for being a bit of a dick and who makes his way between his world and ours using an enchanted rainbow bridge. He ain’t cool.
So, in a stroke of genius on the part of the producers and director Kenneth Branagh, lack of cool becomes his defining characteristic. The Thor feature film that’s in cinemas now is light-hearted, light-footed, fully aware of it’s reliance on nonsense and played to the campy hilt by all concerned.
Aussie Chris Hemsworth (best known until now for “Home and Away”) has bulked up to play the muscle-bound hero who learns that smacking things with a giant hammer isn’t the only way around a problem. He is well-supported by some class acts giving it heaps: Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins. When you think that its reason for existence is a long expensive trailer for another film that hasn’t been made yet, Thor is more entertaining than it has a right to be.
That’s a judgement that could also apply to Fast Five (known in NZ as Fast & Furious 5 because evidently audiences here need a bit of help making connections). I’d like to say that this instalment of the boy racer franchise is heaps better than episode four but I’d be guessing as I can’t actually remember anything about that one. Actually, you don’t need to know anything about Fast & Furious history as this one is entertaining enough on it’s own terms: Vin Diesel and Paul Walker lead a gang of fundamentally decent outlaws who find themselves in Rio with a chance at one last big score. Yup, it’s a caper movie — but with some panache.
Much quieter — but with an equivalent sense of Latin American place — is the new Merchant-Ivory literary adaptation, The City of Your Final Destination. Timid academic Omar Metwally is persuaded by his decidedly teutonic girlfriend (Alexandra Maria Lara) to go to Uruguay to research a biography of a recently deceased author. He needs approval from the remaining family so arrives unannounced at their remote ranch and lands in the middle of a fascinatingly unconventional family arrangement.
Anthony Hopkins (again) is the brother, Laura Linney is the wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg is the mistress — all living together and unable to agree on what to do with the land, the literary legacy, anything much. This is typical Merchant-Ivory — respectful, considered, patient — a bit like actually reading the book — but far from unenjoyable.
Mozart’s Sister is also for the arthouse crowd but is considerably less satisfying. Evidently Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an older sister who may or may not have been as gifted as him but whose talent was neglected by their ambitious father who recognised that the prodigious eleven-year-old was the family’s meal ticket.
Tired of being no more than an accompanist on a never-ending tour of the great houses of Europe, Nannerl Mozart (Marie Féret) has a doomed dalliance with the Dauphin of France (Clovis Fouin) but then the story fizzles out — much as it appears to have done in real life.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 4 May, 2011.