Essay: L.A. Times film critic looks for heroic heart of 2009

July 05, 2009 | 5:31 p.m.


Betsy Sharkey is one of the two film critics at the Los Angeles Times. After surveying the great glut of fanboy fare this year, she got to thinking about the nature of the modern film hero and the inner workings of their characters as well as their appeal. Here’s an excerpt, or you can read the entire piece right here.  

This summer’s heroes may go boldly, but in every case, someone has gone many times before: three earlier “X-Men” and “Terminators“; one earlier Michael Bay “Transformers,” a 1984 animated film and the pervasive TV series; and countless iterations of “Star Trek” on every size screen known to modern man.

It hasn’t been easy to be the fresh prince this year.

Yet on they came in their own distinctive ways. For “Terminator’s” Christian Bale and Sam Worthington, martyrdom drips like sweat from their brows. Others swagger with a cocky smile and an endearing arrogance, as Chris Pine does in director J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” There is the tortured struggle with a darker animal nature, as is Hugh Jackman’s fate in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” or, like Shia LaBeouf’s Sam [in “Transformers”] there is the boy David facing off whatever Goliath happens to be tearing up the town.

Most of us have long since gotten past the notion that superheroes and the comic books and graphic novels they’re so often rooted in are merely kids’ stuff, having intellectualized their political and social undercurrents to death in recent years. But it’s always interesting to look at our current boys of summer to see who we’re looking to save us these days, why certain actors carry the mantle so vividly and why others struggle.

Consider Bale. One of the most intensely interesting actors around, he must have seemed the perfect match for the gritty, deconstructed post-apocalyptic future director McG and screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris envisioned for “Terminator Salvation.” But he isn’t. The interior force field that works so well for him underneath the “Dark Knight’s” mask is exactly what is working against him in “Salvation,” a rebel-with-a-cause story that has Bale’s John Connor leading an underground resistance.

Unfortunately for John Connor, to say nothing of the resistance, a leader of men Bale is not, or at least that’s not a role he’s been able to get his head around. His very essence seems to be solitary, which is why he was far better as Batman with that no-friends-are-required existence than as Connor, the man destined to save the human race from the “Terminator’s” relentless killing machines, embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger before he went political on us.

Bale’s appeal is the icy certainty of survival that you feel deep in your bones any time you see him. That steel is at the center of his pilot in Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn.” You believed he could survive the impossibly harsh, torturous Laotian prison and an escape into an even more unforgiving jungle. Though others start the journey with him, he walks out of the jungle alone.

But cold never draws men close, and that is why it is Sam Worthington’s man/machine hybrid Marcus who emerges as the one you want to follow in “Salvation.” The accidental hero, charisma hanging easy on his broad shoulders like an old coat, Worthington claims every scene he is in. His is an empathy you can feel — he did good not because it is right, which is Bale’s motivation, but because he cares.

One of Worthington’s strengths is that ability to make his vulnerability accessible, that sense of a shared humanity easy for the rest of us to embrace. Cut from the same action/fantasy cloth, his next films — “Avatar” and “Clash of the Titans” — feel filled with promise.


— Betsy Sharkey

Illustration by Jacob Thomas / For The Times; text by Geoff Boucher


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