Friday, May 13, 2011


I'm a pretty big fan of Norse mythology.  Part of it is due to my Swedish ancestry and part of it is because Norse myths are basically set up like The Dirty Dozen; yes, the gods are all pretty bad-ass, but they all know that they're on a suicide mission called Ragnarok.   When I heard that Marvel Studios was going to be making a Thor movie as part of their announced Avengers franchise, I was a bit skeptical.  Sure, I've enjoyed the movies the studio has made so far (the Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk), but Thor is a different type of character entirely.  This wouldn't be about making a fantastic character down to Earth, it would be about telling a story about a foreign god that most Americans are fairly unfamiliar with and turning it into a superhero movie.  There are a LOT of ways to do this story wrong.  Hell, even the comics only get it right every five years or so.  Now, I will admit that I read comics and have a decent collection of classic Thor issues, so I am definitely approaching this movie as a bit of a fanboy.
This issue was, in all seriousness, awesome.
That said, I entered Thor with high hopes and dreadful fears.  Would this join the ranks of awesome Marvel Comics movies, like X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, and Iron Man 2, or would it be an incomprehensible mess, like X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, and Daredevil?

Right off the bat, the film makes a wise choice by (more or less) starting the film in Asgard, home of the Norse gods.  The King of Asgard, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is preparing to pass on the mantle of king to one of his sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), when there is a security breach within their castle.  Some Frost Giants, the immortal enemies of Asgard, managed to sneak in unseen and almost stole a weapon of great power before they were terminated with extreme prejudice by Odin's deadly sentry, the Destroyer.  Thor's immediate impulse is to take the fight to the Frost Giants, but Odin forbids any acts of war; he reasoned that this was an act made by a few, and they have been appropriately punished.  Thor seethes, but does nothing.  That is, he does nothing until he is baited by his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  Thor decides to go to Jotunheim, home of the Frost Giants, with his partners in crime, Loki, Sif (Jaime Alexander), and the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg).  Why does he go?  Ostensibly, to get an apology from the Frost Giant king, but he's really there to fight.  And fight they do.  The Asgardians beat the living hell out of several dozen Frost Giants, but they are outnumbered and do not have any back-up.  A royally pissed-off Odin arrives and manages to keep the peace, but he punishes Thor by banishing him to Earth, without his godly powers.  Odin also takes away Thor's signature hammer, whispering an enchantment to it that more or less states that whoever can lift the hammer will have the power of Thor.
Most of the rest of the film follows Thor on Earth as he adjusts to not being a god.  Naturally, a brawny blonde that claims to be the god of thunder showing up right around the time and place that an unmovable hammer arrives garners some attention from all sorts of people, including scientists and the military.  However, the humbling of a god does not answer one key question.  How did those Frost Giants sneak into the supposedly impenetrable Asgard and set these events in motion?

One of the more interesting aspects of this film's production process was the decision to hire Shakespearean expert Kenneth Branagh to direct the movie.  As far as his Shakespeare films go, Branagh is one of the best in the business, both as an actor and as a director.  As for his other movies, well...Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was pretty godawful.  The man definitely has a good touch with his actors, though, as anyone working with (mostly) plays must have.  I thought he did a pretty solid job with Thor.  The action scenes (which he hasn't directed before) looked good and, in some cases, were pretty awesome.  The characters that had more than a few lines were all acted quite well by the cast, and I was particularly impressed by the lead performances of Thor and Loki by two unknown actors.  Branagh does not have the lightest touch when it comes to cinematography (I hope you like lopsided camera angles), but his choices all make sense.  All in all, I think Branagh did an adequate job with making the film look good and a very good job with the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I was alternately very impressed and depressed by Thor.  Chris Hemsworth was great in the lead role, capturing the arrogance of the character wonderfully.  His character could have been a little deeper, but Hemsworth more than delivered with what was given to him.  I was also impressed by Tom Hiddleston's Loki; Loki is a great character in mythology (and Neil Gaiman's fiction), and Hiddleston took a character that could easily just be evil and made him mischievous, cunning, and emotionally desperate.  This is definitely my favorite performance of a Marvel villain since Ian McKellan's Magneto.  I was surprised to see Anthony Hopkins giving a solid performance as Odin, since he has been mostly just mailing in his work for the past decade.  He wasn't spectacular, but he seemed regal and cold, which fits the part well.  I was far less impressed by Natalie Portman's role as Jane Foster, an astrophysicist that develops a romance with the thunder god.  She should be a pretty important part of the story, but aside from being a decently strong female character (read: she argues with the men-folk), she doesn't do much.  I'll give her credit for being more than just another damsel in distress, but that's not enough to stack up against the gods.

The rest of the supporting cast is similarly underwhelming.  Jane Foster's friends, played by Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings, are likable enough, but never get past generic stereotypes.  Thor's Asgardian buddies have a similar problem, although they are less endearing.  Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Josh Dallas (Fandral) and Jaime Alexander all seem like they should have more depth, but they are surprisingly bland.  Aside from Volstagg's appetite and their general appearances, these four warriors are interchangeable in the story.  Colm Feore, who seems to get cast in big budget movies more for a willingness to wear extensive makeup than anything else, was mediocre as the king of the Frost Giants.  You would think his character would have a little more depth, or at least a few wicked moments, but I guess it's okay, since he's essentially a red herring.  Clark Gregg was okay as the agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but he is certainly no Samuel L. Jackson.  You might be surprised to see Rene Russo in a small part, since her last role was six years ago.  You might not be surprised to hear that she doesn't do much of anything in the movie.  On the other hand, the requisite Stan Lee cameo was handled pretty well.

There was a minor controversy when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall, the gatekeeper.  Personally, I don't have a problem with casting against type, and I think Elba has some serious potential as an actor.  He did good work in a small part here, and that should be where the controversy begins and ends.

What, he doesn't look Swedish?
This is a superhero movie, though --- the acting can only take it so far.  The action is, in parts, pretty entertaining.  I thought that most of the fight scenes were great, especially the ones on Earth.  I would have preferred the battle to be in a place where more stuff could be destroyed, but whatever.  The battle that opens the film had some inconsistent special effects, which distracted me, but the rest of the movie looked very good.  Actually, this movie is fairly action-packed, with far less time devoted to character development; that is a sharp change from the recent Marvel movies (aside from the horribad Wolverine flick), and not necessarily a bad one.  The story slows down significantly and takes on a more humorous tone when Thor is on Earth, so the movie feels a bit uneven at times.  And how much time passes in this movie?  The events in Asgard seem to take place at one pace, while the Earth storyline might have only covered about two or three days, which seems like a pretty compact amount of time for a character to learn a life lesson.  Still, the fight scenes were pretty sweet and I thought the off-Earth scenes were handled quite well, on the whole.

Thor is different from every other superhero movie that has come out because it is more than a superhero tale --- it has to be mythic.  While it doesn't get everything exactly right, I think this is a pretty entertaining action movie with some impressive fantasy elements in it.  The well thought-out work that was done to bring Asgard and Jotunheim to life helps elevate this movie above some of the more mediocre elements in its makeup.
What would have made this movie better?  A more well-defined Frost Giant king, either differentiating between Thor's war buddies or cutting some of them from the script, and a love interest that could go more than two minutes without mentioning the possibility of Thor being crazy.  More epic special effects in the flashback battle would have helped, too --- or, since it was a story, maybe animating it like an old story.  Thor is still pretty entertaining, and the lead actors were fun to watch.  It's just not up to the level of, say, an Iron Man.

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