Monday, May 9, 2011

The Mostly Mighty Thor

As a longtime Marvel Zombie, Thor has never been high on my list of the company's heroes. I've enjoyed him as a member of The Avengers but only sporadically followed his solo adventures over the years. I think it was a masterstroke on the part of creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to dip into the realm of gods and myth, thereby avoiding having yet another superhero birthed from an accident with radioactivity, but I've just never been that attracted to the character or the world that he hails from. I much prefer the street level Marvel heroes, like Spidey, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Moon Knight. Compared to those earthbound types, I've always found Thor to be a hard character to relate to so given that, the God of Thunder's movie debut was the one Marvel movie I've been least excited for.

I think it was roundly agreed upon by everyone - even Thor fans - that Thor would represent the biggest challenge to Marvel Studios on the road to The Avengers. While it's easily accepted in the comics that Thor occupies the same shared universe as Iron Man and The Hulk, would the realm of Asgard be an awkward fit for the Marvel movies? Turns out the answer is no. Director Kenneth Branagh, working from a script by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne (based on a story by J. Michael Straczynski Mark Protosevich), has cleared Thor's biggest hurdle - the movie fits seamlessly into the world established by Iron Man 1 and 2 and The Incredible Hulk.

Thor may possess the powers of a God and he may live in a gleaming celestial city that defies our understanding but as he explains to scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), what may be perceived as magic from our earthly perspective is known as science where he comes from. Or something like that. The point is, Thor is a movie that makes it possible for a guy with a magic flying hammer to stand next to a guy in an advanced suit of armor and have it make sense.

Thor also strikes the right balance between time spent on Asgard and time spent on Earth. You can't ditch Asgard altogether because that's what Thor's all about and hardcore fans don't want that mythological aspect to be shortchanged. At the same time, for most audiences, Thor has to be put in more relatable context. This has also been true of the comic all these years. I forget which comic pro said this - I think it might've been John Byrne (X-Men, Superman) - but whoever it was essentially said that you can only have Thor residing in Asgard for so long then he has to come down to Earth and punch out The Absorbing Man. If Thor isn't a part of life on Earth, as readers we're going to quickly lose interest in him.

The makers of Thor certainly get that and the movie finds most of its humor and heart once Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished to Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his crimes of arrogance. There's the expected fish out of water humor as Thor interacts with unfamiliar environments but it's all handled just right, never veering into exaggerated schitck. As a love interest, Portman is fine - if not particularly outstanding - as Jane Foster. I've read some people online claiming that the relationship between Thor and Jane isn't developed enough and that they needed another scene or two to make it believable but I disagree. All we need to believe is that Jane and Thor would be attracted to each other and that's a pretty easy sell. From Jane's perspective, she just met a God so I think she'd automatically be really interested in continuing that relationship. From Thor's perspective, Jane is a woman unlike any he's ever met so, likewise, it's easy to accept that he'd also want to continue to see much more of her (personally I think he's making a huge mistake in overlooking Kat Denning's Darcy but that's just me). So what I'm saying is that I bought Thor and Jane as a couple in the making. In fact, if there's any scenes between them that were cut for time or pacing, just leave 'em off the DVD - I'm not interested.

The other big, if less loving, relationship in this movie is between Thor and his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Everyone seems to agree this aspect of Thor came off great and I agree. Hiddleston makes Loki one of the most compelling villains in recent memory. He's a cunning manipulator but we also see his wounded pride and his deep-seated neediness. That Hiddleston will continue on to The Avengers as that film's arch-foe is very good news.

And having now seen Thor, I'm also much more excited by the prospect of Hemsworth interacting with his fellow Avengers than I had been before. The trailers for Thor were some of the worst in recent memory and made Hemsworth's performance look like a potential embarrassment. What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover how terrific he is here and how effortlessly he's able to bring Thor to life. He conveys Thor's youthful arrogance, his pride, his sometimes unwise thirst for battle but also the positive attributes of bravery, loyalty and kindness that make him heroic. It's a performance comparable to that of Christopher Reeve's Superman in that Hemsworth manages to imbue this God-like character with a natural affability.

On a sour note, in step with the Marvel Studios films to date, the action in Thor is just ok. It's not bad but nothing near exceptional. This is one aspect where Marvel Studios really needs to step up their game. I understand that they're out to keep their budgets from skyrocketing and I like that the strengths of their films so far have leaned on an understanding of the characters and an expert eye for casting. And yet...when you're making movies about characters who design and wear the most advanced battle armour in the world, who transform into raging Gamma-irradiated behemoths, and who are pretty much Gods, then the action ought to be at least occasionally spectacular (I will say I loved the frequently Kirby-esque production design in Thor and I'm glad many actual sets were built for Asgard rather than just relying on CGI).

In Thor, the action is comprised of a battle with a race of Frost Giants, a battle on Earth with the metallic titan known as The Destroyer, and a final throwdown on Asgard between Thor and Loki and each one of these scenes, while competent, could've have used a lot more panache. When you think of the great action scenes in comic book adaptations - like the fight between Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals in the streets of Metropolis in Superman II (1980) or the fight between Spidey and Doc Ock on the elevated train in Spider-Man 2 (2004), those are scenes where the filmmakers really went the extra mile to take the kind of excitement that comic fans have enjoyed on the page for years and bring it to life in a big way.

And while there have been opportunities to do that in all the Marvel Studio films so far, scenes like the Hulk's fight with the Abomination or Thor's fight with the Destroyer have been flatly rendered. As Marvel Studios moves forward, they have to realize that the action of their films needs to start soaring.

During Thor's end credits, the Bond-ian promise that "Thor Will Return In The Avengers" appears and, as a building block towards that impending team-up, Thor plays perfectly (some have carped that S.H.I.E.L.D. feels shoehorned in but I disagree - I think it's natural to have them show up in the manner that they do and it's not necessary to have seen any of the other Marvel movies to understand that they're a F.B.I./C.I.A.-style organization).

It's true that Thor's reentry to Midgard has hit a roadblock by the end of this film but I think that's preferable to having Thor left on Earth. I'd rather have his entrance be a big deal in The Avengers rather than have his first meeting with Tony Stark or Bruce Banner occurring in the time between this movie and The Avengers.

As a character, Thor will never be at the top of my list of favorite superheroes but this movie is definitely near the top of my list of favorite superhero adaptations. It could've used some fine tuning, yes, but it's fun and well-acted. What's more, it's my six year old son's new favorite movie and that alone tells me that Branagh and co. hammered out a winner.

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