Written by Zavero // May 5, 2011
“Your ancestors called it magic, and you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”
Following Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2, comes the fourth Marvel Studios produced movie and its best one yet. I would attest a major part of that reason being Kenneth Branagh, known mainly for work in adapting Shakespeare. While I’m not familiar with Branagh’s filmography, there’s something to be said when your unabridged version of Hamlet is commonly regarded as the defining silver screen adaptation. And while I haven’t read much Shakespeare past the required ones, there is certainly a very recognizable theatrical component in Thor’s conflict with his brother Loki and their father played by none other than Sir Anthony, “You are an old man and a fool!” It’s a classic coming of age hero’s journey — the hero just happens to don a red cape and viking armor. It’s also loud, visually dazzling, heaps of fun, and entertaining. And so, Branagh succeeds with what Ang Lee tried but failed to do with Hulk, balancing elements of arthouse cinema with the mainstream blockbuster, creating what I think is one of the most well rounded superhero movies we’ve seen lately.
The movie is an introduction (this is the first time he’s ever been portrayed in film after many false starts), but hardly one of those tired and boring origin stories we get so much of these days. It’s not about how he comes to terms with his powers and learns to use it for the good of humanity but about how he comes to terms with himself and learns things like the good of humanity. The most interesting thing about Thor himself, by design, is that he breaks away from most superhero conventions. He wasn’t a nerdy high school student or withdrawn physicist transformed by a freak accident, or a multimillionaire with a really, really expensive outfit turned crime fighter — he has no human alter ego. He’s a god. The first time we see him, Son of Odin, he’s about to be crowned the new king of Asgard in a ceremony, cheered on by his people, as he waves Mjolnir in the air (I like Branagh’s choice of shooting him from the back, always an effective character intro) and within thirty seconds of the scene, you realize this guy the man. Chris Hemsworth, a virtual unknown, makes a lasting first impression. He obviously fulfills the physical requirements but is also able to channel Thor’s cockiness and vulnerability as easily as his charm. Not long afterwards, the plot gears get into motion and we get our first action setpiece involving Thor and his posse (Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral, Sif) and some Frost Giants. This then leads to the central arc of the movie: Thor is banished to Earth, New Mexico to be exact, for his arrogance and the danger he brought upon Asgard. And of course, just like it would in real life, the first face he sees on our planet is that of a astrophysicis named Jane Foster, the lovely Natalie Portman. Meanwhile Loki, who you don’t have to know anything about beforehand to figure out, is up to something sinister in his brother’s absence. S.H.I.E.L.D. is definitely concerned by Thor’s arrival and that of a mystery object — Mjolnir, his hammer — a few miles away (see the post credits scene of Iron Man 2). All those things come together nicely, if not too nicely. But where Marvel’s previous movies before it struggled, it’s hard to think of another comic book movie that’s figured out its tone the way Thor has. This movie just gets it.
In a post-Dark Knight world, filmmakers and fans alike have been consumed in this obsession with realism, darkness, and cynicism. One direct example would be last year’s Kick-Ass. Others like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and even The Green Hornet also played with the darker characteristics of their respective titular characters. Yet another is Zack Synder’s upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel (produced by Christopher Nolan) in which words like “modern context” and “relevance” are being stressed. On the opposite end of The Dark Knight spectrum are the likes of Sin City and Watchmen, the latter of which was both lauded and lambasted for being painstakingly true to the comic–excuse me–“graphic novel.” What Marvel is going for is very different, and that’s where they’ve had problems. Iron Man didn’t take itself too seriously but Robert Downey Jr. was enough of a badass to carry the movie over, Iron Man 2 fucked up by not taking itself seriously, as well as a bunch of other structural and fundamental flaws. The Incredible Hulk was a misguided effort. But overall, Marvel deserves credit for keeping the thematic connections and style of these movies consistent (if only they had better relationships with actors and directors). This is especially important because with these solo movies, including the forthcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel is in the process of one of the biggest experiments in movie history – The Avengers. Shooting began the other week. The idea of major superheroes coming together on screen, as they did in the comics, played by big time actors in one movie is unprecedented.
[Note that while X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, DareDevil, Hulk, Spider-man, Spider-man 2, Spider-man 3, etc. are all Marvel properties and co-produced by Marvel Studios, they are not independent in house productions like the ones mentioned above. All it means is that movies made independently by Marvel Studious are part of the same cinematic universe and canon. You won’t see Hugh Jackman as Wolverine aid in the adventures of Captain America, but Tony Stark can and did pop in The Incredible Hulk, hence what makes an Avengers movie possible.]
Thor does tease The Avengers without being overly gimmicky or distracting from the central storyline like Iron Man 2 did. Yes, people in the know will get their fix in one or two scenes but the movie is just the same without and Thor can exist as on it’s own. The romance in the movie is shortchanged at times, but that’s not to say it isn’t believable or unrealistic. It doesn’t ask for much and I didn’t bother questioning it as I was already invested in the characters at that point. And the last thing I have to applaud is its sense of humor. Again, Branagh and the writers just get it. There’s that scene you see in the trailer when he drinks coffee for the first time, “This drink, I like it. Another!” he demands as he smashes the cup to the floor. I liked that the comedy came from organic plot moments instead of a bunch of smart asses sneaking in one liners here and there (“I’ve got my ‘eye’ on you). It’s a movie that understands the nature of its genre and the expectations of its audience. When it’s camp it’s camp, when it’s suppose to kick ass it kicks ass. The feeling I left the theater with was a similar one I had almost two decades ago when I watched Christopher Reeves in Superman for the first time, and that has to count for something.
★★★★ out of five stars.
– Production value of Asgard is very, very impressive. Not much else to say other than it looks cool.
– Technically, the ceremony is the second time we see Hemsworth but I didn’t count the cold open.
– I didn’t say too much about the movies antagonists but that’s because with the exception of one I thought they were largely forgettable. Roger Ebert once said, “Heroes are great, but a movie is only as good as its villain.” Tom Hiddleston as Loki is indeed one of the better Marvel villains portrayed in a movie but Thor is about Thor first and foremost.
– Thor’s friends don’t have all that much to do except be his friends and I think that’s okay given that they’re all played with enough personality to stop them from just being sideshows.
– Almost every other shot is a canted angle. No idea what Branagh is trying to say with it but apparently it’s a technique he employs in his other movies. Didn’t bother me the way it might more commercial minded audiences.- It’s interesting to see what Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson has been able to do with his character from starting off as just a piece of furniture in Iron Man.
– It could be because he’s also Australian but Hemsworth bears a striking resemblance to Heath Ledger, not just the physicality but the sincerity in the way he speaks and his presence on screen. He’s a promising young actor who is more interesting to watch than some of the other new guys on the scene, Sam Worthington
– Joshua Dallas on his character: “Fandral would like to think of himself as the R. Kelly of Asgard. He’s a lover, not a fighter. You know what I’m saying? I’ve seen ‘Trapped in The Closet’ and ‘Keep it on the Down Low.’ All that kind of stuff.” Say what now?
– Seeing Stringer Bell in anything but street clothes in bizarre, to say the least. Idris Elba delivers a quiet but key performance. He has my favorite line of the movie.
– I’m led to believe that his experiences with Will Hunting must have inspired Prof. Gerald Lambeau to pursue his true passion in science. Does he drink? Yes. Is it hinted that he has more than just a mentor-student thing for Portman? Yes. Stellan Skarsgård plays Portman and Kat Denning’s (hello glasses) research leader, and he and Denning’s are basically just exposition devices but Skarsgård is one of those actors who makes a movie better just by being it. When I watch a movie and Skarsgård shows up (and here he’s in the first scene), I pay attention. He has a face of a man who knows things.
– Patrick Doyle’s score is oddly reminiscent of The Mighty Ducks. That’s always a good thing.
– As usual with these Marvel movies, you’ll want to stick around for the end credits, but I will tell you now that no, unfortunately, Vincent D’Onofrio does not make an appearance.