Review: Thor

05/28/2011


Warning: The following review was written while I was on a caffeine high, and thusly contains censored expletives for dramatic emphasis.

Though it’s a hard thing for me to admit, I wanted Thor to be good. I mean, yes, to a certain extent I always want every movie I see to be good, but I actually spent a good amount of time before the film’s release thinking, “Gee, I hope Thor is good.” I wasted precious thought on this, which I suppose could have been spent analyzing the meaning of some art house masterpiece, like The Big Lebowski, or considering ways I can campaign for more Firefly without looking like the all the other Firefly fans; but instead I actually invested myself in a film about a guy who flies around with a giant hammer and has little wings on his helmet (which do not aid the flying, I don’t think). It’s a dangerous enterprise caring, even the tiniest bit (which, I swear, was all it was! Really!), about big budget Hollywood films because there’s always that chance that you’re the only one – including the people who made the movie – and then you just feel disappointed and used (curse you Last Airbender!).

Here’s my reasoning. I’m a nerd. No matter how many Ozu movies I write essays about, that fact will never change. I was raised on Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and I will always need my fix (mine, my own, my precious!… sorry). Sure, Marvel movies are cinematic junk food, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like their favorite candy bar every now and again, and with Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, X2, and Snickers in mind, I’m still more than ready to geek out like crazy if given the right opportunity. On top of that, I just loved the idea that Marvel had taken one of their most difficult properties to a completely unexpected auteur, Kenneth Branagh, who could impose his experience with theater (particularly Shakespeare) on the campy pageantry demanded by a story about a superhero/Norse God in the “real world”. It’s that kind of thinking that gave us those B-movie Spider-Man‘s, gritty crime drama Batman’s, fantastical Hellboy‘s, and gay X-Men.

And to that end, Thor actually works pretty well. Branagh was up to the challenge of finding ways to harmonize the ostentatious Asgaard with the homely Nevada town the rest of the film occupies. That accomplishment alone makes me want to hand the film a free pass, especially considering I enjoyed just about everything that took place in Asgaard (which, in theory, should be the tough stuff to pull off). But unfortunately, as was the case with Iron Man 2, the integrity of Thor was sacrificed on the altar of The Avengers, and the singular vision Branagh might have brought to the project is constantly tainted with comic book accessory Shield that feels so out of place and forced (and is so integral to every earth-bound element of the film) that the whole thing just starts to wear on the nerves (especially a scene involving Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, which I’m pretty sure was shot and added after the movie was finished, because if you cut every shot with him in it, the scene doesn’t change at all. Also, if you consider that a spoiler, then [CENSORED] you!). Let me put this another way: I am sick of these [CENSORED] Shield agents in my [CENSORED] superhero movies! Take that Sam Jackson!

Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, an ethereal being who lives in a nether-realm of Asgaard. His father Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins) is looking to retire and crown Thor king, but just as the ceremony is about to get underway, several ice giants (whose villainy is explained in the compulsory expositional montage at the beginning of the film) break into Asgaard (which is “impossible!” people proclaim) and try to steal the ambiguous blue macguffin box. Soon Thor, reckless and arrogant, marches into the ice giants’ home world against his father’s wishes with an axe to grind (or hammer I suppose). Anyway, one thing leads to another, the ice giants declare war, and Odin banishes Thor to earth. Also, I feel I should mention that Thor has a brother named Loki who is the god of mischief, who kind of oversees this whole scenario and advises Thor, and who could be made king if Thor doesn’t return. Just thought I should mention it. Probably not important. Anyway, Thor goes to earth and the first person he meets is Natalie Portman (Norse gods apparently have all the luck), and meanwhile his hammer hits the earth as well, given a directive by Odin that it may only be wielded by one who is worthy. I could go on, but I’m pretty sure that by this point, you could fill in the rest of the blanks on your own.

That said, predictability is not the biggest problem with Thor. Say what you will about the best Superhero movies, none of them are exactly Being John Malkovich. They’re formulaic and predictable by default, but there’s a lot of room within that structure for quality of other kinds. The biggest problem is that the unbound imagination required to make a goofy premise like Thor‘s work (on display a good 60% of the time, so I know Branagh got it) is chained to a very specific universe (again, for The Avengers) that limits its possibilities. You couldn’t put Spider-Man in a Batman movie, not just because of licensing, but because they occupy completely different worlds with completely different rules and tones. If Thor was ever going to work, he couldn’t be limited to the same rules as Tony Stark and Hulk person. That’s why the Asgaard stuff kind of works. Not that it’s amazing or anything, but it’s got its own rules and they allow for endless potential. I mean, they tried to make Shield a more integral part of a real story (which was more than I could say for some other films they’ve tainted), but that almost makes it worse, because now instead of saying, “I liked everything except the Shield material,” I have to say, “I disliked the Shield half of the movie.” No matter how much they make Shield make sense or work within the confines of a story, it’s still a comic book contrivance and forcing it into the story means that the endless possibilities more in keeping with the heart of the film and more interesting for its final conclusion are shot down before they even have a chance to develop.

Yes, there’s still a bit of fun going on in Thor. Brannagh seems to understand just how ridiculous the Norse mythology in the real world is, and he plays around with that quite a bit. One scene in which Thor’s Asgaardian friends (a comically medieval team straight from, oh I don’t know, a goofy comic book) observe and fight in an Earth town, provides the same kind of self-aware joy as seeing the 60’s Adam West Batman run past casual onlookers with a giant bomb over his head. Really, all the ingredients for a great summer popcorn film are in Thor. There just isn’t enough room for all of it to coalesce, because so much space is taken up by material that doesn’t mine that potential at all. What we’re left with then is moments of great summer fun, interrupted by by a 40 minute advertisement for The Avengers and the least successful romance I’ve seen since the last five big budget Natalie Portman movies I watched (Black Swan excluded). I guess some people are more forgiving than I am, but I can’t help but feel like Thor was a wasted opportunity. Maybe that’s my fault for holding it to too high of a standard, or maybe I really am beginning to grow out of superheroes. Oh well. Just give Joss Whedon his Avengers movie already so that he’ll be famous enough to make more Firefly.

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