Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thor Review, or "The Lazy Entertainment of a Norse God/Superhero. Wait, what?"


The first thing that should be brought up in this review is that I am not a big comic book fan. By extension of my many friends who are comic book fans, I know a bit about them here and there. But, by and large, the only comic I ever read growing up was Batman. Batman is the one superhero I could ever really get behind, he was my favorite growing up, he's my favorite now, and most of how he has been represented has always grabbed my attention (Joel Shumacher's versions and "Batman, the Brave and the Bold" not withstanding.)

It's not that I patently dislike comics, but I tend to not like stories that never end. I like closure in my stories, even where the ending might be bad for the characters in question. I feel that even the likes of television series should someday have a point of closure. There have been many good shows that ran the course of a story and ended on the story's logical closure point and, for me, those have been the most memorable of shows. When they keep adding seasons and having to artificially craft plot hooks to keep people watching, I tend to lose interest. Mind you, I'm not knocking the system, just not something I like.

Comics, by their very nature, have characters who are very long in the tooth, indeed, individual characters having spanned decades and social and societal change (Batman included) and having endured reboots, retcons, and remakes along the way. Indeed, much of the idea of rebooting and retconning pretty much comes from the comic  book medium.

This longevity is part of the allure of the comic book superhero. And why not? They are today's modern equivalent of the gods and demigods of the past, wielding much the same power as their spiritual fore bearers. So it's only logical that, at some point, actual gods would make appearances. But, and here's the second preface to this review, I always thought the idea of Thor as a comic was stupid.

I often struggled where someone thought they should combine the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, and others with Thor.... the God of Thunder. What? (For someone who doesn't like comics, I have inequitably strong opinions about them.)

So, I probably wasn't alone in saying that the idea of doing a Thor movie was patently dumb, a waste of money, a waste of time (and thus, more money), and generally not going to get the same response as Batman, Spider-man, Superman, etc.

Of course, along the way, they got cute and brought Kenneth Branagh in as director, which admittedly piqued my curiosity. And an opinion about a movie never seen is a worthless opinion indeed, so I naturally went to see it. So, here goes:

Thor opens much as expected, on the palaces of the very pleasant to look at Asgard. You see all the gods in their splendor attending the "I'm-about-to-be-crowned-king-of-gods" party being thrown for young Thor (played by the very likeable Chris Hemsworth), his antiquitous father, Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins) getting ready to pass over reign.

But, bad guys show up, try to take something, Odin lays the smackdown, shows why he's king, and, due to the attack, postpones Thor's crowning. Thor decides that these bad guys, the Frost Giants, have some explaining to do, so he and his buddies, Syf and the Warriors Three, go visit the Frost Giants. This turns into a fight, Odin has to come bail them out. At this point, Odin's angry because Thor went against his wishes, proved that he was too arrogant to be the Big Guy, and banishes Thor to Earth to be a mortal.

Pretty basic story, but it's solid, reliable, and it gives you a chance to see the characters in different locations, and serves to really juxtapose Asgard and Earth.

The best part of the movie, easily, was Chris Hemsworth. I was deeply into his very short performance in Abrams' Star Trek as George Kirk and, in the back of my head, was hoping to see him get bigger roles. Clearly, Hollywood types thought the same thing long before any of us did, and they were right on the money. His arc, while easy to follow, is delivered in likeable earnest as he goes from arrogant prat to authoritative bad-ass.  At no point was I bored with his performance.

Natalie Portman, too, gives a great performance. She goes from serious researcher to ogling girl as she watches a ripped Thor changes into a shirt that doesn't really seem to cover those bulging muscles. (Hmm... I might have been staring too, and I'm pretty sure I'm not gay.) This serves as some fun comic relief that is actually handled really well. Surprisingly, it didn't put me off from the film and, in fact, probably served to endear the film to me a little more. Given that I'm not a fan to the story at all, this bit of self-deprecation paradoxically gave some edge to the film, and I liked that a lot.

Tom Hiddleston played Loki, Thor's brother, and the film's central villain, and he represents one of those times when you watch a movie and say about his part afterwards, "No one else really could have played that character." He's perfect as Loki. He gives a great deal of emotional depth to a character who, by virtue of all the other story elements the movie had to accomplish, doesn't get a lot of screen time. It's always important in origin movies, where the villain still has to have a presence with so little time, to find an actor who can give the audience that kind of deep performance. Eric Bana's Nero in the aforementioned Star Trek is a great example as well.

I think Branagh had an interesting job in directing this. It's presentation and structure gives us the impression that this is, in fact, two movies; one about the lives of the Asgardians, everything from their culture to their daily plights, and a story about the adventures of a fallen god on Earth. The former story is the one that the movie seems to focus on. It spends a great deal of time and character development on Asgard, both beginning and ending there. While much of the story's meat takes place on Earth, that separate story felt like the establishment of a future story arc (presumably, the Avengers.) I like how Branagh handled it, but it still leads to some quick short cuts and lazy writing.

For example, the Mcguffin in this film is Thor's Hammer, stuck in a rock, unable to be moved by any normal person. Even Thor, until he learns the valuable lesson of being humble and wise, can't move the thing. This perfectly sets up what could have been a great and evocative King Arthur, sword in the stone type scene, but due to some horribly lazy writing, ends up being a quick five seconds of a terrible movie short cut. The movie almost lost me at this point and I felt like I needed a bit more out of his ascension and heroism. His retrieval of the hammer, as it was handled in the movie, felt cheap, and it could have been the nice turning point and third act opener that it had seemed like it was building to initially.

The finale in Asgard was a touch anti-climactic, reminiscent of Iron Man 2 and how the film felt like it sort of lost interest in itself. This seems to be a general running theme in these Marvel movies, where they have a centerpiece scene that is really amazing, but can't figure out how to end themselves at the right time. (See the first Iron Man movie where he beats up all the terrorists, then watch the end fight in the same movie, and compare the emotional tones. You'll see what I'm saying.)

Ultimately, it's a fun movie which is more than I could have expected out of the movie. It's an easy watch and one that parents can be reasonably sure their kids will enjoy. As long as you don't expect dives into the nature of the human psyche and game theory (see The Dark Knight for that stuff) you should enjoy yourself to at least not regret this viewing.

Brit W.

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