The onslaught of superhero movies of the summer has begun. Until they stop making money there will be no end. Thusly, the opening throw belongs to “Thor,” an unlikely and relatively unknown superhero from Marvel Comics, based loosely on the mythological God of Thunder. Although I’ve been a fan of the character since I started reading comics, he has never been my favorite. The dialect and tone always threw me off a bit and even though he was cool looking, I just didn’t connect. Readers were hot and cold as well, which led to numerous cancellations, reboots, rebirths, etc. throughout the years.
In 2007, writer J. Michael Straczynski took on an overhaul of the character, along with the amazingly talented artist, Olivier Coipel, and produced a very accessible and compelling character that respected the old canon, while propelling into a new direction. This incarnation is primarily what is found in the new film, which is a smart choice by all creative individuals involved. Complete with the new costume, updated storyline/origin, and a contemporary feel, the atmosphere was ripe for modern audiences.
The selection of director Kenneth Branagh (Frankenstein, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V) to bring the tale to life shows the deft hand of creative smarts at work at Marvel Studios. After the interesting investment of Jon Favreau to tackle the first two Iron Man films, which paid off in spades, Marvel Studios has taken its investment into the jump to films as seriously as their monthly books. There’s a reason they’re the number one comics publisher. Although I don’t always vibe with their creative decisions, the fact remains that they are willing to invest in their characters and they do so boldly. They’ve also had decades to perfect the formula and there is no better example of that than the film version of “Thor.”
From the choice of filmmakers, actors, etc., all the way down to the oversight of the creative decisions being made, “Thor” stands as the standard for how Marvel does business. Some may see this as a negative aspect. And perhaps, in some respects, that may be true. It may cause restrictions on a filmmaker’s vision in some small way, but ultimately, Marvel is simply protecting their brand, which is keeping fans happy and not alienating the audience with a bastardization of their property. I respect that and give mad props for the attention to detail and the delicate balance of respecting the comics readership, while inviting the masses into the world as well with open arms. That is a massive feat.
All of these elements put together are what makes “Thor” such a success. It’s a simple story: Arrogant God is cast down to earth, stripped of his power, learns humility, thusly earning his power back and the respect of his father, while learning the lessons of life that create a hero. The story jumps back and forth between the mythological realm of Asgard and the real-world Earth. After an altercation with the common enemy to Asgard, The Frost Giants, Thor incites a war, which in turn causes his banishment to Earth. Working behind the scenes is Thor’s half-brother, Loki, The God of Mischief. Tim Hiddleston plays Loki with all the fervor and maniacal dubiousness of the character in the comics, albeit a little less sadistic.
Odin, known as the “All-Father,” is played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins, embodying, as one would expect, an all-powerful God and father to Thor and Loki. Hopkins voice alone could carry the role and his presence in the film lends a heavy weight of credibility and comfort. Usually, when Anthony Hopkins shows up you know you’re dealing with a respectable piece of work. Thor’s entourage, The Warriors Three and Lady Sif, are all equally credible and fun, easily convincing, while dwelling in a somewhat ridiculous world. I mean, that’s the job of an actor, right? To convince you that they really believe the shit they’re saying and doing. Colm Feore, as the leader of the Frost Giants, oozes evil and scary, reminding me a lot of Tim Curry’s “Darkness” from Ridley Scott’s “Legend.”
The Earth characters, primarily Natalie Portman as astrophysicist Jane Foster, and her crew, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings, are interesting enough, although they never quite achieve the screen presence of the Asgardian players. But, really, who’s gonna upstage a God? Dennings plays the comedy sidekick role with panache and hits all the right notes in what could easily have been a throwaway character, so kudos to her (and her naked cell phone pics on the internet). Portman does just fine in her role, but it’s no “Black Swan.” She’s just playing in the summer movie super bowl here, and that’s just fine.
Then we have Chris Hemsworth as Thor, the make-or-break role. Pulling off Thor is no easy task. I mean, he talks like a Shakespeare cliché in the comics, wields a big hammer named Mjolnir, has a big, red cape, and is arrogant as all get out. Hmmm, who the hell are we going to get to play this guy? Surprise, surprise, but Hemsworth is absolutely up to the challenge and then some. Toning down the Asgardian speak just a bit (but not entirely…remember that creative balance we were talking about earlier), and bulking up on muscle mass, Hemsworth exudes Thor, takes ownership of the role, and defines it as his own, just as Robert Downey Jr. did with Iron Man. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the “trick.” Had he fumbled the role, “Thor” would be a grumble on the mouths of fans and newcomers alike, but Hemsworth sells it like a Krispy Kreme fundraiser.
There are a number of action sequences, some smaller, some epic, but all of them engaging and comic book-esque in scope. The battle with the frost giants is a blast, with a number of comic panel moves ripped straight from the books. Seeing Mjolnir sail through the air, take out a target, and return to Thor’s hand is the stuff of comic lore. This is a common thread in all the action scenes: each of them tip their hat to the source material, never letting you forget that this is based on a comic book, but transcending that format by bringing it to life in live action. The smallest details, such as Thor twirling his hammer and using it to fly are never ignored and executed to near perfection.
“Thor” shifts in tone once he is banished to Earth and turns into a God-out-of-water story, which is a lot of fun and segues nicely into the developing storyline for The Avengers to boot. Fortunately, the universe building never intrudes on Thor’s journey, so The Avengers stuff is more of a treat, rather than a hindrance. The cameo of Hawkeye is giddy fun, especially since we get to plainly see and hear Jeremy Renner in the role. It won’t mean shit to the average moviegoer, but those who know Hawkeye (and it’s obviously the Ultimate universe version) would be hard pressed to not get a tinge of excitement.
The romance between Jane and Thor is underplayed and never obnoxious, which is a blessing. I like that the romance interactions thus far in the Marvel franchises are prevalent, but never overwhelming. However, based on the reaction to Hemsworth’s presence in the film, the female audience seems to be just as happy as the male audience, albeit for very different reasons. That’s good for Marvel and good for the film’s legs, hopefully. I wanted “Thor” to be a good movie right off the bat, but it’s success is important in that it perpetuates the continuation of doing the right thing and respecting the “model” that Marvel has molded, bringing these characters to life onscreen with respect to their roots, rather than turning them on their ear and morphing them into something else entirely.
I’ve heard both complaints and compliments on Patrick Doyle’s score. Personally, I think it works and fits the material well. I think that a better score could exist, but there’s nothing wrong with Doyle. I would’ve liked to have had a more bombastic score, much like his work on Branagh’s “Frankenstein,” but it hits all the right marks and gets the job done.
The production design, cinematography, and special effects for “Thor” are all exceptional. The mythological realm of Asgard is amazing to see. Having been immersed in the worlds of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings for the last ten years, it’s wholesomely original. It’s nice to see something new and different. Branagh stages a lot of canted angle shots and pays great attention to where the camera is going and what it’s following. His special effects team worked in conjunction with his in-camera work beautifully, leaving a lot of residual imagery in my head long after the credits rolled.
I saw “Thor” in 3D IMAX and honestly I wish I hadn’t. The IMAX would’ve been good, but the 3D is entirely unnecessary for this film. Skip it. You’ll enjoy the movie more, I assure you. See it in 2D in a nice theater with good sound and that will do perfectly. I actually can’t wait to see this again in 2D, so that I can soak in the visuals without the separation.
“Thor” isn’t a perfect film, and I think that it’s for the same reason that it’s such a success. The attention to detail and follow-the-formula model both work to its strengths and weaknesses. While building an epic franchise out of the character, much is played safe, and I’m sure that Branagh would’ve liked to take a few more risks, but was restrained by all the creative committees and oversight. We’ll never know how things would’ve gone if he had free reign. I would rather have that oversight, however, so even if we lose a few creative ideas from the director, at least the brand is being supported by the right people (Marvel assigns many of its prominent writers and artists to oversee such things, which is a testament to their support of the overall translated vision).
Where “Thor” may weaken, it doesn’t matter, as its strengths are far greater. The battle with the frost giants, the fish-out-of-water story, the heroic arc where Thor regains his power, and the showdown with his evil brother at the end, all add up to one hell of a superhero ride, well worth the price of admission two times over. Summer movies are something we all look forward to and have big expectations for. It’s entertainment that transcends the dreary Oscar contenders of the Fall/Winter movie season and the absolute drudge that is the spring season. “Thor” kicks off the summer season with a resoundingly thunderous boom, like Mjolnir slamming into the ground, proclaiming, “Let the games, begin!”
“Green Lantern,” “X-Men: First Class,” and “Captain America” all have their work cut out for them.
End Credit Spoiler: I have to discuss this, because most people won’t get it. If you want to see for yourself, then skip this part, but if you are looking for an explanation, here goes:
Nick Fury, the leader of SHIELD, portrayed here by Samuel L. Jackson, is in possession of a case containing a glowing cube. The astrophysicist played by Stellan Skarsgard is presented with the object, in order to investigate it, and in a mirror reflection we see Loki, obviously haunting Earth to regain his own power and seek revenge on his brother. It’s all a set up for next summer’s “The Avengers,” which is pitting all of Marvel’s franchise heroes, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and I’m sure a few other surprises, against a known evil, likely Loki and some other villainous force. So, we’re given a peek here.
The cube itself is the “cosmic cube,” I very significant item in the Marvel Universe, which holds power over the universe. Don’t ask me how, it just does. It’s a comic book. The cube will be seen in Captain America, no doubt, as its origins date back to the villain Red Skull. So, it’s an underwhelming post-credits sequence for some, but a cool nod to us avid readers. Don’t feel slighted, though, as Captain America and next summer’s “Avengers” will explain it all.
SUMMER MOVIE SCORE: 9/10