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Thor (2011)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THOR (2011)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard

Written By: Ashely Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski (story), Mark Protosevich (story)

Directed By: Kenneth Branagh

The Short Version

Kenneth Branagh does a credible job of making gods play nice in the superhero sandbox.

Thor is a comic book movie in theory but a Shakespearean action flick in practice.

Don’t frown like that; it’s also fun!

Intentionally or not, this one can be called a superhero chick flick.

Whatever you’re expecting, Thor is better than that.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SAMPLER PLATTER.

There’s stuff from all over the map here.  Just make sure to enjoy it before Volstagg shows up or there won’t be any left.


Pairs Well With...

BOILERMAKER.

Apparently the drink of choice when you’re going to get loaded with the God of Thunder at a New Mexico dive bar.

“We drank.  We fought.  He made his ancestors proud!”

“Is there a Renaissance Faire in town?”

“Call it in.”


I was very, very skeptical when I first walked into the theatre to see Thor.

Objectively speaking, the character of Thor is one of the sketchiest concepts in the Marvel Comics universe.  No matter how the studio wants to whitewash it to avoid offending Trailer Park America (to the point of later adding some silly dialogue to The Avengers, courtesy of – naturally – Captain America), he’s a god.  Yes, the Arthur C. Clarke definition of a god, but a god none the less.  That is a very different sandbox from the one that “standard” superheroes play in, no matter how similar the archetypes happen to be.  Comic books can get away with pretty much anything, but to bring that kind of sandbox mix to the photo realism of the silver screen is a different matter entirely, and honestly, when I took my seat in the theatre, I didn’t think it could be done; not well, at any rate.

By the time I walked out two hours later, I had come to the conclusion that the team behind Thor had pulled off one of the greatest problem solving exercises in recent cinematic memory.  Not only are the “suspension of disbelief” problems deftly handled, but so is the potentially awkward mess of telling a story that takes place both in the immortal realm of Asgard and in the modern United States.  The end results aren’t perfect, but they are far better than I would have expected anyone to achieve, even with $150 million to play with.  Having just watched Thor again at home, I’m even more impressed than I was the first time around… and slightly less impressed with what followed. 

Whether you end up loving Thor or hating it, the responsibility falls squarely on director Kenneth Branagh’s shoulders.

He and his team rather neatly solve the twin problems of 1) taking an ancient Norse god seriously in 21st Century America and 2) having a Norse god make sense as a “standard” comic book superhero by taking the most elegant, most expedient, and absolutely least obvious route: they cheerfully ignore the fact that they’re making a comic book movie.  Oh, the script is certainly aware that Thor is a comic book character (fans of the “Thor” comics will recognize his biography as an amalgamation of the original Marvel incarnation of Thor and his later retooling in the Marvel “Ultimate” universe) dropped into an already well-established cinematic take on a comic book universe, but upon closer inspection, even recognizing the extensive amount of screen time given to old franchise friend Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, When A Stranger Calls) and his pals at SHIELD, Thor really only pays lip service to the fact that it’s playing in Marvel’s sandbox… and that’s a large part of why it works.    

The sleight of hand is deft indeed.

Avoiding the Ang Lee trap of force feeding a scenario into four-color comic panels just because the character comes from Marvel’s factory, Branagh and company instead construct the real box that Thor plays in from sand more appropriate to his classical origins and go the Shakespeare/Wagner route.  The result is a frame based on Henry V with a little dash of King Lear added in and given a Wagnerian dramatis personae.  Thor is a spoiled prince who needs to be taught a hard lesson by his all-powerful father.  Loki is the jealous brother who has been wronged by said all-powerful father and yet who wants nothing more than to take Thor’s place as Number One Son.  Everyone important happens to be a god or close to it; Thor never faces a real opponent who is not of the immortal plane.  (This very clever maneuver solves a lot of problems, particularly “why can’t a god beat a human?”)  The camera may spend a lot of time on Earth, but the story’s all about Asgard. (Thor’s only real opponent on Earth is himself.)  This is what keeps the film coherent: Branagh and company don’t even try to make Earth anything other than a small stage upon which spoiled, impulsive Thor can find his inner responsible adult.

But because so much of the film takes place on Earth and that guy from SHIELD is there, the audience can pretend it’s still the comic book flick they came to see.  Neat trick; it took me two passes to fully catch it.

The first time I saw Thor, though I walked away impressed, I had considered the incredibly sparse New Mexico town (which consists of roughly three square blocks of short, 1950s-era buildings in the middle of flat, desert nothingness) to be something of a disappointment, and perhaps a sign that a budgetary corner had been cut.  (This isn’t true, by the way; that town was built from scratch.)  The second time, though, I understood: however much one’s inner movie geek might have liked to see the Day the Earth Stood Still looking robot stomp through a big city like LA or London, the depiction of any major modern city alongside the grandiosity of Asgard would have destroyed the delicate balance of the film.  The little town out of time lets the mythology pass in a way that Times Square and its ilk would not.  Subtle, but brilliant.

And because of that subtlety, the audience is free to pay full attention to the main event of Thor vs. Loki.

Thor is perfectly portrayed by Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek), who not only fits the superficial physical requirement, but more importantly plays through the character’s evolution from well-meaning spoiled brat to responsible adult in a sincere and utterly believable fashion.  He has an affability and a screen charisma that serve him very well here – especially while Thor is still in brat mode – and does a superb job of simultaneously projecting both immortal self-assurance and emotional vulnerability.  Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston (Midnight in Paris) provides a wonderful contrast as Loki, the silver-tongued liar known best for being a trickster.  When together – either before or after their enmity is revealed – Hemsworth and Hiddleston display a wholly believable chemistry as brothers that truly sells the overall framework of Shakespearean betrayal which in turn is what makes the entire movie work.  Indeed, both performances can be called flawless, though in Hiddleston’s case, perhaps too much so, for the simple reason that it’s hard to fathom how anyone other than Thor could ever have possibly trusted Loki for anything.

I think that casting Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) as Odin counts as a “goes without saying” win, don’t you?

And there’s more where that came from, too.  All of Asgard’s supporting players do an exemplary job and then some, with a special shout out to Rene Russo (Lethal Weapon 3), who finally returns to the screen after a six year absence.  Meanwhile, back on Earth, Stellan Skarsgard (Insomnia) delivers a solid performance as Dr. Selvig; so solid that it’s hard to imagine his character playing second banana on anyone’s team.  This brings us to the matter of Natalie Portman (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), whose work here has been widely criticized as “unbelievable” and “the film’s weakest link.”  I’ll be honest: I can’t think of one example of Portman’s work that I’ve liked since she became an adult… until Thor.  Do I buy her as a physicist?  Sure, and for those who don’t, I’d ask if they’ve visited a university lately.  Yeah, the character is guilty as the film’s own script charges of being more of a “storm chaser” than a traditional academic, but hey, that’s the script, not the actress.  And whether it’s due to Kenneth Branagh’s directorial influence or something else, the fact is that for once, she’s not trying to chew and steal scenery every time she’s on camera, and let’s others have the show… which in turn has the net effect of making her own performance better.  Oscar worthy?  No.  Good enough to play a part that’s basically as consequential to things as a mid-level Bond girl minus any sex?  Certainly.

Speaking of gender…

Comic book hero films are generally looked upon as “guy movies,” but the popular response to Thor might very well bring it over to “chick flick” territory.  Most men I know or whose commentaries I read look upon Thor as a mediocre movie or worse, but on the flip side, most women I know or whose commentaries I read absolutely love this flick, whether they tend to enjoy comic book hero movies in general or not.  (And it’s not just because of shirtless Chris Hemsworth, either; in fact, when fawning has been involved, I’ve usually seen it directed toward Tom Hiddleston.)  Does this mean anything profound?  To me, not really… but it is interesting.

And no, the “chick flick” designation does not mean that Thor skimps on action or rowdy humor.  That big hammer that the God O’ Thunder likes to swing around gets a workout, and so do all manner of swords, pikes, fists, and so on.  There’s even, as noted earlier, a giant robot that shoots ZOMG lazerz from its face.  And if you want “guy” humor, you get that, too, whether from the frat house camaraderie of The Warriors Three (and their maiden pal, Sif!), or from my personal favorite scene in the film, which involves what happens when the God O’ Thunder walks into a bar.  So fear not, action movie fans, there’s still plenty of fun to be had by all, as well as a few more laughs for those who care to stick around for the Deleted Scenes on the blu ray.

Put it all together, and the end result is one very well crafted and very satisfying mythological action flick that oh by the way is also a comic book movie.  More to the point, the end result is one very well crafted and very satisfying standalone mythological action flick  that oh by the way is also a comic book movie.

Remember when I said that I was even more impressed with Thor after seeing it for a second time?  ‘Tis true, but the things that I saw in Thor that served to impress me also put a tarnish on the film that can be called this one’s direct sequel: The Avengers.

Though I enjoyed The Avengers and still do, one of my major problems with it from the start is that Thor’s easy arrival on (and later easy departure from) Earth in that film completely and utterly negates the ending of this one.  (I will refrain from discussing this point further for spoiler reasons.)  But after watching Thor again, I looked back and realized that no, the Norse God O’ Thunder really doesn’t fit in well with the regular superhero crowd, especially when they’re in the big city.  Kenneth Branagh’s careful work in this initial flick neatly sidesteps the issue, and now that I fully appreciate just how much effort went into that particular dance move, it makes the mash-up that followed seem all the more absurd.  Still entertaining, but… I think Thor plays best in his own carefully prepared sandbox.

Not that he was totally alone the first time around, mind.  Look closely at the scene where Thor tries to recover his hammer after fighting his way through the gauntlet of SHIELD agents.  Maybe you missed it before when Coulson called for “Agent Barton” to be his eyes up top, and maybe you missed the significance of the weapon chosen by Barton before he takes his position.  I know that you missed seeing him in the credits, because he’s not there, but yes, ladies and gents, that really is an uncredited Jeremy Renner making a cameo as Hawkeye.

All kinds of fun, I say.

Bottom line, whatever your expectations for it might be, Thor is a better movie than you were expecting.  Don’t be dissuaded by its popular acclaim assumption of the “comic book hero chick flick” mantle, either; it just means that the ladies have taste, and hey, guys, it might also mean that you’ve found a good compromise flick for Date Night.  Just sayin’… and you’re welcome.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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