I am of mixed mind about the glut of superhero cinema right now, and this summer is going to test the patience of the audience with the genre.
In the comments section for my “Transformers” piece yesterday, Vern posted a few times, invoking the image of Pauline Kael trying to write about the current landscape of movies. And it’s both very funny and a nice humbling reminder that critics are defined by their overall diet of movies. We are only ever as good as the movies we are given to write about, and when I’m done with all of this in the future, will the sum total of my work be varying opinions about how well people crafted movies that primarily deal with dudes in funny costumes beating the hell out of each other?
The thing is, part of me has been waiting my whole life to see the Marvel characters in particular brought to life on the bigscreen. Now that they’re actually doing it, there is a great deal of satisfaction in seeing how they approach each of the characters, and even if I haven’t loved all of the films, it’s been exciting to watch these things come to fruition. And I am happy to admit that I’m an easy mark for this sort of thing. I have a voracious appetite for pulp, and I’m not sold on the idea that these movies need to be “important”. On the other hand, if they’re not fun, they don’t really have any reason to exist. These films cost a small fortune, especially if you want to make the outrageous seem possible, and that sets up the expectation that they must be bigger and more significant than the average issue of a comic book… even if that’s all these films really are.
“Thor” is the latest film from Marvel Studios, and part of this year’s double-feature that completes the run-up to next summer’s “The Avengers,” the biggest gamble the studio’s made so far, and one of the biggest gambles from any studio in town. One of the most common complaints about last year’s “Iron Man 2” was that it felt like more of a set-up for another movie than a complete story that worked on its own, and that’s certainly a danger when you’re working your way towards something. “Thor” is also risky for the studio because it is the first moment where they’re introducing magic to the Marvel Universe, which has been defined by a sort of pseudo-science so far, impossible but at least pretending to be set in a real world. With “Thor,” they’re making a pretty major jump, and even after visiting the set and reading the script, I had some big questions about whether or not they’d strike the right tone and find a way to make this feel like part of the world they’ve been so carefully building.
The answer is a resounding yes to both questions.
Chris Hemsworth, best known to audiences as Kirk’s father in that powerful opening scene to “Star Trek,” is just as good a fit for the character of Thor as Robert Downey Jr. is for Tony Stark, and that one thing goes a long way to making the film a pleasure to watch. Finding the right way to introduce the character and his mythology is the big task this movie has, and there were some very interesting choices made in deciding how to bring Thor to life. First, they dumped the notion of him changing into a human being, something that was part of the earliest version of the character that Marvel published. Originally, Dr. Donald Blake had no idea he was Thor until a chance encounter with a cane he found in a cave revealed his true nature to himself. In that version of the story, he had been sent to Earth by Odin to learn humility, and living his life as a human being in an infirm body was an important way of guaranteeing that he could not rely on his considerable physical power or his godly powers.
With “Captain America” coming out this summer and focusing on the startling transformation from skinny Steve Rogers to muscle-bound Captain America, Marvel made the wise decision to not deal with a shape-shifting Thor, while still finding a way to do something thematically similar. Instead of an origin story, they’ve decided to tell the story of the moment when Thor goes from an indifferent impulsive god to a being who has a connection to our world that makes it important to him and who is able to think beyond himself finally. It is his transition from a super-powered being to a full-blown superhero, and in doing so, they’ve managed to make a movie that doesn’t really feel like any of the other Marvel movies, that has its own voice, and that pulls off its various goals with real charm.
The film opens on Earth, or, as Thor calls it, Midgard. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her friend Darcy (Kat Dennings), and Professor Andrews (Stellan Skarsgard), Jane’s mentor and advisor are looking at a strange energy phenomenon, one that Jane predicts will manifest again over a specific part of the southwestern desert. When it does, they race towards it in their RV, braking only when a figure looms up out of a cloud of dust and debris and they end up hitting him. As Jane runs to help him, she looks around at the miles and miles of desolate landscape and asks, simply, “Where did he come from?”
The next half-hour of the movie backs up to answer that question and introduce us not only to the character of Thor, but to the world he inhabits. For years, I’ve heard Avi Arad and Kevin Feige refer to “Thor” as “Marvel’s answer to ‘Lord Of The Rings’,” and when they first started developing the film, they were planning something more fantasy-oriented, a film that would take place across the Nine Realms. That was before they started bringing all the properties together in one shared world, though, and at some point, they realized that they needed to use this movie to bring Midgard and Asgard together. The film spends some time establishing the basic rules of Thor’s world and introducing Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), the ruler of all the realms, and his sons Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), one of whom will end up sitting on his throne one day. While Hopkins has certainly played variations on this type of figure many times over, he works with an economy here that is appreciated, and both Hemsworth and Hiddleston perfectly fit these roles. They take these big mythic archetypes and make them human and specific, not an easy task.
Thor is close to taking the throne from Odin, and on his coronation day, there is a disturbance that upsets everything. Frost Giants from Jotunheim, one of the Nine Realms, somehow manage to infiltrate Odin’s Vault, where weapons gathered from around the universe, each one powerful enough to bring about Ragnarok, have been stored for safe-keeping. There’s one that was stolen from the Frost Giants that they want back, and they actually make it all the way to where it’s stored before The Destroyer steps out and kills them all. The coronation is interrupted before Thor can be crowned, and Odin, Loki, and Thor investigate, not sure how anyone could have made it into Asgard unobserved. Thor wants to immediately go confront the Frost Giants, and in particular, he wants to kill Laufey, their king, as an example. Odin tries to get him to stand down, but a bitter argument erupts between them, Loki desperate to make peace before things escalate. Too late, though, and Odin realizes that he almost handed over the rule of Asgard to an angry child.
He strips Thor of his powers, banishes him to Midgard, and then invests Mjolnir, Thor’s magic hammer, with a magical task. Only once Thor has learned humility and become a person of substance… only once he is worthy… will he be able to reclaim his hammer and all the powers that come with it, setting up a very simple Sword In The Stone scenario which becomes Thor’s main focus once he wakes up and realizes he’s on Earth. That brings the movie full-circle, back to that opening scene out in the desert, and is a major element in the middle of the film. Based on the trailers and the clips so far, I was worried that the film would be nothing but wacky fish-out-of-water humor about Thor trying to fit into a modern world, but by now, you’ve seen most of that. It’s not the main thrust of the film. Instead, the film keeps cutting between Asgard, where Odin has fallen into the enchanted Odinsleep, leaving Loki on the throne, and Earth, where Thor is having to confront what it means to be a mortal man. Loki, who starts the film as a trusted and loved brother to Thor, reveals his true nature fairly early on to the audience, and he ends up learning some hard truths about his own origins that leave him shaken, things that threaten to destroy Asgard completely.
A few observations about things I really liked in this film: when superpowered beings fight in this film, there is a sense of power and force that we still haven’t seen in many of these movies. I’ve complained often about how disappointing it is when Superman faces off against a human-scaled threat like Lex Luthor because it means we never really see the upper limits of what Superman can do. In this film, there are many fights where every single being onscreen is superpowered, and all of the punches and kicks and throws are full-strength, nothing held back. And while Kenneth Branagh has still never met a dutch angle he didn’t love, the action in the film is staged well, and there are some beats and some images that push comic book language on film to places we haven’t seen before. In particular, I think everything involving Heimdall (Idris Elba) is spectacular, and I love his Observatory and the way the Bifrost works. It is crazy, but it’s also kind of beautiful. I also really like Sif (Jaime Alexander) and the Warriors Three, Thor’s compatriots. Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) don’t have a ton to do in the film, but they make their time onscreen count. If they do show up in future movies, it will be a welcome return.
Beyond that, Mjolnir is made a credible weapon of choice, something I was curious about beforehand. One of my many issues with “TRON: Legacy” was that the discs are interesting in the context of a disc wars jai alai match, but as hand-to-hand weapons, there are few things stupider than the sight of two people slapping at each other with magic frisbees. They just didn’t work, and you could practically feel the fight choreographers give up halfway through the few action scenes they even bothered to stage. Here, there’s a lot of different weaponry on display, and it all seems like actual weaponry you would use to actually kill things. Mjolnir is pretty damn handy in a fight, and Hemsworth makes it feel like something he’s comfortable using in a number of different ways. In general, he makes his powers feel like something he’s comfortable with, a lifelong part of who he is. There’s no montage in this film of him trying to learn to fly or tentatively trying out the hammer to see what it can do. He is Thor from the very beginning. His character arc is all about his attitudes towards the world around him, and his eventual acceptance of responsibility for his actions.
In some ways, “Thor” feels like the youngest of the Marvel movies so far, pitched squarely at a kid audience that really doesn’t know the character, and that may infuriate some older fans. I’ve long been afraid, though, of 30 and 40 year old men who demand that each and every movie about thunder gods and radioactive spider-men and vigilantes in batsuits be tailored directly to their appetites. I read comic books as a kid. They were a gateway to pulp storytelling for me, and I was rabid about them. I don’t want these movies to be serious, piercing explorations of the human soul. I want superpowers and fights and flying and monsters, and “Thor” absolutely delivers on that level. Branagh finds a nice tone to play with the entire cast, and there is a sense of humor to things that seems fairly low-key and gentle. For me, the most consistent laugh in the film is the way the oh-my-god adorable Kat Dennings keeps mangling the pronunciation of “Mjolnir.”
The film is true enough to its comic origins to incorporate ideas like the Rainbow Bridge, one of those things I honestly never thought I’d see anyone do in a live-action movie, and they manage to make it sort of gorgeous. Bo Welch’s production design takes some big crazy ideas and figures out a way to make it all seem fairly real. Haris Zambarloukos, the film’s cinematographer, shot one of the ugliest professionally-produced movies I’ve ever seen, the borderline-incompetent “Mamma Mia!”, and he worried me more than Branagh walking into the film. His work here is strong, though, and there’s a burnished hyper-color quality to the world that works well. Branagh is one of those directors who I think works very well with actors, but who has traditionally displayed a fairly wretched sense of cinema. I still wake up in cold sweats thinking about how badly he mangled the gorgeous script for “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and I’ll never understand what people see in “Dead Again,” even if I live to be a thousand years old. Having said that, I generally liked his work here. I was surprised by how much I liked some of the giant-scale sequences, since I thought those might be the places where he dropped the ball, but there’s one chunk of action that takes place on the Frost Giant’s home planet that is very effective, and while I’ll give second-unit legend Vic Armstrong some of the credit for that, it’s a testament to how well Branagh was able to drop into someone else’s way of doing things that it all came together as coherently as it did.
Natalie Portman is fine as Jane Foster, but it’s not really a role that demands much of her. She is basically the thing that allows Thor to finally see humans as more than these weak little backwards beings, and she’s certainly pretty enough to make a god reassess our planet. Dennings is comic relief and little more, but she is as plush and appealing as always, while Skarsgard has a few good scenes and appears to be part of the big plan for what’s coming in future films. In general, the material with SHIELD seems to organically hint at the larger Marvel Universe this time without totally overwhelming the main story in the film, and the after-the-credits beat in particular is very effective. I thought the Hawkeye cameo in the film was utterly pointless, though, and especially for audiences who don’t know the character already. I would never guess, based on his two minutes of screentime here, that Jeremy Renner’s going to play a major role in “The Avengers” next year. He’s not just inconsequential, he’s useless and distracting. It is fan service, at best, and more than anything, sort of annoying. I also think there’s a disconnect between the spectacular real environments built for Asgard and much of the CGI work, which seems to re-use certain shots several times to the point where they almost feel like stock footage. I like the design of Asgard more than I like the way some of it was executed, and it seems odd that Digital Domain and BUF, companies that I think are among the best at environmental work, would make some of the odd mistakes they make here.
Even so, there’s a whole lot of the film that I really like, and I can’t wait to take both of my sons to see it. Allen’s never seen any of the Marvel movies so far, and Toshi’s only seen them on home video, and even then, only selected parts of the films. This time out, the playful nature of the film and the broad, primary-colors storytelling seems like a perfect way to finally introduce them to the world. The 3D post-conversion is actually pretty clean and used well, and I think for kids, the immersive quality of it all will really pay off. If “Captain America” is at least as fun as “Thor,” then Marvel can rest easy until next summer, because they will have managed to introduce each one of the Avengers successfully. The best thing I can say about this film is that it genuinely made me want to see Hemsworth arguing with Robert Downey Jr., magic versus science, and I can finally imagine the two of them occupying the same world.
“Thor” premieres in Sydney today, and will be opening in several markets before it finally hits theaters across America on May 6.