With the superhero film becoming a staple of the summer movie season it was inevitable that Hollywood would eventually run out of the most marketable characters of the Marvel and DC rosters. Now the studios are digging deep into the backlog of Stan Lee creations and making movies out of characters like Thor, who was at best a secondary character within the comic book spectrum. Of course this is sort of going to be a year of movies about secondary characters, what with Captain America and The Green Lantern in our future and the movie Iron Man proved that one of these second string superheroes could be used to make a pretty good movie. Of the three major comic book movies this year, Thor is the one I’ve most been looking forward to, largely because I was pretty excited about Marvel’s choice of Kenneth Branagh to direct. That isn’t to say I love Branagh as a filmmaker (I don’t, although his Hamlet was pretty sweet), but I was really glad to see that they were picking someone with gravitas, someone who would bring a certain seriousness to the proceedings and who wouldn’t turn the film into a big joke.
Unlike most superheroes, Thor is not an average person who stumbles upon some kind of radiation only to find it’s given them superpowers. Thor is actually part of an elaborate fantasy/science fiction universe in which the universe is split into nine realms. Earth is one of these realms and so is Asgard, a realm ruled by an aging king named Odin (Anthony Hopkins) who once came to earth and was worshiped by the Vikings he met. Though Odin is seemingly immortal, he plans to hand down the crown to one of his two sons: the brash Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or the reserved Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thor comes close to receiving the title, but his coronation ceremony is interrupted when agents from a rival realm called Jotunheim break into the castle and try to steal a powerful artifact that had been won by Asgard in an ancient war. Enraged, Thor and a group of warriors invade Jotunheim in retaliation, an act that is in defiance of Odin’s commands. Furious, Odin decides that Thor is not ready to lead Asgard and as a punishment sends him to Earth, where he is stripped of his powers and is without a clear way home.
One of the reasons that Thor is so effective is that it doesn’t trot out the same damn origin story arc that we’ve seen over and over during the course of this superhero-movie craze. There aren’t any dopey scenes where Thor tries out his powers and is shocked/amazed at how effective they are and we don’t waste an entire movie with him deciding whether or not to use these powers to fight crime. In fact if you really look at the film it’s more of a fantasy adventure than it really is a superhero film. There’s also a strange George W. Bush allegory at the center of it all with an impulsive leader overreacting to an isolated attack and ending up in a quagmire (fortunately the film allows said leader to mature into a more reasoned Obama type, a third act that dubbya never allowed himself). That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have more than a few clichés of its own, in fact I’d say its biggest sin is extreme predictability. If you can’t tell right away that Loki isn’t going to end up being the bad guy, even if you aren’t aware of the mythological implications of being named “Loki,” you really weren’t trying. It’s also not very hard to tell what course of action is going to lead Thor to overcome his predicament; in fact the film’s third act plays out exactly like you think it will. Still, this all seems nicely unique from the Spider-Man/Iron Man formula and that is much appreciated.
If I was going to compare the film to another super hero movie, it might actually be Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. The two movies do have fairly different tones, but they have strangely similar structures, namely that they dramatically change settings and even genres at specific points. Donnor’s film begins like a science fiction film on Krypton, then becomes a coming of age film in Smallville, before finally becoming a comic book story when it finally arrives in Metropolis. Similarly there’s a clear disconnect between the high-fantasy Asgard scenes in Thor and the more comic-book-like material that arrives once Thor is banished to Earth. That section of the movie is characterized by a little bit of genuine pathos from Thor’s feelings of betrayal and failure, but it also has a distinctly comedic streak that comes from Thor being a fish out of water on Earth. This humor feels refreshingly unforced and rarely devolves into cheap one-liners like the comic relief in a lot of these blockbusters can. It’s not bust-a-gut-laughing stuff, but it’s entertaining and keeps the film going through its second half.
One of the less welcome elements from the earthbound segments of the film was a really silly romantic sub-plot between Thor and a scientist he meets named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). I struggle to really call this a romance because it’s not a particularly well developed relationship and it rarely rises above the level of Junior High puppy love. The whole thing also falls well into the annoying action movie trope of people “falling in love” over the course of a short time for seemingly no reason other than that the two “lovers” happen to be the top billed male and female actors. In fact, I almost feel like this whole thing was put into the movie in order to appeal to the Twilight crowd. As I understand it, that series is also some kind of fantasy in which a powerful supernatural entity falls head over heels for a rather average human for seemingly no reason in a similarly sexless fashion.
In spite of my distaste for how that relationship develops, I did quite like Natalie Portman’s performance and her character. In fact, performances seem to be really solid all around in the film, a quality that I feel comfortable attributing to Kenneth Branagh. I went in worried about the mostly unknown Chris Hemsworth, but he was really pretty cool in the movie, which is impressive given that a lesser actor would have devolved into ridiculous camp with some of this material. There’s also something refreshing about seeing someone with a Schwarzenegger-build kicking ass in a world where Jake Gyllenhaal is considered an action star. Anthony Hopkins also seems to have risen to the occasion for Branagh, that’s not to say this is some kind of Oscarworthy performance, but he seems to really be putting in effort in a way that he rarely does anymore when he’s “slumming it” in movies like this.
Thor is not a work of fine art, but I think it works quite well by the standards of the summer blockbuster. In fact I think it might just be the best film based on a Marvel property since Spider-Man 2, I certainly liked it better than the Iron Man films and the Incredible Hulk reboot anyway. The key to its success is balance; it has just the right amounts of visual flair, character development, and humor and that creates a really fun (but not annoyingly stupid) tone that makes for a very good time at the movies.
*** out of Four