May 16, 2011

01.05: THOR

It's taken me awhile to get to this, with finishing up my write-ups for the World Cinema Showcase, and launching my Quest for the Fest but I've been looking forward to writing up my thoughts on the latest Marvel Movie. I'm sure you've read one of the plenty of reviews out there, or even seen it for yourself but for what they're worth here are my impressions. 

First up: I'm a Marvel comic-book guy. Much is made of the difference between those who read DC comics (Batman, Superman, Green Lantern etc.) and those who read Marvel comics (Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America etc.). I'm not really sure what that difference is, but it's there. I really dig a lot of the DC characters but they can (and this may sound strange when talking of comic-books) tend towards the more outlandish, whereas the Marvel characters have been a little more... down-to-earth. 

And then, I guess, there's Thor. Thor is, not to put too fine a point on it, a god. The Norse god of thunder, storms and the protection of mankind to be exact (I am also something of a myth geek). In his time, he was a very popular god. The Marvel comic-book version of the hammer wielding deity is somewhat different (though, surprisingly, with a lot of similarities). And as much as I appreciate and dig the very human-ness of the rest of Marvel's stable, I wanted something otherworldly with this film. Quite frankly, I was expecting Flash Gordon with a grandiose, Shakespearean twist. And Thor delivers.

It hasn't been given away much in the advertising, but Branagh and co. have really embraced the balls-out ridiculousness of the realm of Asgard (home of the gods) while grounding it in (and introducing it to) the Marvel Movieverse. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) begins the film as a prince of Asgard and first in line to the throne, although he displays an arrogance and hot-headedness that gets him into trouble. After a particularly foolish and brash act that threatens to begin anew the war against the Frost Giants, Thor's father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tosses him out from Asgard to learn humility on Earth. Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) schemes and plots to take the throne for himself while Thor runs into beautiful astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

A fairly simple set-up really, and what I appreciated was the fact that this was not an origin story; this is not how Thor becomes the thunder god as he always has been. This is Thor learning what it takes to be a hero. And Hemsworth (formerly of Aussie soap Home and Away and Capt. Kirk's ill-fated dad in the new Star Trek) carries the role with bravado. His arrogant braggadocio of the first act Thor doesn't tip over into him becoming an asshole and he's a lot of fun to watch, especially in the first major action set-piece as he laughs and twangs Frost Giants about. He's so much fun, I actually came to miss him once stripped of his powers and humbled. And as much as the film is the development of Thor into a hero, it is equally a film of Loki becoming a villain. Hiddleston was an unknown quantity to me going in; as new as Hemsworth was I felt he'd done much with his little screen-time in Trek. Thankfully, Hiddleston is a fine young actor, and knocks the role of Loki outta the park. He's scheming and mischievous; the trickster god. But you can see, thanks in no small part to Hiddleston, that he's not purely evil. And the now obligatory end credits sting gives us a hint of what's in store for the Avengers.

Portman, after her Oscar win, has little to do here as Foster other than look stunning and be smart; I guess it helps if you want a beautiful scientist love interest to cast someone who is similarly gifted (I'm lookin' at you Denise Richards. Dr. Christmas Jones indeed). Anthony Hopkins as Odin is, disappointingly for me, dialling it back some. I was hoping for the Hopkins from The Wolfman; crazy, powerful and unhinged. His Odin in Thor is instead an old man, tired of war and destruction. Stellan Starsgard is there to lend some Nordic gravitas and not much else, while Kat Dennings is the fabulous comic-relief sidekick of Jane Foster, Darcy. Dennings shines as the political-science undergrad, displaying some fine comic timing. For all of the furore that kicked up (from, let’s face it, ignorant racists) about Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall the naysayers should be suitably shut up. He’s quite the presence, especially for a character that generally just stands around. Thor’s Asgardian buddies however, The Warriors Three, are not entirely necessary as characters. On a fan-boy level, it’s great to see them there and they do the business as brothers-in-arms of the hammer-twirling one, and perhaps help to make Thor feel more like a leader. But I feel the same could have been achieved with Sif alone; she’s a warrior goddess and, in the mythology and comic-books, a lover of Thor which could’ve been an opportunity for romantic tension.

Speaking of fan-boys, the crow-barring in of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye in one scene is fan-pleasing of the worst sort. It’s perfunctory at best and distracting at worst; the character does nothing and the scenes were obviously shot after the fact. The appearance only serves to slow down the action; if they really wanted to do this, they should’ve done it quick and moved on. It’s not the only SHIELD related bit that makes little sense within the story. It’s a shame, because SHIELD (and Clark Gregg’s wonderfully understated Agent Coulson) have become a neat common thread through the Marvel movies. And frankly, it looks like they ran out of money for some of the effects shots. There's some general untidiness, including a rather terrible ice monster chase, and one or two shots that just seemed to be... missing.

Thor does well in introducing a potentially silly and risible character into the Marvel Movieverse, while also managing to have a great deal of fun with it all. It was a good idea to not take the whole exercise too seriously, while also carrying off some great emotional moments (mainly to do with Hiddleston's Loki). It's big blockbuster fun that, with a few tweaks here and there, could have rivalled Iron Man. And I'm sure there was a large part of me that enjoyed it so much just for the fact that I was sitting in a cinema, watching Thor! Frankly, it's a film that could have gone Masters of the Universe but instead comes out a success. Bring on Captain America.

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