Things have been going very well for Marvel Studios so far. They’ve built up a deep war chest, they’ve got a ton of fan goodwill, their business dealings and hiring decisions have been quite savvy and their marketing skill is thoroughly impressive. However, the fact remains that most of their fanfare has been built on anticipation. Until very recently, their only actual accomplishments (excluding the Marvel films produced by Fox, Sony, et al.) have been the two acclaimed Iron Man films and their sophomore slump, The Incredible Hulk. All of that changes this summer, as they release two — count ‘em, two — films in the span of three months. That’s half of their roster for The Avengers, the currently-shooting extravaganza that the studio has quite literally bet their house on. To say that stakes have never been higher for them would be an understatement.
Their first salvo of the year is Thor, deliberately scheduled to kick off the summer movie season of ’11 until Fast Five stole that particular thunder (so to speak). Even before its release, we all knew that this one was going to be a strange entry in the Marvel movie canon. After all, it was anyone’s guess how the God of Thunder and the Rainbow Bridge of Asgard were going to fit into the grounded and pseudo-scientific world of Tony Stark. The choice to make Kenneth Branagh the director had also raised a few eyebrows. Sure, Branagh is second to none at staging Shakespearean dialogue for the screen, which promised a certain amount of grandeur and gravitas to the scenes in Asgard. On the other hand, his performance as Gilderoy Lockheart comprised the sum total of what could charitably be called his geek cred, and his ability to direct action and CGI of the required magnitude was pretty much entirely untested.
Fortunately, all of that speculation and prognostication is ancient history now. What’s left is to consider how the film turned out. We may as well start with the title character himself.
Right off the bat, Thor is presented as a hothead. He’s arrogant, aggressive and impulsive to a fault. This guy doesn’t just advocate violence as the answer to everything, he actually seems to get off on it. Watching him thrash Mjolnir around is both awesome because of the damage he’s doing and terrible because of how stupidly blissful he is in the process. Yet the character remains likeable because underneath it all, his first priority is to protect Asgard and to prove himself as a worthy heir to the throne. His methods might be idiotic and brash, but his intentions are pure. Plus, when Thor argues that the Frost Giants are trying to rekindle their old war with the Asgardians, it’s difficult to look at the circumstances and disagree.
Then Thor is exiled to Earth, which is where his character gets really interesting. As you might expect, this part of the movie is essentially a “fish out of water” story as Thor learns to live among humans. The trick here is that the contrast doesn’t come from how Earth is different from Asgard. The contrast comes from the point that Thor has lost his godlike abilities and he’s stuck in the form of a mere mortal. Therefore, our hero has to learn the hard way that he’s no longer impervious to such things as tasers, sedatives and moving vehicles. It makes sense because he’s still learning the limits of his new body and it’s funny because the character so desperately needed to be taken down a peg. It also helps that though his super-strength and his trusty hammer are both gone, his fighting prowess is still intact and he’s no less a badass for it. Furthermore, though he does show confusion at certain aspects of modern life, it’s never done in such a way that makes him look overly stupid or oafish. My favorite example is when Thor goes into a pet store and makes a request that’s funny, but actually quite understandable given the circumstances.
How good was Chris Hemsworth in the title role? I’ll direct you to the banishment scene for that answer, in which he engages in a shouting match against Anthony Friggin’ Hopkins. This legendary actor is delivering a full-tilt dramatic performance with all the emotion he can muster in that scene, and Hemsworth holds his own against him, pound for pound. That is an impressive feat. More importantly, Hemsworth delivers a protagonist who starts out as an unreasonable loose cannon and grows into a more even-tempered fellow, keeping the character likeable and the development believable at every step of the way. This will deservedly be Hemsworth’s breakout role and I can’t wait to see where he goes from here (his performances in the Red Dawn remake and the Joss Whedon-produced The Cabin in the Woods have both been in the can for a while now, forestalled by the financial difficulties at MGM).
Opposite him is Tom Hiddleston, who also proves himself an extraordinary new talent as Loki. This is a character based around deception, and it’s some other kind of phenomenal to watch Hiddleston fake sincerity as his character tells some blatant lie. Additionally, Hiddleston is another actor who gets a powerful scene against Hopkins and comes out looking like a pro. Unfortunately, as much fun as I had watching Loki in all his machinations through the film, I don’t think this character really stuck the landing. When Loki finally put his cards on the table in the third act, I personally thought that his master plan wasn’t dastardly enough, his agenda wasn’t clear enough and his motivations didn’t make a lick of sense after all that he had been through. I just didn’t see what he had to gain if everything had gone according to plan. Better luck next time in The Avengers, hopefully.
Idris Elba (definitely one of my favorite “The Wire” alumni) also deserves a mention for his performance as Heimdall, guardian of the portal to and from Asgard. Elba delivers his lines with an unsettling monotone, playing Heimdall as a devoted and dispassionate sentinel loyal only to Odin. He doesn’t get nearly enough action for my liking, but the character still proves that he can kick ass if given an excuse and an opportunity. The end result is a valuable ally and a fierce enemy. What’s more, it takes one hell of a performance to make that helmet look good.
Back on Earth, SHIELD takes center stage as suggested by the post-credits stinger in Iron Man 2. Clark Gregg has more to do than ever as the mysterious Agent Coulson, yet the character remains as blank and officious as always. Jeremy Renner appears just long enough to do absolutely nothing as Hawkeye (sans costume, sadly) and Sam Jackson makes his usual Nick Fury cameo after the credits. Still, even though the lead characters individually don’t get much love, SHIELD as a whole really flexes its muscle here. They’ve only been a name and some nebulous organization up until now, but this film finally gives us a taste of what SHIELD is and what it can do. At this rate, I’ll be very disappointed if Marvel doesn’t show us a Helicarrier at some point in the next two movies.
Elsewhere on Earth, we have Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings as a crew of astrophysicists. Surprisingly, it’s Dennings that comes out best, absolutely nailing her role as the detached and snarky comic relief. Meanwhile, Skarsgard and Portman — great actors both — are left without a paddle. They’re both visibly struggling to get a handle on their characters, but they’ve got nothing. Clearly, the filmmakers just didn’t know what to do with these characters.
From what I can gather, Skarsgard was supposed to play a mentor to Portman’s character and a sort of de facto father figure to Thor. He does get one very nice scene with Hemsworth to the latter effect, but it doesn’t go far enough. The rest of the time, Skarsgard is basically just walking around the set, looking like he’s got no business being there. Portman, meanwhile, got shafted as the love interest. Aside from a few fleeting glimpses of chemistry between the two, the romance subplot seemed incredibly forced. It’s patently obvious — even told to us outright! — that Jane Foster has fallen head-over-heels in love with Thor at first sight, though we’re given absolutely no reason why (you know, besides the obvious). Portman’s an incredible actress, yet the role reduced her to nothing but a pretty face. Both of these characters are supposed to be geniuses, but the movie required no great acts of intelligence on their part. They do play a crucial role in Thor’s development, but that could have and should have been taken so much further. Wasted opportunities all around, really.
It’s especially shameful, since the screenplay is otherwise quite good. This is, after all, a story that includes Asgard, Earth, Jotunheim, Bifrost, giant ice monsters, SHIELD, a quest for redemption, a plot to overthrow the All-Father, two weapons of mass destruction and a giant robot, in addition to all the mandatory set-ups for The Avengers. That’s a lot of different story elements to cram into 114 minutes, yet the script managed to tie all these disparate parts into a single cohesive whole. Not an easy task. The plot also had some rather interesting twists here and there, the comedy was very effective and the Asgardian dialogue seemed flowery and grand without becoming pretentiously Shakespearean.
As for the action… well, it’s okay. The worst of it comes at the beginning, when the bulk of the action takes place on the icy world of Jotunheim. The place is so dark, the editing so choppy and the camera so erratic that I could scarcely make out a thing. Naturally, dark lighting + ADD editing + shaky cam = 3D migraine, so I quickly found myself grateful that I’d gone with the 2D option for this film. Having said that, the action does improve as the story continues, with the high note being when Thor gets his powers back. However, a couple of the action scenes have slo-mo that looks extremely lame, especially in this post-Zack Snyder age. I’ll also say that though Branagh’s inexperience with action really shows, he still does an admirable job of selling those parts of the film that might otherwise have come off as silly or ridiculous.
Thor did exactly what it needed to. It created a fantasy world capable of living in harmony with the more realistic world previously created, opening up the scope of the Marvel movie-verse while introducing a likeable and awesome hero to the mix. The movie certainly isn’t bad on its own, though it could easily have been better. Another couple of polishes on the screenplay might have helped, particularly with regard to Portman’s character, Skarsgard’s character and Loki’s grand scheme. I also expect that Branagh may have turned in a better product if he had a couple of action films under his belt first.
As it is, the first Iron Man film remains the high watermark for Marvel Studio’s output, though Thor remains a breezy good time that’s worth a look.