09 May 2011

First Impressions: THOR

THOR. God of Thunder, Warrior of Asgard, Medical Doctor for some reason. Long blond locks, huge muscles and Marvel's best mainstream answer to Superman.

Wait, who?

Thor is awesome. I don't know a single person who is really into Thor comics but he's always been a Marvel mainstay somehow. A founding member of the Avengers, Thor is still virtually a B-Marvel Hero (Who the hell are Marvel's A heros anyway? Spider-Man, Hulk and Wolverine? That's about it) along the lines of Iron Man though much more fantastic. One way the Marvel Universe (DC as well) is unique among Fictional Universes is the presence of Alien Technology along with strong Magical Elements and even appearances by a handful of gods themselves. Iron Man (2008) was Marvel's first spin into serious B-Hero Territory (how did Daredevil [2003], The Punisher [2004] and Ghost Rider [2007] get made before Iron Man or THOR [2011]? Somehow I suppose there's a line between the cheaper B-Anti-hero movie and the tentpole nature that Avengers tie-in films receive) and THOR follows suit with a very well done if not exceptional film.

The difficulty going into THOR is its needlessly complex mythology. The film actually slims his origin down probably better than the comics. In the comic world Thor is banished from Asgard, the City of the Norse Gods that lies in a different Realm than Earth. It's already a little tricky - it's not exactly a different dimension or a different planet, just a different cosmos. I'd liken it to Middle-Earth or something, simply a different world and let's leave it at that. So, obviously Thor's birthplace is already difficult to explain.

So in the comics the cat is banished and sent to earth but he doesn't know he's Thor. He lives his own life as Dr. Donald Blake and eventually finds Mjolnir, his mystical hammer and then only becomes "Thor" when he picks it up. There's a much clearer transformation that isn't really permanent between alter-egos. He's as much Blake as he is Thor (at least until he discovers more of his birthright). This is all pretty retarded. One of the strengths of THOR is grounding a very ridiculous premise and simplifying what could have been a very unwieldy story. There is a shout-out to the name Donald Blake as it's the name of Natalie Portman's ex here that kind of sticks to Thor as a cover for his fantastic true identity. On this note I do find it shady that Natalie ends up naming Thor after her ex, I mean, clearly they're trying to start a relationship by the film's end, awkwarrrd.

So, let's spend the rest of today's post talking about the actual film, tomorrow we'll chat about its context.

I: A Cast of Unpronounceable Names:

Behold! Laufey, King of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim! Volstagg the Voluminous, Lion of Asgard! Frigga, Queen of Odin! What the hell. One thing this film has going for it is an exceptional cast led by competent director Kenneth Branagh. It seems natural that Branagh could attract some big names here but I don't fully understand our general appreciation for his work, he's been in so many shitty movies and directed some crap as well, especially when handling pulp material (I fill with a deep rage when I think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [1994]). Regardless, he pulled two Academy Award winners in Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins as well as respected stage actor Tom Hiddleston, generally respected Swedish dude Stellan Skarsgård and Rene Russo.

Natalie does a nice job here, she mostly looks cute but is intelligent and well-rounded enough, if not a swooner for Thor's abs (c'mon, who wouldn't be). I think the two of them actually have good chemistry. Thor wakes up from his teleportation to earth with her leaning over him and he's got this look in his eyes like "I gotta bang this chick" and later on she definitely looks at him like "I need to jump this dude's bones." It's love, man. Jane Foster (Natalie's character, by the way) is actually one of the better-established Marvel squeezes, only Mary Jane Watson and Betty Ross have a bigger presence in their respective comics.

Anthony Hopkins gives a good authoritative presence throughout the film and everyone, friend or foe acknowledges him to be the Fucking Man. Odin knows his shit and his Thor Banishment is vital to his growth as a character and essentially the entire story. Tom Hiddleston as Thor's half-brother Loki also bases his entire motivation on seeking Odin's approval. He's adept at being the slimy, silver-tongued villain who is more complex than we usually see in crappy Marvel films. He's a much better villain than anyone Iron Man has ever faced for sure and is actually a good mental nemesis to the Arrogance of Thor, something rare in Marvel Comics. I'm still waiting for the Mandarin to show is face against Iron Man, which needs to happen soon. Loki was also the primary reason for the Avengers first forming and his appearance in that upcoming Opus is apparently assured.

Skarsgård kind of just hangs out then of course starts quoting Norse Myth. Russo does about the same. Kat Dennings provides some nice comic relief but almost seems forced in this kind of movie where the jokes don't come as natural as the charm of a Robert Downey Jr. led Iron Man. The same goes for the rest of the Warriors Three who are just awesome combatants without a whole lot of characterisation beyond being Thor's buddies. It's not like they could have forced that however and they're probably doing as much as they should in a tightly packed film.

Let's talk about Idis Elba as Heimdall for a second, because he's awesome. I first started paying attention to this guy during his legendary shake-up of The Office but he's had some great turns in American Gangster (2007), RocknRolla (2008) and The Losers (2010). Anyway, he's a black guy playing a Norse God here, which has some very insane people upset. Like THAT's the most unbelievable thing about this fucking movie. While I think the casting works well regardless of Elba's colour I still can't figure out why Heimdall is on the poster and has his own Character Poster (at left) because he's really a tiny character. He's powerful and pretty important but his role is miniscule. His poster inclusion seems to be an obvious stab at getting some colour up there among all the white people and demonstrate that the flick's got a nice spectrum. Which of course, is better than most other films this summer. Still, Skarsgård and even Clark Gregg (as Son of Coul again) has a much bigger part which you can discuss the merits of yourself.

So, what about Thor himself? You probably remember Chris Hemsworth for playing Kirk's pa for 10 seconds in Star Trek (2009). No? No way! He was basically known for being huge and looking enough like Chris Pine to play his father. Anyway, Hemsworth is pretty sweet here. He does all that Thor needs to do - be an asshole for the first three quarters of the movie, then channel that assholery into something positive for the finale. You actually won't find a better summary of his character arc anywhere. It's the transition from asshole to okay guy. He also rocks the shit out of that flannel.

II: Tons of Cool Shit Happens All the Time

Future comic films should actually take notes from THOR for its handle of multiple villains. The first baddies are these Frost Giants from Planet Hoth, who are kind of dicks for no reason. Actually they're probably pissed mostly because the planet they live on is fucking terrible. This compares to Asgard which looks...exactly like the kind of city the god would live in. It's incredible. Some of the scenery here, CGI or not is fantastic and beautiful. So these Frost Giants are basically dicks (contrasting with the good CGI of Asgard most of the Giants look pretty crappy. See - that's the symbolism, the bad guys are represented by bad CGI, it's all coming together now), but they give Thor more than enough of a chance to not be a dick himself. Of course Thor basically incites war by invading their terrible crappy world and killing half of them. They're pissed off reaction is somewhat understandable. Anyone starting to see political parallels? Should we have taken George W's magic hammer and sent him to New Mexico for a weekend to learn humility?

The Frost Giants are a menace but ultimately more of an inciting incident then a constant threat, tho they're really only a threat because Asgardians are loth to wipe them out entirely (which apparently they could do very easily). The second major baddie is The Destroyer, which most of the marketing has focused on, as he's an easier ominous villain than the dopey Frost Giants or the Complex Loki. The Destroyer only destroys, definitely a visual feast for the 12-year old Transformers fan in all of us. It's interesting as this villain characterised by his uncharacterisable nature. It's really unstoppable, immortal, only an armour casing and lots of fire. Thor kicks its fucking ass, of course. He's an obstacle, a tool of Loki more than an actual villain, so he's able to slide in without bogging down the story (are you paying attention, Spider-Man 3 [2007]? Not every villain has to have a fucking rationale).

The flick builds really well because the final Loki fight is perhaps the least spectacular but the emotionally most intense. It also signals the final growth of Thor as a character as he's willing to fight his brother in order to save a dangerous race because he's learned the value of life and diplomacy. Cute. I'll mention the site of their battle, the Bifröst here because that was also very cool. I mean, it's tough to make a Rainbow Bridge a cool concept. Or is it? Heimdall's transporting Ion Cannon is also pretty sweet. This film is full of pretty cool concepts and moments all rendered in pretty decent CGI. That's why this is one of Marvel's Heavy-Hitting Tentpoles, because to undercut Thor would do a disservice to his Magical World.

III: Dueling Narratives

So Odin banishes Thor for being a douche and he lands in New Mexico where Natalie Portman hits on him and he must prove himself worthy of wielding his Hammer which will give him the power to kick everyone's ass. The catch is though is that just because you might have the power to kick everyone's ass doesn't mean you should kick everyone's ass. Thor actually has a difficult time learning this lesson.

Much of the film flips back and forth between Loki being a sneaky cock back on Asgard and Thor acclimating to life on earth. Thor on earth provides much of the film's funniest moments (demanding a horse at the local pet shop, smashing coffee cups and then calmly demanding another) but also grounds the story very well. The action is completely confined to a small New Mexican town which wisely simplified a narrative that was already jumping between cosmos.

The costumes and locations are all pretty true to the comics which is astounding for any adaptation these days, much less something like Thor. It really works though, especially when Thor's buddies from Asgard come to visit they're clearly out of place. It was important that these be two very distinct worlds and the audience recognises where it is. Asgard seems much more advanced yet strangely backwards at the same time. The best asset that THOR has is though it may not ultimately be a very deep movie it tends to make cliches fresh with solid acting, interesting concepts and a well-managed story. I hate saying that just because a movie doesn't suck it's good but that's about what we can expect these days. THOR doesn't suck. What could have been a wildly ridiculous story is much more grounded than something as disastrous as Ocean's 12 (2004) or even something that spins out of control like Inception (2010). There is some good action of course, but the characters are thought out enough for a B-Hero and their serious treatment helps raise its profile. I'd say that tho the film treats its characters seriously, it doesn't really take itself seriously, which all provides a very fun, positive Summer Romp.

Let the floodgates of Summer Open Wide!

I do want to talk about the marketing and cultural impact THOR's had the past couple weeks - we'll see if we can't get that out in the next few days.

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