Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne; screen story by J. Michael Straczynski; based upon characters (I guess) created by Stan Lee, Larry Liber, Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Patrick Doyle. Photographed by Haris Zambarloukos. Edited by Paul Rubell. Production designed by Bo Welch. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba, Colm Feore.
It has often been said that comic books are our modern mythology. In the case of Thor, that is the literal truth. Here is a character who has been ripped from the pages of Norse folklore and transplanted to the Marvel Comics stable, and now splashed across a movie screen. And yet, here’s the irony: Thor pretty much makes the transition intact, and that makes him an unfortunately bad fit for the Marvel Universe. Marvel characters are typically loners tortured by their gifts and bestowed with psychological complexity, but here Thor is just…Thor. He’s a big strong guy who wields a magic hammer. True, his surroundings have been colored with greater imagination than he was given in Norse mythology, and the Marvel backstory takes the typical sci-fi back door from the religious angle (he wasn’t a god, just worshipped as one). But the character is…here’s the issue: essentially the same.
It must be hard for a character from mythology trying to break into today’s multiplex. Much of the time we like our heroes conflicted and our storytelling layered, and that is not the mode that myth plays in. Gods and goddesses from all cultures typically have traits, but only so that they can be distinguished from each other. They are not psychologically deep, because they essentially star in parables and too much ambiguity would dilute the purpose. Some filmmakers have experimented with giving mythology more complex backstories and motivations, but push that too far and you get a mess like Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy, which ripped the gods away from Homer’s The Iliyad and twisted itself into knots to pretend the story still made sense, when of course it didn’t.
It’s a tricky balance to be sure, but Thor doesn’t even try – this is a superhero tale told in a straightforward, uncomplicated style that would perhaps be at home with Superman. But Thor is not Superman: he’s not nearly as much fun, iconic, or easy to define. Thor is essentially a comic book movie for fairly undemanding comic book geeks, which is odd because usually they’re the most demanding bunch around. While watching it we see a lot of overdone special effects and get told a story about love and honor and betrayal that is told in very very simple terms, either so the kids in the audience can follow it without a problem, or perhaps so that Thor himself can.
That Thor, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Maybe we could tell that by the fact that he’s always swinging a hammer. Over a long and overwrought prologue we get a fantasy history lesson, as Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgard, leads his brothers in a battle against the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. The war is won when Odin steals the Frost Giants’ power source and also a baby: Loki, who is adopted into Odin’s family. Odin’s other son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) grows big and muscular and really stupid. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), while uninformed about the whole baby-stealing thing, grows up rebellious and bitter, but smart. Am I missing the point to be immediately Team Loki?
There is a crisis. Frost Giants break into Asgard, which looks like an intergalactic mecca that worships Frank Frazetta. Thor, who is soon to be king and has never had an unexpressed thought, argues with his father over how to proceed. Thor wants to kill them all, but Odin pushes for peace and tolerance, although it’s unclear where “stealing your power source and crippling your civilization” falls within that philosophy. Thor goes against his father’s wishes and beams (or whatever) into the Frost Giant’s capital and gets into a massive super-fight with Laufey (Colm Feore) the king, and his minions, all conducted with impenetrable and murky special effects that fail to deliver anything except…well, special effects.
Odin is angered. We know that because he shouts a lot, and when Sir Anthony Hopkins shouts at you, you pay attention, boy. He casts Thor down to Earth to humble the boy’s arrogance, which puts him in the path of Jane (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist who’s watching the skies in New Mexico for unusual bodies, and boy, does she find one. Heyoo! Jane is such an accomplished astrophysicist that when she drives Thor to the hospital she completely fails to notice the giant meteorite falling to Earth nearby, which contains Thor’s hammer, now locked in the desert sands until someone worthy can wield it. Of course, a whole host of truckers and hicks swarm around the crater and try their hand at it, leading to history’s first meeting of the legend of Excalibur with the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
You may think you know exactly where this is going. You are exactly right. Will Thor be changed by his experiences on Earth? Of course he will. Will he fall in love with the cute astrophysicist, who most improbably has the looks of, again, Natalie Portman? Of course he will. Will he be allowed to wield the hammer just in the nick of time? What do you think? Meanwhile, will Loki try to wrest control of the throne from his not-father, Odin? Yes, indeed. Will the whole thing come down to a big fight between brothers on a glittering rainbow bridge that travels the lip of a huge abyss? Well…kudos on guessing the rainbow bridge; that one was tough. But yes. Spot on.
It’s not the predictability that’s the enemy, really. It’s the relentless ticking of a screenplay that moves through these items like a checklist. None of it feels earned, like the “humbling of Thor” angle, which is lamely realized. But worst of all is the romance between Portman and Hemsworth: both actors are fine performers, and you’d think they’d be game, but there’s no passion. Just exchanges of rueful smiles, and the work seems to be mostly Portman’s. While she does have a killer smile, is it really such a great thing to depict a smart and confident astrophysicist who becomes an awkward schoolgirl when coming near the big hunk that makes her heart go pitter-patter? It must be very tough to be a strong female character in a Marvel comic.
There is wacky comedy. Too much. Thor doesn’t fit in on Earth: he smashes coffee mugs when he wants more and then walks into a pet store and exclaims “Give me a horse!” Get it? Oh, not since Crocodile Dundee has a fish been so out of water! There’s also the recurring (in the Marvel films, anyway) Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who is a dry presence but is given too many “funny” lines to say. Meanwhile, Jane’s assistant, the deeply annoying Darcy, played by the deeply annoying Kat Dennings, drops little bon mots and pop culture references to Facebook, iPods, and so on. Pop culture references are so funny! Like many comic relief characters, Darcy seems at times disconnected from the narrative in a near-sociopathic fashion.
Wait, I forgot Darcy’s other function. As an intern for an astrophysicist you’d expect her to know an Einstein-Rosen bridge from a quantum singularity, but she does not (a dumb joke explains why), so she gets to function as a our old movie friend, the cabbagehead. A cabbagehead is when a character who is supposed to be capable is written to be dumb so that other characters can explain things to her, and by extension, us. Here she gets told a lot about scientific stuff that is an attempt to contextualize Thor’s world in rational terms. The movie is big on the famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Okay, fair enough. So that’s why Thor can stand in the middle of the desert, shout into the sky and be heard millions of light years away by the Asgard gatekeeper, who stands in a big room and looks out ponderously into space? Hmm. No…sorry, guys. That’s magic.
Tonally, the film is all over the map. The opening battles feel like rejected scraps from Lord of the Rings, and the opening scenes in Asgard have a pseudo-classical quality that wavers between Shakespearean and Cecil B. Demille-style minor camp. The scenes on Earth vacillate between being a goofy sitcom and a cliché action extravaganza. There’s a robot that recalls the sci-fi of The Day The Earth Stood Still, but sadly it’s not the good version that’s being recalled. And the New Mexico small town location, while different from the typical New York or Los Angeles, makes the whole production feel cheap. It may be an intentional reference to the kind of tiny-budget alien movies about small desert towns that they made a lot of in the ‘50s, but I’m uncertain if that’s what you want your frame of reference to be if you’re trying to make Thor feel less silly.
Because Thor is really, really silly. Lots of comic book movies are comparably silly (do we need to talk about the origins of Spider-Man or The Hulk again?), but this one, with its towering cities of Asgard and glittering rainbow bridges that lead into space and it’s sidekicks for Thor that seem to have walked in from Masters of the Universe pushes us too far. Oh, and don’t forget where Odin, attached by Loki, falls into the “Odin-sleep.” The what? Where’s Darcy when you need her? But don’t worry! Odin wakes up in time for the big finale, where he is able to cross great distances in what feels like seconds. I’d quibble but the man is who he is, so why complain? I don’t mean Odin. I mean Sir Anthony Hopkins.
We can accept the craziness, but give us someone to latch onto. Anything. Thor’s a one-trick pony, his friends are goofy and the less said about Jane and Darcy, the better. The neatest player is the cool and thoughtful Heimdall (Idris Elba), and he’s a bit part. Not a good sign. And I practically forgot: poor Stellan Skarsgård is in this movie, because damn it, we need a Swede! He plays a scientist mentor of Jane’s named Erik Selvig, who drops some exposition about Norse legends, gets drunk with Thor one night, and then leaves. That paycheck must have been huge for Skarsgård to convince him to sign up for something like this. As big as Thor’s hammer. Thor’s hammer, I will remind you, is plenty big.
There are two things that save Thor from the morass of its production design and paucity of imagination: Hemsworth and Hiddleston. Hemsworth turns in a star-making performance as Thor, almost making us forget that he’s so flatly written. A lesser actor would throw up his hands at the lack of script support for who this character is, or tilt everything towards satire, as if Thor is a reject from The Expendables. Instead, he turns in a sincere and nice performance that proves he has better movies ahead of him.
Hiddleston is relatively low-key as Loki (sorry), but he has a nice anger that goes a long way to making us wish he was in a more interesting project. The brother against brother whinging doesn’t really amount to much dramatic stuff, but persuades us that maybe it could, in a different movie. Hey, maybe in a movie like The Avengers, which opens on Friday and features Thor as a hero and Loki as a villain. I’m looking forward a great deal to seeing Hiddleston as Loki again, although some of that may have something to do with the fact that I’m looking forward to Tony Stark making fun of his costume.
Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who has directed more separate Shakespeare productions than there are plays by Shakespeare. He is a gifted actor and has a classically-educated mind. What is he doing directing Thor? Apparently he was a big fan, but since he will not be directing Thor 2 apparently he wasn’t enough of one. I’m not begrudging Branagh for having a little fun. But where is his presence in this movie, aside from perhaps delivering guys in costumes who talk in slightly elevated language? The last summer blockbuster that Kenneth Branagh had a hand in was the horribly bad Wild Wild West, so I have an urgent plea to Branagh: stay away from summer blockbusters. Please.
Thor is not a terrible film. At times it’s maybe even a little fun. But it is also, in the end, singularly underwhelming. Comic books may be our modern mythology, but they should not be told in the same style as the classic myths. They can’t be. Not anymore. We want rough edges and complexity. What want a reinterpretation of Thor, with surprises. If you’re going to recycle a Norse legend for your comic book movie, then reconceptualize it, don’t just give it a sci-fi front end. When Thor’s Greek cousin Hercules was redone for TV, even then the filmmakers recognized they needed to take the character somewhere new. Since Branagh has directed Hamlet, how about a version of Thor that could answer Hamlet’s question of “to be or not to be?” Now that’s a superhero movie we haven’t seen before.
NOTES/AVENGERS CONNECTIONS: Agent Coulson meets Thor. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) has a cameo. Reference is made to an infamous scientist who studied Gamma radiation and “disappeared.” In the end, Selvig goes to an underground lair and encounters Nick Fury, who has a mysterious box. Also, Loki turns up still alive and inbetween dimensions or something, and might be controlling Selvig. Or maybe not.