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Review: Thor

Posted by Den Shewman on Friday, May 6, 2011

Some great acting and a powerful climax isn’t enough to overcome the genial pacing and lack of conflict that turn much of Thor into a fairly bland summer film.

Going into the film, I was rooting for Paramount’s Thor to rock my summer movie world. Part of it was my ever-battered optimism that every film will fulfill its manifest destiny to be all that it can be. Part of it was my fanboy side that wishes that every comic book-related film hits its mark, as the subgenre is still judged by its latest contender. While the trailers didn’t do much for me, I thought the idea of dropping Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair was pretty damned clever: he’s directed and acted in five films of Shakespeare’s plays in the last two decades, including Henry V, so creating this tapestry of Norse gods and their wars and machinations should be right up his alley. And part of it, I admit, was that I swayed by the international box office grosses and word of mouth (the film was released abroad before its US bow today) that said that Thor was as good as or better than the first Iron Man film, which is my gold standard for a modern-day fun comic book movie. Surely some of these elements must make it across the finish line to crown Thor a great, fun summer film.

As Heimdall, guardian of the Bifrost Bridge might say, none shall pass.

Thor is a valiant effort, and has some great moments of action and even a few of emotion. Chris Hemsworth (James Kirk’s doomed dad in Star Trek) quickly won me over with his godly nature (at times confident, arrogant, and jubilant, always charismatic) and later his humbled self. Likewise Thor’s  sympathetic/scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, a real find from UK television) and the red-eyed, evenhanded King Laufey (Colm Fiore, The Borgias) of the frost giants are both standouts. Good but not great performances include Anthony Hopkins (Thor’s father Odin), Natalie Portman (friend/love interest Dr. Jane Foster) and Stellan Skarsgȧrd (Dr. Erik Selvig). Rene Russo does well as Thor’s mum Frigga with about five lines of dialogue, which makes you wonder if her role ended up on the cutting room floor (and subsequent DVD deleted scenes). And yes, Marvel Comics’ godfather Stan Lee has his cameo, this time as a pick-up truck driver trying to dislodge Thor’s orphaned hammer. Don’t blink.

The visual are nice, too. The battle scenes show Thor whipping up lightning and whipping ass in equal measure. Unfortunately, Mr. Branagh can’t really capture the scope or geography that these scenes require. There are some breath-taking special effects, everything from storms and the land of the frost giants to Asgard afloat in the universe.

And the film's emotion, when it comes at last, is effective. In fact, the last twenty minutes of the film has many moments that mist the eyes or quicken the blood. Moments that you see and feel and think, “That right there! That is a moment worthy for the god of thunder!”

It’s those first 94 minutes that feel kind of empty. Not bad. Just not gripping. Genial scenes. The kind that you forget almost as soon as they’re done.

Some of that has to do with Thor’s bifurcated plot, wihch is a bit of an odd duck. After a modern-day prologue drops a powerless Thor to Earth right in front of Jane Foster’s car, we then get another, longer prologue showing how Thor’s father beat the frost giants back in the ninth century. It takes us all the way up to Thor’s coronation as king of Asgard, a shining city in an odd part of the universe where the Norse gods live.

When frost giants try to retreive a blue crystal (presumably the Casket of Ancient Winters) that Odin had stolen from them, an enraged Thor disobeys his father’s wishes and takes a war party to the frost giants’ homeland to teach the interlopers a lesson. Thor’s group almost dies in battle, rescued by a disappointed Odin who strips his son of his powers and his lightning-bringing hammer Mjolnir. Odin tosses both godling and hammer to Earth, and we’re back where we started, literally.

Then the story forks. On Earth, we watch Thor adapt to life as a mortal (a strong, warrior-like one, but mortal nonetheless) in a small desert town in New Mexico. When Thor’s hammer attracts attention when no one can pick it up, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the NSA-like SHIELD swoop in and cordon off the crater the hammer made upon impact.

Meanwhile, in Asgard, Loki is playing both sides against the middle and Thor’s friends (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaime Alexander) are wondering what’s up with their banished friend. Odin has fallen into the comatose Odinsleep, which he takes every year to replenish his strength (apparently he doesn’t sleep otherwise) and Asgard is left without a king. Then Loki ascends the throne... It’s not until the climax when these two plots come together. It’s worth it when that happens, but the 80 minutes leading up to that is slow, if genial, going.

I’ve been wrestling for a couple hours with trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about this film that doesn’t work. And I think the best way to describe it is, it’s not Die Hard.

Let me know when you stop laughing and I’ll explain.

It might seem unfair, comparing Thor to what’s considered a modern classic of action movies. But the two films share a number of similarities, and I think it’s instrumental to see how Die Hard overcame the problems that weigh Thor down.

First off, there’s no single driving plot to Thor. In Die Hard, the plot was simple: get the money, get away. In Thor, the story is about Thor’s exile and the lessons he needs to learn, with a side helping of Loki’s plotting. But these two plot threads are independent of each other and rarely interact until the very end. What Thor does on Earth doesn’t impact Loki a whit.

And honestly? There’s only so much character I want to see in a Thor movie. Certainly not 80 minutes’ worth. I like Thor’s character arc, really I do. Hemsworth made me believe it, and it’s got that Shakespearean feel (a god must learn humility) that I’m sure Branagh sank his teeth into. There’s a moment of dawning truth that literally brings Thor to his knees, and Hemsworth sells it wonderfully. But Thor’s humbling is not enough to hang over half the movie on. Maybe if each of his personality obstacles was manifested as a creature he had to slay, yes. But here, it just didn’t work for me.

Second, there’s no real conflict for most of Thor. In Die Hard, John McClane (Bruce Willis) was constantly fighting the terrorists, running from them or plotting how to thwart them with only his wits, a gun, a wifebeater and bare feet. McClane and villainous Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) only meet in person once before the end of the film, yet they’re constantly interacting with each other: over the radio or via Gruber’s proxies. Almost every scene in Die Hard has conflict in it, from any number of sources (Gruber, his henchmen, the police, the FBI, the nosy reporter). In Thor, our earthbound hero’s main quest is to return to Asgard and godhood, but his obstacles (excluding a low-key SHIELD) are of character, not of action. Again, good for a little while, not for an entire movie. Not unless I’ve stumbled into Ingmar Bergman’s Thor.

Third, Thor’s scenes feel half-hearted, and never really gel into a whole. Die Hard’s scenes ratcheted up the tension, and each scene had several different reasons (both plot- and character-wise) for being there. Thor’s three credited writers (Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz and Don Payne) may have worked on Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the upcoming X-Men: First Class and The Simpsons, but their work here feels more like a patchwork of “we need one of these” scenes rather than a cohesive whole. We have “Thor adapting to being human” scenes, “Thor bonding” scenes, and many others that will feel familiar. It’s not that these scenes are bad, per se; in the right hands, they're archetypes. It’s just that here, they’re not good. The hope of Mr. Branagh bringing a mythic yet human tone to the film starts with his shepherding of the script, and it appears the shepherd lost his way.

Finally, Thor feels small, which is surprising when part of it is set in Asgard. But Thor has a small cast of characters, and all the Earth action is contained in one small town. (Unfairness alert: during the showdown in the small town between Thor and the Odin-fire-powered Destroyer, you might have flashbacks to the battle at the end of Superman II.) Although Die Hard probably had fewer cast members than Thor, the characters were so vivid that they filled up the screen and our memories. You can visualize Hans Gruber’s henchmen by trait if not name (the candy bar-eating terrorist, the cowboy-boots-wearing terrorist). After seeing Thor, I had a hard time envisioning Thor’s three (very different) friends -- and he actually has four. I always forgot one.

On a happier note, a trademark of many films produced under the Marvel banner (e.g., The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Iron Man 2) is that they tend to have some moments important mainly to comics fans. Thor is no exception. Besides Stan Lee’s cameo, Thor also sports our Marvel character cameo: a military sniper codenamed Hawkeye (sorry, fans, no purple outfit here) played by Jeremy Renner and a bow on a dark rainy night. Presumably this is to introduce Hawkeye prior to his appearance in next summer’s superhero group film, The Avengers (directed by geek god Joss Whedon, who recommended Hemsworth to Mr. Branagh after working with him on Cabin in the Woods). I say “presumably” because Hawkeye really does nothing here: he stands waiting for an order that never comes. I’m not sure why a sniper is using a bow and arrow in a deadly force confrontation, but Renner does have a funny quip.

And yes, Virgina, there is a post-credits scene. Always a fan favorite. Iron Man’s introduced Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and The Incredible Hulk's gave us Tony Stark and General Thunderbolt Ross snarking over drinks. Even Iron Man 2 at least gave us Thor’s hammer. Without giving much away, in Thor the coda sets up not a character but an item (and no, it's not a red, white and blue figure in some Arctic ice, but would be nice). I didn't recognize the item from the scene, and only through the magic of Google did I discover what it was. Turns out I was familiar with the thing, just not the incarnation we saw in Thor. [Click here to see the spoiler explanation.] This isn't the only Marvel film to feature this item, and I'm guessing that it’s a seed planted toward the plot of Avengers.

There are other nods to the comics cognoscenti as well, including a quick joke about Dr. Donald Blake (Thor’s original alter ego in the comics) and a cameo by Thor “story by” guy and Thor comics scripter Straczynski as a townie. Plus, they even got Loki’s horned helmet in, and it looks good.

In the end, maybe Thor shows exactly what the character’s populist fatal flaw is: he doesn’t fit in anywhere. In Asgard, Thor is small, normal, one of many gods. Bring him to Earth and he’s too big for us mere mortals. And if you take away his powers, now he’s just a man.

And verily, I am saddened.

 

Review Score: 75 / 100

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