Monday, May 23, 2011

A Frank Review of "Thor" (2011)

The Short Version? Thunder God Down Under.
What Is It? Action-Comedy.
Who Is In It? Captain Kirk's Dad, Padmé Amidala, and Hannibal Lecter.
Should I See It? Yes.

Before writing this review, I decided to take a look at a list of all the Marvel Comics movies to date. Did you know that there was only one prior to 1986's Howard the Duck: the 1944 Republic Pictures Captain America serial? I guess everything else was TV movies up to that point, and even then only the sputterings of Cap, The Punisher and the still unreleased Corman Fantastic Four before Blade began the Marvel age of comic book movies. Now, Cap is my favorite Marvel hero period, but I wanted to figure out which Marvel movie hero was my favorite. That would be S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, who co-stars in this picture.

A lot has been made of casting choices in this type of flick, some bad (Halle Berry as Storm,) some obvious (Patrick Stewart as Professor X,) and some revelatory (Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.) The problem is that too often, the movies are too crowded or the marque players not given enough films to truly settle in and develop their roles. Agent Coulson started out as a seemingly meek bureaucrat struggling to get a meeting with Tony Stark, but stepped up to help protect Pepper Potts and eventually "manage" Iron Man himself. Then he gets spun-off into Thor, and steals every scene he's in with his calm, courteous, yet calculating manner. Even amongst deities and geniuses, he tends to come off as the coolest cat in the room without a drop of sweat. It doesn't hurt that actor Clark Gregg is a comic fan from back in the day who name drops Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock in interviews.

I do believe it says something that I've managed to reach the third paragraph without really discussing Thor, and I'm sure a big part of that is that he's a character I'm ambivalent about. I think the guy can be cool at times, but all the pomp and cosmic circumstance of his solo title has tended to leave me cold. I love a good odyssey now and again, but Thor tends to hit the same beats repetitively (Odin pissed at him/imperiled, Loki plots, new guy gets the hammer, Odin dies/lives again, Ragnarok) and never seems to progress much as a character. However, toss some faux Shakespearean shit talk into a super-team brawl where he drops the hammer, and I say thee yay. The benefit of that was that I dug all the trailers, had no problems with the costumes, and no desire to nitpick the film to death. On the other hand, I brought no fandom into the cineplex with me (aside from Agent Coulson,) so I only took away from it what was presented: a solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable action-adventure.

After a brief mise-en-scène preview of upcoming events, the movie starts in Asgard with spectacle and grand battles again Frost Giants. I've never been one of those bitch ass readers who needs super-heroes to have one foot squarely in a realistic milieu, so this was where I had the most fun as a viewer. Bouncing between the realms of extradimensional gods is super-hero movie real estate all Thor's own, plus it plays to the strengths of the cast and director Kenneth Branagh. Thor strikes a nice balance between capable badass and brash asshole, Loki is allowed nuance, and the Warriors 3+1 play well off both. The CGI could have used a better budget, but it's easier to forgive the cut corners when you're allowed to immerse yourself in the world for the duration.

The trouble starts when Odin banishes Thor through time and space to 1980's Superman II. Thor is in some redneck town without powers having comical misadventures and a romantic subplot. I'll definitely take Kat Dennings over Ned Beatty as comic relief, but there certainly were times that I was waiting for the Otis theme to be cued. Thor is aided by a band of disbelieving but curious scientists who help him retrieve his lost hammer and deal with life on Earth. That also would have been fine, except for the very tacked-on and malnourished relationship with Dr. Jane Foster.

I like Natalie Portman as much as the next guy, and I'll even buy her as a physicist, but not one so love-starved and nervous as seen here. Attraction is definitely built up, but there simply is not enough time or depth to go beyond that and still juggle the sarcasm, the machinations of Loki, the encounters with S.H.I.E.L.D., and other obligatory events. Others might argue that one of these plots should have been dropped entirely, but at least the universe-building stuff was interesting. The fluffy, relationship building stuff felt like ballast from other movies. I think that as a whole it manages to stick, but each of the threads had problematic aspects that need to be glossed over for the greater good.

Chris Hemsworth makes an excellent Thor; charming, formidable and ridiculous in turns as required. Natalie Portman once again plays Natalie Portman, increasingly reminding me of Julia Roberts powering her way through movie after movie on only a bright smile and America's affection. Tom Hiddleston is fine as Loki, but I still wish we could have seen Josh Harnett kill in this thing instead. Anthony Hopkins manages to pull off the gold armor and eyepatch without going off the rails (see: Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stellan Skarsgård and Rene Russo have thankless roles that would have accommodated any actor in their age group and range. Most of the Asgardians were serviceable, except Idris Elba as Heimdall, who I could watch in his own movie. If Elba had more screen time to be the pimp daddy of the Rainbow Bridge, I might have talked him up for a couple of paragraphs at the beginning of this review.

I can buy the chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster. I can appreciate the various characters Thor gets to play off. I can see Foster continuing to search for what lies beyond as both a scientist and woman. I believe Thor has enough humbling experiences to gain awareness of the consequences of his actions, but it would have been nice to have him chew on failing a little bit more and pratfall a bit less. I have more trouble with Thor hanging on to his experiences on Earth, since most of his lesson came from tragedies from on high rather than deeply meaningful human connections. At the same time, I'm afraid of how things might have turned out had any more time been spent in that area, since the efforts that reached the screen were less than satisfactory. The same could be said of the 3D, which I forgot about being part of this flick until just now, its only impact to raise the ticket price. I actively tried to catch this in 2D, and still feel like I did. It also serves as a reminder that Thor works best with a big playground, and where his film falters is when the scale shrinks behind him, like Norma Desmond with a winged helm.

1 comment:

mathematicscore said...

My main complaints were not enough helm and a rushed ending. I thought Loki was well played up to the fist fight with Thor. A sequel/Avengers has great potential.


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