Saturday May 07, 2011
Movie Review: Thor (2011)
I was never much of a fan of Thor. Even in my comic-book-collecting heyday, 1974-77, I’d buy almost any comic before “The Mighty Thor.” It was partly the Shakespearean language, partly his dull alter ego, Dr. Donald Blake, partly the marble-shitting pomposity of Asgard and Odin as well as the vagueness of Thor’s powers (what couldn’t that hammer do?), but you put them all together for the biggest reason of all: How could anyone relate? Dude was a god. World War II-era super soldier serum, sure. Proportional strength of a spider, why not? Gamma radiation-infused Jekyll-Hyde transformation, of course. But who let the god into the room?
The five screenwriters of the new feature film, “Thor,” as well as its director, Sir Kenneth Branagh, do a not-poor job of making the Son of Odin, God of Thunder and Lord of Lightning relatable. Unfortunately, they also weigh him down with that marble-shitting backstory.
The movie begins simply enough. In the New Mexican desert, two scientists, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and a less-brainy, more relatable assistant, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), are tracing atmospheric magnetic yadda yaddas from space, see the sky open, drive their science van toward it, and literally crash into a man (Chris Hemsworth) who seems to come out of nowhere. That, in fact, is what Jane wonders aloud. “Where did he come from?”
CUT TO: A thousand years ago.
At that time, in Scandinavia, Frost Giants (yes, giants made of ice) were trying to create a new ice age when the Asgardians interrupted and war broke out. Asgard won. This explains 1) Odin’s eye patch (he lost his eye in battle), 2) Norse mythology (the primitive earthlings took the Asgardians for gods), but not, 3) How Thor and Loki became part of Norse mythology since they were just babies at the time. Did they make trips back? To party? Passeth the Aquavit.
Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the dullest of all characters, takes two spoils of victory back with him to Asgard: the cube-like source of the Frost Giants’ power, and, unbeknownst to us until the last act, an enemy baby, who becomes Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief, and whom he raises as his own—as, one could say, a potential rival to his own son, Thor. “Only one can ascend to the throne,” he tells the two boys, “but both of you were born to be kings.” Right. No rivalry will be born of that.
As for the God of Mischief, we rarely see him being mischievous. Dour, more. Bummed. He’s Cain to Thor’s Abel, envious, skulking, manipulative. When Thor (Hemsworth) comes of age, as a strong, outgoing and happy man, and is about to be crowned king in place of Odin, Loki creates a diversion, an alternative pathway for the Frost Giants to arrive and attempt to retrieve their source of power. They’re foiled but it creates a royal schism: Odin counsels diplomacy, Thor demands war. It’s a king’s decision, he says. “But you are not ... king,” Odin tells him, and there goes the coronation.
Of course, Thor, easily manipulated by the ear-whisperings of Loki, takes four friends, including Volstagg (Ray Stevenson, who played the Punisher), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano, who played the lead in “Ichi the Killer”) to Jotunheim to battle the Frost Giants. Odin may counsel against war but it’s what we in the audience want. It’s actually a helluva battle, and the filmmakers make good imaginative 3-D use of Thor and his hammer, Mjöllnir, as the throws it, whirls it, creates shock waves around the planet with it. But the incident sets Odin off, and he strips his son of his powers and banishes him to Earth ... where he runs into Jane Foster, or she into him. I.e., We’re back at the start. After a half hour in that rarefied, Asgardian air.
(Side thoughts: Early on, Asgard is described as “a beacon of hope” ... but to whom? Themselves? And if they’re so enlightened, why rule by royalty? Are we doing it wrong here in America? Finally, how exactly does a father strip his son of powers? Is it an Asgardian thing? A Scandinavian thing? As a Lundegaard, should I be worried?)
On Earth, Thor veers between the comic and romantic. Slow to realize his powers have been stripped, he still acts imperious and martial. “You dare threaten Thor with so puny a weapon?” he says to Darcy, before she tases him, bro. At the hospital, he has to slip out of his restraints rather than break free of them. He slams a cup of coffee on the ground and demands more. Did he do this in Asgard? Is he a royal asshole? And why imperious with coffee cups but gentle with fair maidens like Jane Foster? Because the Asgardians, models for the Vikings, always treated women with such respect?
And has this happened to Thor before? For someone stripped of massive powers, he’s pretty fine with it. He’s still got a “Wait and see” confidence rather than a “Will I make it back?” concern. It’s not until he locates Mjöllnir in a nearby crater—which every local yokel has tried to lift (cue Stan Lee cameo), and around which the U.S. government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. has built a veritable institution—and he, too, Thor, son of Odin, can’t lift it, that reality, or his new impotent reality, sinks in. He grows despondent. Then of course he grows wiser. As powerful people who lose their power always, always do.
The hammer scene is pretty good. He sneaks in, takes down a half-dozen government agents, and makes it to Mjöllnir while, behind him, a marksman we know to be Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, anticipating “The Avengers”) takes aim. “Oh, don’t do that,” I thought. “Let him try.” The movie agrees. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom we’ve seen hanging around since “Iron Man” in 2008, tells Hawkeye, “Let’s see what happens.” Of course nothing happens. He’s not worthy yet. What’s written in Marvel comics often gets spoken in Marvel movies—“with great power comes great responsibility,” etc.—and here it’s the words originally written on the side of Mjöllnir in Journey Into Mystery #83: “WHOSEVER HOLDS THIS HAMMER, IF HE BE WORTHY, SHALL POSSESS THE POWER OF ... THOR.” In the movie, Odin whispers those words to Mjöllnir before banishing it and Thor to Earth. So we’re waiting for him to become worthy. Or we’re waiting for someone to become worthy. Is there a Dr. Donald Blake in the house?
So how does an ancient god become worthy of his hammer? By acting like a New Testament God. When Loki takes over Asgard from an Odin in the midst of “Odin-Sleep” (yeesh), and sends some giant monster to kill Thor so he can never threaten Loki again, Thor, powerless, confronts the monster anyway ... and dies. He sacrifices himself to save others. That’s the worthy moment. Mjöllnir flies to his hand, he defeats the monster, and flies back to Asgard to battle Loki. Then he displays his newfound, New Testament wisdom not by annihilating the Frost Giants, as he wanted to do in the beginning, but by destroying the rainbow bridge between Asgard and other worlds in order to save the Frost Giants from the wrath of Loki. More self-sacrifice. He gives up his newfound love, Jane Foster, pretty Natalie Portman, in order to save his enemies. Then we get the usual post-credits teaser for “The Avengers” in 2012.
“Thor” isn’t a bad superhero movie. Hemsworth makes a credible hero—both proud and comic—Portman is perfect in a limited role, and the few moments of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye should create a buzz. (He has like three lines of dialogue but every one is cool.) It’s a good intro for Thor and a good, continued set-up for “The Avengers.” But...
In “Origins of Marvel Comics,” Stan Lee’s 1974 book on the superhero enterprise he dreamed up nearly 15 years earlier, the section on Thor is titled, probably in tongue-in-cheek reference to an oft-used caption, “Meanwhile, Back in Asgard...” And that’s the problem with the movie. There are too many “Meanwhile, back in Asgard” moments. Just as we’re getting psyched about Thor’s adventures in New Mexico, Meanwhile, back in Asgard... That’s going to cut into its positive word-of-mouth.
I still can’t relate to Thor. He still seems all brawn and no brain to me. He still seems a better match for Darcy, the hot regular girl, than Jane, the pretty, prim scientist. Odin is still as interesting to me as a roomful of air.
But verily they did try.