CC2K’s Big Ross toasts a flagon of meade to the new film featuring Marvel’s God of Thunder.
Thor is good. Very good. Surprisingly good. Despite promising trailers and a 94% rating on RottenTomatoes.com, I am still surprised at just how good a film Thor is. In a geek-perfect world, all four of the major comic book/superhero films coming out this summer – Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Green Lantern, and X-Men: First Class – would be fantastic. We might still be so lucky, but the pessimist in me figured that if one of these four was doomed to fail, the one with the greatest chance, for various reasons I’ll get into shortly, was Thor. Boy was I wrong about that; read on for my full and SPOILER FREE review.
Aside from the character himself, who has his own set of difficulties I’ll address in a bit, there were two big unknowns associated with Thor. The first being Chris Hemsworth. Given that his only major movie credit amounted to a ~5 minute cameo in the recent Star Trek film as Kirk’s father, you have to admit casting him in the role of Thor was something of a gamble. Hemsworth not only had to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Anthony Hopkins(!) but he also had carry this film. Its success or failure rested largely on Hemsworth’s admittedly broad shoulders, but fortunately he proved himself more than capable of the task.
The other major unknown, in my opinion, was the choice of Kenneth Branagh as director. Branagh’s biggest commercial success to date was his adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein; other than that he is most well known for adapting Shakespearean plays into films. Here he was asked to adapt a comic book character (hardly Shakespeare), and I imagine expected to produce a big-budget summer action blockbuster. Mine couldn’t have been the only eyebrow that was raised when this was first announced. Perhaps I was doing a disservice to the storytelling ability of Shakespeare in looking upon that portion of Branagh’s resume as a negative, because after seeing Thor I am firmly convinced that it is precisely because of that experience that Branagh was the perfect choice for director of this movie. Perhaps the folks over at Variety said it best: “Branagh invest[s] the dramatic passages with a weighty yet never overbearing Shakespearean dimension.”
How true. I have more to say about this, which gets into some of the issues of the character of Thor, but first I want to highlight one of my favorite scenes of the film, which requires the most minor of spoiler alerts.
After Thor is humbled by Odin, sent to Earth, and meets scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), he engages Jane’s mentor Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) in a bit of requisite moralizing and lesson-learning, neither of which feels too overbearing. This leads to drinking which leads to Thor carrying a drunk Eric back to Jane’s trailer home. Here is where the scene really begins. As Jane and Thor talk we see that Jane’s trailer is generally a mess, dishes piled in the sink, clothes lying here and there. It is clear that the trailer is where she eats and sleeps, but not where she lives (that would be her lab). It is not a place that receives much of her attention; it’s functional and little more. In a moment of embarrassment Jane attempts to tidy up and hastily grabs a box of cereal and a dirty bowl and crams them into a cabinet above the sink, turns back to continue talking with Thor and then stops. She mutters something along of the lines of “Sorry, that doesn’t go there,” opens the cabinet and retrieves the dirty cereal bowl, placing it in the sink with the other dishes. It’s incredibly brief, and largely inconsequential, but I love this scene for a couple of reasons.
The first is that as a scientist (in my offline life) myself, the truth of this moment struck home. This simultaneous messiness in “unimportant” areas and need for order that borders on OCD in the important places is a trait shared by many in my line of work. And I don’t think this is an in-joke for scientist-geeks to nudge each other in the ribs and chuckle over. It’s a trait that, while often exaggerated, is on display in just about any movie/TV show with scientist/genius types, i.e. it’s effective. I love the fact that Branagh uses it inform us about Jane’s character rather than employing a bit of lazy exposition.
So we have a solid lead, a strong supporting cast, a talented and perfectly chosen director, but we still have the character himself. Thor. The Norse God of Thunder. This isn’t some billionaire with advanced tech/skills and a need for justice (Batman, Iron Man, The Green Arrow, et al). This isn’t a normal person imbued with super powers (Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America, et al). This isn’t a mutant (various X-Men related characters) or even an alien with a desire to protect Earth (The Silver Surfer, The Martian Manhunter, Superman, et al). Thor is a freakin’ god. A giant, blonde-haired, winged helm-wearing, Olde English spouting GOD. A god that walked around, on Earth, looking like this. Perhaps more than any other superhero in the pantheon of Marvel comics, Thor poses the greatest threat of coming off as a big joke. Yet somehow the screenwriters and Branagh combine to work magic. My good friend Tony Lazlo said it best in the review he posted earlier this week:
“Branagh makes the wise choice to invite us to laugh at Thor and his retinue when they’re on earth. In Asgard, it’s all honor and kings and filial betrayal – all of which unfolds against a succession of stunning visuals that rival the greatest flights of fancy seen in What Dreams May Come, and all of which is played with the right amount of square-jawed, Shakespearean majesty…But as soon as Thor and the gang land on earth, they’re immediately played for laughs, and once again, I could sense Branagh’s classical training being brought to bear on these radical shifts in tone, because the structure of Thor echoes any number of Shakespeare plays that shift between a stately court (Asgard, Athens, Duke Frederick’s) and an untamed wilderness (Midgard, the forest of Arden, you get the idea).”
One of my biggest worries with Thor was that it would be unintentionally funny. That the filmmakers would be going for the straight and serious, and audiences couldn’t help but laugh at Thor and all of his “thee’s” and “thou’s” and “verily’s”. And Tony Lazlo was also right when he said Thor “echoes the structure of Masters of the Universe”. Indeed, as well as the equally atrocious Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time. Remember that 80’s gem? With its fish-out-of-water element Thor could easily have devolved joined their ranks. Thank Odin Branagh and company avoided such a blunder.
To laugh at this film and its makers would have been depressing. To be *invited to laugh* by the filmmakers at this big, goofy character was perfectly acceptable. Acceptable, and tremendous fun.
1 down and 3 to go. Let’s hope for a geek-perfect summer, it’s certainly starting off on the right foot.