Movie Review: Thor (2011)
A Film Review of Thor
By: Lawrence Napoli
I’ve never been a “Thor” kind of guy. Certainly, I can appreciate the character’s importance to both the cosmic and terran continuity of the Marvel Universe and understand the fact that he is a god and can trade body blows with virtually any character with little or no harm ever coming to him. I never found Thor stories to be particularly relatable or interesting because the question of “if he could” simply was not part of the equation. There was never any doubt that Thor “could” do anything and it is in this regard where his stories share plot deficiencies with another character of godly invulnerability from the distinguished competition known to the rest of us as Superman. When Thor became a member of the Avengers (a collection of characters suffering from unimpressive rogue’s galleries and irrelevant stories sans Captain America because he’s an icon that debuted against Hitler) all of that seemed to change. But the key to Thor’s appeal was never just his power, strength or godliness. It was his ability to bond with his super-powered, yet still mortal, allies on Earth with sincerity, integrity and respect that made this character endearing. My favorite Thor moment in Marvel history is during the first Secret Wars when the heroes debate who the leader ought to be. Captain America is suggested with Wolverine dismissing Cap as “the least of us” and refuses to follow. Thor resolves the conflict by reaffirming his belief in Cap by saying, “This man I will follow through the gates of Hades.” This is the strength of Thor as a character and Thor as a film.
However, the screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz and Don Payne sells Thor somewhat short because it is painfully obvious when the end credits begin to roll that this film comes off as a glorified set up piece to The Avengers and nothing more. I thought Iron Man (2008) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) were superior films because these characters’ origin stories were interwoven into contemporary plots that allowed their stories to stand and evolve on their own; independent of any Avenger talk. Much of the plot is rushed during Thor due to the massive amount of exposition Kenneth Branagh agreed upon or was compelled to include for the film. So many new characters and settings are introduced and explained that the story frequently loses sight of Thor himself. Screen time for character development and interplay is a severe premium and flatness is pervasive. This coupled with the fact that Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is a constant and mightier presence than his son almost makes the film seem as if it is being told from his perspective. None of these things aid in the cause of building up one’s protagonist, especially if the film’s title is the name of said protagonist. As a result, there are far too many scenes that require the viewer to simply accept by being told through expository dialogue. Thor is vain because he’s saying something cocky. Thor is sad because sad things are told to him. The few moments when the audience sees Thor’s inner character merits of humility and kindness occur during the scenes Thor shares with the science crew that discovers him: Jane, Erik and Darcy. These scenes are by far the most effective in endearing Thor to the audience and the most comedic due to Thor’s cultural ignorance of 21st Century Earth. In the end, this script was more interested in generating subplots than exploring them through the main character and unfortunately, this makes Thor the second or third most important character in his own movie.
That aside, one clear strength of this film was the CG artistry and effects that created Thor’s home world of Asgard and the supernatural abilities of its warriors. Clearly, the one word that was used frequently during production staff meetings was “epic” and that scale did not disappoint. It is a shame that Thor’s wielding of Mjolnir was limited to one sequence in the beginning and one during the film’s climax, but when he does, the god of thunder is not to be trifled with. The lightning effects were dazzling, but what was more impressive was the varying impact blows from the hammer itself whether it was thrown, used in flight or used in common melee as each seemed to have its own distinct sound effect. What was particularly satisfying was how the cinematography showcased variety in these action sequences. The audience gets plenty of wide shots to appreciate that “epic” scale but it also pushes in to medium and close-up shots to remind the audience that a real actor is still participating in the scene, thus selling the illusion in a more effective way. This was something that the action scenes in Iron Man 2 (2010) did not accomplish. I also found the fabricated imagery of Asgard to be a perfect amalgam of advanced technology with ancient mythology. It was quite a drastic contrast with the home world of the Frost Giants which was vastly simpler in terms of detail and color, but equal in terms of (there’s that word again) “epic” scale.
The supporting cast of Thor (not including Anthony Hopkins) was a big disappointment in this film. I presume Rene Russo was signed for very little money as [insert unknown hottie here] would have been more than capable of reproducing her performance as Frigga, Thor’s mother. Idris Elba’s rendition of Heimdall was so stoic that a fully CG rendered Elba could have been placed in the frame with voice over added later and no one would have known the difference. For being the god of mischief and the main antagonist of this story, Tom Hiddleston generates an awfully sympathetic portrayal of Loki. Of course, the silver-tongued devil must appear as such to hide his true agenda, but Hiddleston comes up way short on delivering the vindictiveness, arrogance, bitterness and cruelty that an edgier Loki would revel in. Notice how I left academy award winning actress Natalie Portman for last? Her character, Jane Foster, is Thor’s romantic interest and for that reason alone, the character is important. The problem is, her character is supposed to be important because she is a leading mind in the scientific field of theoretical physics and whenever she is engaged in “science speak” she comes off like a teenage fan-girl of physics rather than a scholar. I am not certain how old her character is meant to be, but she comes off even younger and more flippant like a cheerleader on ecstasy when in Thor’s presence. Sure, this scores plenty of points for Chris Hemsworth, but does nothing but harkens back to Padme/Amidala nightmares from the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy for her. Portman clearly shows an inability to maintain a high performance level for action films. Either take a massive pay cut, or do not engage in them any further lest your legacy be further tarnished.
The two shining lights are Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Looking back on action films, established actors almost always are cast as the father/mentor figure and unknowns are cast as the feature character. To a very large extent, the director is relying on a mixed bag of proven and unproven talent to sell the key relationship in these types of films. Hopkins, once again, redefines the presence of a king with an uncanny ability to sell and balance power, kindness, duty and love. Hemsworth is equal to the task in every scene he shares with Hopkins as he is able to match the intensity of Odin’s anger when Thor’s vanity clearly places him out of order. Hemsworth also shows a gleefully enraged Thor during combat in an equally intense manner. The real challenge was scaling those emotions back to a place of calm and kinship with mortal beings on Earth and Chris passes with flying colors. The script does this actor no favors in terms of producing as many moments to shine as possible with the rest of the cast, but in every awkwardly placed moment Hemsworth is provided, he takes advantage and steals every scene. The man’s physicality is second to none, but the man can channel some serious emotions as well.
Thor is a film that could have been much more had the story been filtered through that character’s eyes. Every scene that features Thor is evidence of this. Unfortunately, every other scene does not and falls apart to some extent. Nothing about this story is new: spoiled brat gets humbled and learns a lesson, deceitful brother makes a power play and daddy’s shame is redeemed by son’s sacrifice. The nostalgia factor covers up a lot of this film’s deficiencies, but ignorant viewers will be left scratching their heads. This film needed to be made as if it was the one and only opportunity to create a franchise. Instead, Kenneth Branagh turned it into a stopgap. Having said all that, Thor is still a very entertaining film that showcases a very charismatic performance of one of Marvel’s powerhouse licenses. There are enough “wow” moments to justify the expense at the box office, but I do not recommend paying extra for 3D as it is a shameless money grab and completely unnecessary to appreciating the film any better. Thor is simply electric at times, while hammering at your patience during others. Tougher choices had to be made during the writing and editing stages of the filmmaking process.