I’ve written about it before, but I’m not sure people realize what a gamble it was for Marvel Studios to produce and release Iron Man back in 2008. Not just because it’s a movie about an almost entirely unknown superhero in the pop culture sphere. Not just because most people probably thought it was a movie based on that Black Sabbath song. But because when they made Iron Man, they strayed quite far off the path beaten by many other superhero movies. Sure, they had to get through the origin story, but Tony Stark’s transformation from douche to douchey hero pretty unconventional. And once Afghanistan is out of the way, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey, Jr. basically made a movie about a guy who hangs out in his garage designing the robot suit he’ll wear later in the movie and its poor quality sequel. It was almost disappointing when Iron Man had to fall back on typical action movie shtick in its third act, placing the “girlfriend” in peril at the hands of its mustache-twirling villain.
But I’m not supposed to be writing about Iron Man. I’m supposed to jump cut to 2011 and talk Thor.
As far as superhero adaptations go, Thor is probably harder to nail than Iron Man. Our disbelief suspended, we can all buy into the idea of a billionaire genius building his own walking F16 and then fighting other evil robot suits in it. Thor, though, is the straight-up, unadulterated Norse God of Thunder who comes from the heavenly realm of Asgard and fights Frost Giants in his spare time. The Lord of the Rings helped folks come to terms with live action high fantasy, Harry Potter seemed to help bring that stuff into the 21st century, but Thor isn’t crossing over from his realm into beautiful New Zealand or quaint English backstreets. He’s landing right in the middle of the New Mexico desert and getting hit by a jeep driven by that chick from Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Steering this big viking fantasy mess into theaters is director Kenneth Branagh, best known for being that guy that’s good with Shakespeare and shite with most everything else. As it turns out, that is the exact skill set required to direct guys striding around massive godly halls talking war and politics. The plot to Thor is easy enough to follow at the start: Thor’s dad, Odin, is the king of Asgard and wishes to keep their realm safe by negotiating treaties with the pissed-off frost giants of the realm Jotunheim. Thor, arrogant douche that he is, decides it’d be better to just start a war with them and, together with his best pals and his brother Loki, he storms their world and swings his hammer around like a 6-foot-something Australian Adonis in a penis-measuring contest.
This promptly brings Asgard and Jotunheim to the brink of war, which pisses Odin off enough to make him kick his son from Asgard to Earth (Midgard, in Norse terms).
And this is where the movie changes tone dramatically and yet somehow still manages to be incredibly entertaining. I’m a big fan of fish-out-of-water scenes if they’re executed well and aren’t too over the top. Thankfully, Chris Hemsworth reveals that behind his wavy blond locks he’s got serious acting ability. On Earth, the arrogant Odinson has to carry the movie all on his own, and this practically unknown Ozzie kid just takes the concept and runs with it. He’s got Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings there to balance things out, sure, but he does a great job at capturing your attention without resorting to scenery chewing. There’s lots of comedy here that he has to play the straight man to, and he does a fantastic job. Meanwhile, the other actors are more than serviceable with their characters. Anthony Hopkins even takes the time to inhabit some of the frames with a bit of his classic presence, as opposed to phoning it in the way he has recently with perhaps more timid directors.
Normally I might go into some more detail about the plot, but I’d really prefer to keep things surprising when it comes to the Machiavellian scheming that’s going on.
Instead let me focus on Tom Hiddleston, who plays Thor’s more thoughtful brother, Loki. For most of the film he occupies his scenes with quiet presence, but it’s actually on his character that the film hinges and switches gears to something more traditional. That’s also where the movie sees its major failing. While Hiddleston does a very good job of playing the brooding, contemplative opposite to Thor’s arrogant, brash warrior, the final act forces him, by script and direction, to become a 1-dimensional character whose motivation is dressed up in Hollywood’s version of insanity. Any complexities he displays early on in Thor are replaced by an almost 180-degree turn towards base and boring monotony. Even his dialog suffers in these scenes.
Perhaps Loki’s character suffers because of the sheer volume of people involved in this movie. The supporting cast, from Ray Stevenson to Idris Elba, aren’t given all that much complexity but they do a good job with what little they have. Everyone seems to believably inhabit both the world of Asgard and small town New Mexico where appropriate. Even when Branagh gives them all one too many reaction shots and close-ups.
Ultimately, Thor is entertaining as all Hel, but it’s the combination of a boring, confusing villain and the repeated use of deus ex machinae in the final act that keeps it from being the best action adventure film we’ve seen in ages. In the lead up to The Avengers, that only leaves Captain America, which is looking pretty cool. Still, Thor is sheer entertainment from beginning to end and is the best thing Marvel’s given us so far.
The One-Liner: Thor, the arrogant son of Odin, is cast down to Earth and a good movie with a lop-sided villain ensues.
The Best: Where has Chris Hemsworth been all our lives? He balances out the comedy, action and drama incredibly well for a first-time leading man. His “brother” Tom Hiddleston is great, too.
The Worst: Hiddleston’s 180-degree performance, courtesy of the director and what seems like a lot of swift editing on the part of the production house. Editing also renders a complex villain a 1-dimensional nutter by the film’s climax.
Rating: A semi.
P.S. This movie does not need to be seen in 3D. If you can, save the money for a drink after. Also, sit through the credits for another of Marvel Studios’ infamous teaser scenes. While this one, like the one at the end of Iron Man 2, will mean almost nothing to non-comics fans, it’s still cool setup for their upcoming film projects.