Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)

For all its flaws, Tim Burton's original Batman stands above nearly any other first entry in a superhero franchise for one simple reason: it did not waste time with an origin story. Burton had the decency to assume that a defining pop culture icon would be well-known enough even to the casual viewer that spending any length of time on the backstory would take away from getting a new plot underway.

Thor, the first new Marvel franchise of the summer in advance of next year's megablockbuster The Avengers, spends the whole of its two hours repetitively establishing a character who should be familiar to anyone who went had a few mythology overviews in a history class. For this comic book version of the Norse god of thunder is nothing more than a streamlined, Disneyfied version of the actual Norse myths. When scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) picks up an illustrated tome of Norse mythology later in the film, I hoped in vain that this would be the filmmakers' way of acknowledging that they're adding nothing to that origin and moving on. Wishful thinking.

Kenneth Branagh awkwardly handles the first 30 minutes of the film: opening on Earth with a group of astrophysicists (Natalie Portman's Jane, Skarsgård's Erik, Kat Dennings' Darcy) monitoring strange storm patterns, Thor abruptly shifts to the heavenly Asgard for 25 minutes to explain why a man falls out of the sky on the Earthlings' watch. There, we must contend with battle scenes that probably have Peter Jackson's lawyers on the phone with Marvel, though the scenes take place on such a poorly-lit, drab ice world that Marvel might be able to argue on the grounds that we could be watching anything. But despite these great wars and the bloodthirsty love of strength that defines the Asgardians, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) ultimately banishes Thor to Earth for arrogance and a thirst for war, sending along the hammer Mjolnir to return Thor's powers when he sets the Whac-a-Mole record a second time proves himself moral and wise.

I smoothed over a great many details in that first act, but never fear: the movie repeats every single plot element so often I'm sure I could pick up the missing pieces as I move forward. Thor seems to learn his lesson in humility a good 10 minutes after the film resumes in the present, or at least 10 minutes after the film decides to be serious for a moment and stop treading water with lame humor, the best of which already got played to death in the advertisements.

Thor follows the lead of the Star Trek reboot: spend a whole film essentially getting to the point where the actual story emerges, and spackle any cracks with one-liners. But where Star Trek managed to get by because it could keep adding characters to give the impression of a moving story, Thor putters about with its inconsistent hero, who's arrogant one second and charming and humble the next. Chris Hemsworth, who previously starred in Hitler's wet dreams (and also as Kirk's dad at the start of Star Trek), certainly has the presence for Thor, and he channels the goofier charm of the character's archaic, chivalric behavior.

But everyone around him has nothing to do. Portman, who finally gets to sink her teeth into a scientist role after getting two papers published in peer-reviewed journals, gets to talk science for about three minutes before she goes doe-eyed over Thor and his hand-kissing ways. Thor seeks to bridge that gap between "magic" (which is amusingly used in place of "religion") and science, and it would seem that the god of thunder's abs are so magical they scramble the rational woman's brain. Dennings and Skarsgård fare even worse: since they aren't going to kiss Thor at any time, they more or less hang back and lob mortars of advice and cattiness from a safe distance. Let's not even get started on Thor's fantastic four back home. I don't know their names, but everyone seems to be coming up with their own classifications. Mine were Hagrid, Errol Flynn, not-Michelle Monaghan and Hiro. (I was exceedingly disappointed when the writers saw me coming and threw in a tossed-off line about Robin Hood for that outlandish Asgardian).

However, it's Tom Hiddleston who walks away with the film as Loki. Compared to the rampant trickster and madman of the mythology, this comic-book version of the god of lies has a predictable but resonant backstory that gives the character something more than just mustache-twirling evil as motivation. Loki's jumps from scheming to pleading are written a bit too stiffly, but Hiddleston finds the transition between the two and gives a remarkable performance. It takes a special talent to wear a hat as ludicrous as the one on Loki's head and keep audience attention solely on his face. Hiddleston appears on the cusp of blowing up -- he's slated to appear in Spielberg's upcoming War Horse and Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea -- and judging from this film he deserves the shot at stardom.

It's a shame he only truly gets to shine on the sparkling utopia of Asgard, which does not mesh with his sinister vibe. For Christ's sake, the climactic battle takes place on a rainbow bridge linking Asgard to the other worlds, presumably Peppermint Forest, Gumdrop Mountains, Molasses Swamp, Peanut Brittle House and Lollipop Woods. Granted, Bifröst was a rainbow bridge in the mythology too, but it's hard to fear the incoming Norse warriors as they cross a giant Lite-Brite. Imagine the frost giants fleeing in terror: "Retreat, men! They've loosed the Care Bears of War!"

I should be clear: I did ultimately enjoy Thor. After the first hour, it settles into its groove and contains enough random kicks to keep an audience entertained. Some of its one-liners are so ridiculous I can't get them out of my head -- "Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!" rivals Drive Angry's "I never disrobe before a gunfight" for "Crazy Line of the Year" -- and some of the intended humor scores: I burst out laughing at Skarsgård's face when he tried to cover for Thor's behavior by yelling "Steroids!" with borderline jubilation. I also enjoyed seeing Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson divorced from the patronizing Tony Stark, where at last we can see him as a man in command of forces and not just a whipping boy for a rich kid.

If Marvel's franchises suffer worst from the excessive exposition of their first entries (or double back to get a whole film out of uncovered origin stories, à la X-Men: First Class), the studio has at least found ways to cover up these weaknesses. After all, for all the rote, cyclical plot of this film, more happens than in Iron Man, which feels like a blockbuster despite two largely tame action sequences. They've managed to put the idea into people's heads that more is happening than actually is, and that's a powerful skill. I just need to learn to start coming on-board these things starting with the sequels.


  1. While I agree with you that origin stories take up plenty of precious time in these superhero movies, I'm not sure what absolves Burton's BATMAN from the same sin. It threads flashbacks of the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents at the hands of Joker's alter ego throughout the movie with some frequency.

  2. A weaving in of the flashbacks isn't the same as spending the whole time on it. I disliked that Burton tied in Batman's origin with the Joker, but I think his way fit in better with the "Batman is always haunted by these visions" side of the backstory rather than "let's lump it all together in one plodding mass of unnecessary exposition."

    I'm not saying Burton was altogether successful in this (those flashbacks have a clumsiness of their own), but I like that it's broken up instead of the whole raison d'être of the film.

  3. I'm not sure that anything more than a passing reference is even needed to explain the backstory for these pop culture icons (even for non-fanboys). With the debatable exception of SUPERMAN (whose first Donner-directed entry is stunning) I often find that nothing is missed by starting with the second, often vastly superior film, i.e. SPIDER MAN 2, X2.

    BTW, Singer's X-MEN is a better example of a film that, though flawed, doesn't spend time on origins (that's what this summer's stinky-looking entry is for), but does establish a fascinating world of mutants with relatively little exposition.

  4. I agree that X-Men is a good example of getting the ball rolling. I like that it doesn't spend time with Rogue's childhood (or Wolverine's, though of course they got around to that later) and instead gives the proceedings a mystery even if you know about Rogue's powers/curse. It's about how the characters figure themselves out instead of the film doing it for them.

    I agree completely with Superman, which I think has the best and most entertaining origin story and then moves into a good plot without getting trapped in the expository web.

  5. I take yr point about the pace of the film at the beginning. I think there were also issues with the editing in dialogue scenes, and some of the CGI was a bit cheap. But I think yr review underplays the film's strengths. This isn't just Norse mythology - the idea is space-gods with advanced tech, an SF staple rather difficult to find on film, and full of resonances to unpack if the mood takes you. Asgard as the Land of the Gummy Bears also a clever design choice - gods as childhood fictions, and comicbook gods all the more so. Loki's helmet - silly yes, but those horns twisted back on themselves rather elegantly symbolise the character's self-loathing, no?

    The theme is religion, yr right, but we should look at what the film does with it. I think I remember the writer talking about basing the story on a shift from an Old Testament to a New Testament mentality: Thor's eye-for-an-eye attitude purged by crucifixion and resurrection. And the conversation with Skarsgård at the bar, where Thor has to deal with the death of the Allfather, and the uncertainty that brings... this is clever stuff. Not enough reviews have pointed it out.

    But it's marginal compared to what Branagh managed to do with his actors. Yes, Hiddleston steals the show (as good as Ledger's Joker, Imo). The romance is forced, true, but we should remember that Foster has her own life project, and it's Thor's participation in it, as much as his abs, that win her over. But let's take a look at Skarsgård, Dennings, Elba, Alexander... they have NOTHING roles, and yet Branagh manages to work in (sometimes EXTREMELY subtle) pay-offs for all of them. He's an actor himself, of course, and it seems to me like he engaged with his cast much more than most action directors would. We should not forget that he's also a SHAKESPEARIAN actor, and he's learned from the experience, creating bit-parts that pop, but also hint at depths the piece has no time to explore, something the Bard could do instinctively.

    To condense the above (I have gone on a bit) I think the clumsiness at the beginning of the film is more than made up for by the intelligence and assuredness it eventually demonstrates. I think Thor is a pretty great example of superheroes done pretty well.

  6. I'm not about to give a film points for taking another religion and Christianizing it. And it makes no attempt to show an evolution of thought: the people of Asgard love Thor for his strength and braggadocio, but suddenly there's a concern for war? That line of reasoning might have meant more if Asgard were ever portrayed as being even slightly in jeopardy. Even at the end, the threat is not that Asgard will suffer from Loki's scheme but that he will channel their power to harm others. There are no stakes for Asgard, which makes its lazy vision of Christian heaven all the more boring (and there's nothing less dramatic than paradise). And why is the Allfather even dying at all? It's one thing for immortals to fight each other, but how is it that he just gets sick?

    As for the side players, getting a memorable one-liner is not the same as a payoff. I don't feel like the other actors have characters with hidden depth; I feel that they're playing characters who exist to have one line or to just change things up a bit. Darcy is a completely 2D character, just as Heimdall is. The actors playing them are good, but any hint of depth comes solely from their good casting, not from truly sculpting Shakespearean bit-parts.

    I understand that Thor helps Jane with her work, but it's still far too thin to support the plot preference given to the romance over the formation of character. It's annoying to see Portman be plucky and smart for the opening five minutes and then be a blushing flibbertigibbet the moment Hemsworth takes of his shirt and kissed the back of her hand.

    Everyone keeps saying that this film has an intelligence and attention to character, but I don't see it. The best moment (the reveal of Loki's past that changes his character completely), is too quickly dropped to get back to Earth (they could have shortened or cut other Asgard scenes to really spend time with Loki) and when the line gets picked up once more at the end, it's lost its resonance. That also holds back Hiddleston's performance, which I'm sorry, I cannot say comes anywhere near Ledger's Joker precisely because the role is written too scattershot to be fully attuned to Hiddleston's fantastic work.

    In the end, all I can do is mildly enjoy it, but I'm certainly looking forward to Whedon working with Thor and especially Loki and it's weird that this is the film that makes me most look forward to The Avengers.

  7. "I'm not about to give a film points for taking another religion and Christianizing it."

    Why not?