Trey’s Rating: 4 Agent Coulsons (out of 5)
The start of summer (which has actually crept pretty far into late spring this year) means blockbuster season has begun. Once again Marvel is kicking off the season with their first of two (three if you count X-Men: First Class – which I don’t) superhero movies: The Mighty Thor. As with Marvel’s other recent films, Thor serves as an introduction to the title character, along with his powers, backstory, supporting characters, and (most importantly to Marvel) his connection to the rest of the Marvel movieverse.
This clearly invites comparison with the other movies of the franchise, and I must admit that Thor holds his own admirably. I’m not even really sure such a comparison is fair, as it plays with somewhat different generic material than its predecessors. Iron Man, its sequel, and Incredible Hulk were all squarely in a quasi-realistic (qualified to allow for giant green radioactive monsters and powered suits of flying armor) science fiction setting. By contrast, Thor for obvious reasons draws more from the magic and fantasy of Norse mythology as filtered through the comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (along with all the writers and artists who came after them). If I had to place it cinematically, I would say Thor owes a lot to the action fantasy movies of the 1980s – and I mean that in a good way.
I can’t help but think a lot of the film’s success is due to the direction of Kenneth Branagh. The various elements of the film – magic, action, comedy, romance, etc – are all balanced fairly well, and he maintains a tone that allows the emotions to always feel genuine without the movie ever taking itself too seriously. I wouldn’t say that it is a perfect movie, or even a perfect superhero movie. Natalie Portman’s character has an intern who exists solely to deliver comic relief which I found to be mostly unnecessary. The film has a fun sense of humor without relying on one-liner interjections which at best distract from the plot and at worst will end up dating the movie through topical references (re: “I’m totally posting this to Facebook!”). I figure she is supposed to be the ‘blank slate’ character for the audience to relate to, but I just don’t see what she accomplished that Portman as Jane Foster didn’t accomplish better. Also, a certain Avenger makes a cameo during a key scene in the film, only to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. They might as well have paused the film and had Marvel producer Kevin Feige walk onscreen to say “Hey, don’t forget – we’re setting all of these characters up for a big team movie!” That said, it was cool to see the character in costume. I just wish that the scene hadn’t felt so superfluous. I’m pretty sure every shot featuring the cameo character could be edited out of the film and the sequence would still make perfect sense – I would bet that anyone not familiar with The Avengers or Marvel comics in general would be at least somewhat confused by the character showing up and not doing anything. The cameo scene is indicative of a problem with the movie as a whole; the SHIELD subplot feels like it was added solely to quickly connect Thor to the Avengers movie and in the process give the movie one or two extra action scenes. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but because of that recurring character Agent Coulson didn’t really get much to do. I suppose we have reached the point of no return in the Marvel movieverse: if you have not seen the earlier films in the franchise, there are references you will miss.
What really held the film together were the performances. Chris Hemsworth is just about perfect as Thor. I remember being impressed by his performance as George Kirk in the opening of Star Trek (2009), and I think after this film his name will be thrown around a lot more frequently. He pulls off just the right combination of confident swagger and naïve sincerity, and (maybe most importantly for a superhero movie like this) he looks really good in the costume. Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster who, for the purposes of the movie, has been reimagined as a scientist investigating strange phenomena in New Mexico. She is accompanied by her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her colleague Dr. Erik Selvig (the always watchable Stellan Skarsgard). I’ve already expressed my disdain for the assistant’s role as comic relief, but Portman and Skarsgard are very good. They bring humanity to a film that would otherwise be all CGI action and explosions, and their presence is a pretty big part of what makes the film work. Of course, being a huge Stellan Skarsgard fan I always wish for him to have a bigger role, but as it was the earth scenes balanced pretty nicely with the Asgardian scenes. The Asgardians all are very good, especially Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Thor’s companions, Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, and Joshua Dallas – who seemed to be doing an impression of Cary Elwes doing an impression of Errol Flynn), are also fun, if a little underdeveloped. Rounding out the Asgardian cast is Rene Russo as Odin’s wife Frigga and Idris Elba as Heimdall, guardian of the bifrost bridge. Needless to say, this paragraph is driving my spellchecker insane.
As one would expect from a major superhero movie, the special effects are a major selling point. In the case of Thor, there is a pretty good balance between realism and stylization. There are a few battle shots, especially early in the film, that look like they could have been taken from a video game, but overall the effects work and are appropriate for the tone of the movie. I opted not to see the 3D version, so I cannot comment directly on its quality. I will say that I didn’t feel I missed anything by seeing it in 2D, and I would imagine that the 3D process would have a detrimental effect on color and visibility – especially in the darker, less well-lit scenes.
Thor is a worthy addition to the Marvel movieverse, and manages to both hold its own as a standalone film and leave me excited for the Captain America and Avengers films. It mostly sticks to a traditional superhero origin, although the mythological elements allow for some more theatrical, dare-I-say-Shakespearean developments – especially concerning Thor’s relationship with his family. I think this is one of those superhero movies that manages to introduce and integrate comic book continuity without being too beholden to it; in other words, it should please both fans and casual viewers alike. Also, as with all the previous Marvel movies, be sure to stay after the credits for a tie-in to the next couple of movies. It even delves into some serious James Bond territory with a “Thor will return in The Avengers” credit. Verily, by Odin’s beard I declare this movie to be good!
© Ralph Lawson III, 2011, All Rights Reserved