Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thor, F.K.A. God of Thunder

As a child, I was a fan of Marvel Comics’ “Thor” series.  I beg my dear friends who memorized every frame of every comic to forgive me – I don’t actually remember them at all now. What I clearly recall is that, like some other good comics, “Thor” led me back to its source, and I added Norse mythology to my reading of Greek, Roman, and eventually Native American mythologies.  Not to mention folk and fairy tales.  My favorite characters were often tricksters, fellows -- or sometimes critters -- who, whether evil or just a little bit bad, live by their wits and are oftentimes witty. Tom Hiddleston makes his superheroes debut as Thor’s “brother” Loki, the trickster of Norse mythology.  Hiddleston is terrific, his narrow face alternately a mask of serious contemplation and one of wicked delight.  He holds his own with the powerful Anthony Hopkins as Odin and the brash lead, Chris Hemsworth, as Thor.

My friend Horvendile wrote in his review of this film that he believed director Kenneth Branagh whispered in his actors’ ears that this was really Shakespeare -- http://matthewslikelystory.blogspot.com/2011/05/you-will-believe-god-can-make-breakfast.html.  This may be true.  Not that it’s Shakespeare, but that Branagh and most of his actors (those in Asgard, at least!) gave every character and every word the weight of serious storytelling, and therefore much of this tale works.  The effects don’t particularly work -- one or two images involving the magnificent Idris Elba as Heimdall were awesome and memorable, but mostly not so much. 

Chris Hemsworth does well by the arrogant fool Thor – that is, Thor the son of a king, a ‘god’ to mere mortals who has unfortunately not yet been defeated and is therefore obnoxious in a comic book way.  While he’s no Robert Downey, Jr., Hemsworth plays Thor’s humiliation convincingly.  He’s a bit over the top as a god, but that is a nice contrast to Hiddleston’s low-key Loki and Hopkins’ discreet Odin.  The real power lies, of course, with the quiet old man whose words or tears can bring a magical object to life. 

Visually, Asgard, home of Odin, Thor, et.al., may be accurate to the comic, but does not convey the Asgard of my imagination from reading Norse mythology.  It just never seemed to me so shiny.  Of course, this film is based on the comics, so don’t crack open your mythology books.  In any case, the scenes in the upper realms are undeniably gorgeous, breathtaking, and fanciful. The concept of the bridge of the nine realms as a wormhole was fun, but the visuals didn’t move me as much as I would have anticipated.  

In general I found the fighting and battle scenes a bit choppy, special effects taking precedence over following what was going on, so I was not engaged in those sections.  Thor’s closest allies are not adequately introduced – I suspect the filmmakers assumed everyone who came to the movie would know who they were.  They popped up to offer analysis or to bump the plot forward but left no lasting impression.   

The cast is heavily weighted to residents of Asgard, with a few interesting humans:

  Chris Hemsworth is comic book broad as Thor the son of Odin, funny on occasion, a brash bully at other times.  Once in New Mexico, he has some really nice moments, some dull moments, some funny moments.  I didn't even recognize Hemsworth as George Kirk, father of the new Jim Kirk in the new “Star Trek,” despite my many viewings of that film.  He does good work in "Thor," worth watching as he grows.
  Tom Hiddleston is an utter delight, subdued and clever as the nice to naughty to villainous Loki. 
  Anthony Hopkins reigns as Odin, every inch a king, perhaps as wild as Thor in his youth, but wiser and kinder with age and experience.
  Idris Elba is gorgeous as Heimdall, majestic, all-hearing and all-seeing with his golden eyes.
  Colm Feore is as intriguing as ever as King Laufey, commanding, compelling, and contrarily vulnerable as the King of the “Frost Giants.”  Yes, the name is silly, but take one look at these guys, and they’re dangerous, not silly; nor are they monsters.  They are citizens of a conquered realm, and I found myself, just for a moment, rooting for them when the boastful bully Thor went against his father’s orders and made war with the ancient enemy. The frozen guys are worthy villains, big and angry and scary. 
  Rene Russo is classy as Frigga, wife of Odin, mother of Thor, quite believable.   
  Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, allegedly human, allegedly a scientist.  Don’t make me laugh. 
  Stellan Skarsgård is decidedly human as Professor Erik Selvig, scientist, friend and father figure to Jane Foster. 
  Kat Dennings is absolutely human as Darcy Lewis, the unscientific research assistant with the better lines. In a clear counterpoint to Ms. Portman, she’s cute and sassy.
  Clark Gregg is deceptively strong as the human, man-in-black, Agent Coulson.  He links the elements of the franchise together, and his appearance in the story made me sit up and say, ooh, what’re they up to now.

On planet Earth, the New Mexico scenes are dusty and entertaining, particularly when Skarsgård and Hemsworth go out drinking.  Guess who wins.  Thor the fallen “God of Thunder” in a desert town is out of place, and that’s always fun to watch.  Building the broader story and franchise, Agent Coulson from the “Iron Man” films shows up in the desert in his black suit raiding the headquarters of the “scientists” who found the fallen Thor.  Under Coulson’s leadership, a cool government-type complex is built around Thor’s hammer overnight, proving that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a government agency at all.

While not a religious person, twice I was struck by certain overtones – first when Thor is cast out.  He is not merely sent to go learn his lesson; nor is this a vision quest.  He is cast out of Asgard, a realm seemingly high above the Earth, so it’s rather like …an angel being cast out of heaven by his father.  Stripped of his powers, unable to pull the sword – ahem, I mean hammer – from the stone, and beaten by the power of S.H.I.E.L.D. (those “men in black” who seem to be bad guys to the uninitiated), Thor cries out in agony, wordless, but in my mind I heard “Father, why have you forsaken me?” 

Yes, “Thor” has its moments.  It is more than a building block in the franchise, yet it’s not quite complete in itself, making it a bit of a tease (particularly in the all-too-brief appearance by Jeremy Renner).  There were some delightful moments and good scenes in this movie, but though some may be drawn to its effects, I don’t think that’s what director Branagh was focused on.  With the exception of Ms. Portman, I think Mr. Branagh was having fun with his actors, testing them, teasing them, giving them full rein, then pulling them in at precisely the right moments.  Ms. Portman has an interesting mask of a face, but is totally unbelievable and out of place here, so I choose to believe Mr. Branagh was stuck with her. 

In terms of the screenplay, I can only recall a single line of this film – it was delivered by Jeremy Renner, simply, sincerely.  Listen for it.  What I vividly recall are the faces – Hopkins, Hiddleston, Hemsworth, Elba, Feore – and the emotions behind them.  The story moves briskly, attention does not flag, so Mr. Branagh and the many screenwriters (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne, based on a story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, and of course all of this based on the comic books by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby) have manipulated the words and the frames and the characters pretty darn well.

This is one of those movies that rewards viewers who watch the whole thing.  If you don’t respect the thousands of people it takes to make a movie enough to sit through the closing credits, you’re going to miss a delightful scene.  Nyah nyah. I laughed with pleasure as I stood alone in the theatre, enjoying the promise of things to come.  “Thor” is not up to the (unattainable?) level of the first “Iron Man,” but it is good summer fun.  Go on and sit in a cold auditorium for a couple hours.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but not the light.  I need that to re-read some mythology….

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