Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

Stop! Hammer Time!

      Like Charlie Sheen at a porn convention, I am conflicted by the glut of superhero movies right now. The kid in me never thought the day would come when Marvel characters would invade the big screen. But now that it's happening, and now that I'm an adult, I don't know how to feel. How does one evaluate the efficacy of dudes in costumes wielding fantastical powers? On the surface, these superhero films exist (like any pornstar in Sheen's voracious, party-blazed eyes) as pure eye candy. Thus, the crux of the evaluation process is whether the "fun" factor takes precedence over any "profound" pretension. 
      Well, much to my surprise, Kenneth Branagh streamlines the evaluation process. The early 90's wunderkind, famous for early Shakespearean successes, synthesizes a story that not only appeals to that always faithful childhood enthusiast, but entertains and engages the hardest believer among adults. Thor delights us old folk almost as much as it dazzles those youngsters. Bravo, Kenneth Branagh.
      Thor is a slightly tinkered with origin story. Unlike Spider-Man, for example, there is no moment of superpower transformation—scaling walls or jumping rooftops. On the contrary, Branagh instantly thrusts the audience into the superhero, superpowered world of Asgardian Warriors and Frost Giants. Expelled from the mythical Asgard, the mighty, but insolent Thor (Chris Hemsworth), now "a fish out of water" on Earth, must ascertain the meaning of humility. You see, Thor possesses a bombastic overconfidence, a trait unfit for a King. But the god of thunder, under the auspices of Odin, the ruler of Asgard and father of Thor (Anthony Hopkins), must radiate regal virtuosity. Along with an inquisitive scientist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), little helper Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and a Sword-In-The-Stone scenario, Thor resigns himself to a perfunctory life on Earth (he gets sloshed with Selvig). But a formidable old foe dispatches a destructive force, designed to cripple humanity. And, when the banished Norse God defeats the cosmic behemoth, he finally grasps (quite literally) the meaning of heroism. But this heroic identity, just-now-forged, must take arms against some familiar forces.

       Thor is crowd pleasing comic book fare primarily targeted towards kids. And, if I was still a kid (some argue I am), I would absolutely, unequivocally Love this film. And, as an adult, I still really enjoy it. Although the story lacks tension, Branagh harnesses a fun, amusing tone. Both Asgard and Earth's production designs are grand and vibrant. The action sequences—largely reliant upon a CGI bombardment—work on a conceptual level, but stumble somewhat in execution. At first, Asgard appears to be a tad kitschy. The rainbow bridge (seemingly, fresh out of Mario Kart), the gate of Bifrost (terrific aesthetic design) and its keeper Heimdall (Idris Alba), all appear silly. But Branagh offsets this overt mythological sentimentality by orchestrating new, varied camera angles and infusing a vigorous vibrancy. Thor's hammer is a great example of his exuberant style. The opening Frost battle sequence underscores the great physical wonder of the hammer, as it moves through space with such precision, such panache. In fact, the entire opening fight sequence is exhilarating. 
      These swooping CGI sequences evoke such razzle-dazzle, but at times, look cartoonish and inauthentic. For one thing, the CG Frost Giants all look identical. And the fight sequence when Thor attempts to retrieve his hammer is sort of banal (though, the imagery of him trying to pull the hammer out of the ground is friggen cool).
      Thor is a jaw-dropping spectacle....at times. There are numerous characters I care for, and earnest action sequences I look forward to. But, ultimately, there is still a disingenuous novelty to the more important action flourishes. As someone who was somewhat noobish about the intricacies of the Thor mythology going into the experience, I came away with a tempered satisfaction. Conceptually, the world is great, but the execution, at many key moments, is lackluster. Thor's battle with Loki is a prime example. And Thor's fight sequence with The Destroyer is equally underwhelming. The CGI looks fantastical, but it robs the action of any impact. Moreover, the CGI in Asgard is cool, but feels too dreamy. It leads to a mild disconnect, which renders the Frost Giants—key adversaries of Asgard—obnoxiously monotonous. 

      I do not want to come across as someone who harbors a deep frustration with the film. That is not even remotely the case. Branagh interjects the Marvel mythology with some wonderful Shakespearean touches, provoking fantastic drama. The Thor cast-out scene, for example, is stupendous. Anthony Hopkins gives it his all. Like a towering piece of literature, Odin unleashes a fiery, brooding disappointment on his biological son. In doing so, Branagh demonstrates a sharp knack for marrying tragic, classical Shakespearean artifacts with authentic, true-to-source comic book architecture. 
      The character arc of Thor is good ol' bread-and-butter fare: a mighty and regal figure is humbled and forced to acknowledge his shortcomings...and then, after overcoming these shortcomings, finds redemption. Despite its hackneyed design, Branagh infuses Thor's arc with dramatic Shakespearean flair. And in the process, Chris Hemsworth exhibits an almost Harrison Ford, leading man quality. He is a masculine, powerful sex symbol, but also a tender, unabashedly silly hero. It's a unique star quality; a quality that also suits his romantic co-star. There are problems with Portman's character. She is—ad nauseam Hollywood—a dreaded plot point known more plainly as the manipulative romantic device. But thankfully, she is extremely beautiful—so much so, her adorable smile inspires Thor to retire his Norse God suit in exchange for her company.
      The most inspired performance comes from Tom Hiddleston, who plays Fredo...I mean Loki. His spirited standoff with Odin—Anthony Hopkin's whole I'm-A-Helluva-Dramatic-Actor-Tirade—is sensational. Loki's story is the most interesting of the narrative, exceeding the conventional I'm-Thor-I'm-Arrogant trope; Loki's the brains (the Lex Luthor type) while Thor's the brawn. Tom Hiddleston brings a nuanced complexity to his character. As the one designed to be the family foil, he is a sinister, but gentle figure. His story speaks to the idea of nature versus nurture, which is conspicuously Shakespearean. And, despite any prior controversy, Idris Elba proves he is quite the talented actor, delivering a strong, but limited performance. In fact, many of the peripheral performances are quite limited, but they're mostly solid.

      Many detractors question whether these superhero movies are a mere means to an end. Are they strictly a piece of The Avengers puzzle? Can they effectively standalone? The challenge for any director captaining a superhero movie is enormous (not just in terms of budget). They must strike a fine balance between sui generis and comic book lore while also brokering an affiliation to The Avengers. Iron Man demonstrated this miraculous balancing act better than the rest...so far. But Iron Man 2 illustrated precisely what not to do. An overt and hurried adherence to S.H.I.E.L.D—symptomatic of the whole Avengers concept—does not benefit the story. But Branagh marries the dual tasks quite splendidly. I am pumped for Thor 2, but I am even more energized for The Avengers—an admission that comes from a prior cynic of superhero hysteria.
      Thor exists on its own very well. The movie introduces great characters and takes us to different places even though the numerous sets feel somewhat homogeneous and minimal: the podunk little town near the desert and the minimal scope in Asgard (the Bridge, the throne room, etc.) spring to mind. Thor is not as effective or powerful as Iron Man and is certainly not on the level of The Dark Knight, but in terms of sheer visual beauty, it is still a commendable superhero film. The juxtaposition between Earth and Asgard alludes to a stark self-containment, which may just be an attempt at anonymity. Perhaps, Branagh and company do not want to reveal Thor's presence to the rest of the world (thus maintaining a purposeful disconnection). Branagh—more likely, the studio—may be nursing the evolutionary elements of the Norse God mythology in order to expand the compelling narrative, for what will lead to an inevitable sequel. In this respect, Thor's story is very much reminiscent of Superman 2: a mundane slice of Americana. Ultimately, Thor is not without shortcomings. But in grand Shakespearean fashion, Branagh's epic fits terrifically within the marvelous Marvel universe.

7.5 out of 10

*Official trailer for Thor.


  1. Excellent breakdown. I saw Thor this weekend and am working on my own review. I see we agree on many points. I enjoyed this a lot and I thought Hemsworth was spot on as Thor. Plus, he was a tasty treat to look at. All that golden, scrumptious...Ahem ;)

    I loved Renner's little cameo and the guarded references to other Marvel heroes. Subtle and skillfully placed. Unlike IM2 in which they beat us over the head with SHIELD.

    Branagh was the perfect director for Thor. He has an understanding of the mythological which is at the core of Thor's story. He wasn't made by accident, by science or by money and brains. He was born a god and that makes him very different from his fellow Marvel heroes.

  2. Wow.. that's a thorough and outstanding review for the film. I'm really glad that you also felt the film is delighting and dazzling, buddy :)
    It's indeed a challenge for any director captaining a superhero movie, especially the one like Thor. And I believe Kenneth Branagh is success.

  3. I'm so happy that Branagh and Chris Hemsworth have proved to all of you that they can make a good film :) There were so many people who wanted it to flop even before they saw it.
    Nice review, Matty!

  4. thanks for that review!
    i look forward to seeing it with my boys =)

  5. @ Melissa

    Thanks! I can't wait to read your analysis!

    I was mildly skeptical about Hemsworth's ability (largely due to not seeing him on the big screen outside of his smaller role in Star Trek), but I must say, he completely impressed me. He has quite a promising career ahead of him.

    Renner's cameo was fun, but he really didn't do much. I'm glad Branagh didn't follow the IM2 path. That was torture.

    And Branagh's direction was stupendous. The dramatic and Shakespearean touches helped satiate us older comic folk. But there was still enough solid action and fantastical happenings to excite the youngsters.

    @ Jaccstev

    I like your new avatar!

    And thanks! I had a feeling after reading your early review that I was going to like this film.

    It's a good start to the summer of superheroes (four more to go). Personally, I am most looking forward to X-Men: First Class because I have a lot of faith in Matthew Vaughn.

  6. @ Dezmond

    Thanks! Never doubt FilmMattic :)

    Plus, I always prefer to see good films rather than flops. Of course, there are more bad films than good ones. But that's why there's an almost infinite collection of past films worth seeing!

    @ Tara

    Awesome! Here's the great thing: you AND your boys will love the film!

  7. Seeing that Kenneth Branagh was director was what finally got me to go see it. It wasn't bad, and the directing was one of the best things about it. Plus Thor is way hot.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  8. p.s. I ADORE the Good Will Hunting photo in your header. Fabulous.

  9. Whew! Thank goodness I got my Thor blog post up first! ;) Because, after reading your terrific review, I would have had the wind taken out of my sails! As far as this session goes across the aisle, we're in pretty close orbit with each other! Sterling work, Mr. V!

  10. Excellent review, Matty! I agree with you for most parts, though I didn't find it that spectacular. Love the visuals, Natalie and, of course, Chris Hemsworth.

  11. @ Sarah

    Thank you! Glad you dig my banner :)

    And Branagh's direction really shined through. He juxtaposed the dual worlds of Asgard and Earth quite efficiently. And he also intimated an excellent command of Shakespearean drama and comic book mythology.

    @ Craig

    Thanks buddy! Yes, I just read your review. We are certainly in agreement with the overall design and execution of the film. Plus, we can both agree it deserves a thumbs up.

    @ Nebular

    Thanks George!

    I never insinuated that it was "spectacular." In fact, much of my review was spent intimating little inefficiencies with the movies execution and tension (particularly, with regards to many of the key action sequences). Plus, a 7.5 is like a B/B+. For me, spectacular is reserved for 9 and up.

    Yes, the visuals were beautiful. And Hemsworth is well on his way to stardom and Natalie we both love!

  12. I thought I left a comment on this post of yours. Where the hell is it? :) Damn, blogger screwed everything up the last couple of days.

    Matty, your "Thor" review is as accurate as it's fantastic, and I couldn't agree more with it.

    I liked it a lot as a whole, but honestly I expected a lot more action and spectacle.

  13. Thanks George!

    Yeah, blogger has been going bonkers these last few days. There were a few comments that were not restored on this post. It's a good thing I didn't post anything noteworthy that day. Who knows if it'd ever get restored.

    You're exactly right. The most appalling weakness in Thor was the action. There was no "Wow" factor. And the execution, at times, was a bit sloppy. But still enjoyable.

    The character and story development was fantastic. And the world creation was, of course, first rate.

  14. Thanks for this. My husband doesn't want to go see it, but I think I do. A lot of people are just not familiar with Norse mythology and therefore, lack interest. Hopefully, the word will get out!

  15. You're very welcome!

    I was not too familiar with the Norse mythology before the film, but I had a basic awareness of Thor.

    Yes, I agree. Let's hope more people are drawn to these kinds of fantastical tales of heroism and honor.

  16. So many superhero movies, I wait for most to come to HBO or Starz so I can see them free. I'm very excited for Dark Knight Rises though, I think Anne Hathaway can bring back the amazing Michelle Pfeiffer style Catwoman, and hopefully get a good spinoff this time.

  17. Thanks for the comment, Adam!

    I agree. There's still four big ones this summer. I'm definitely going to watch First Class because I trust Matthew Vaughn's skill and vision. Yeah, it's easier for our pockets to stick to TV viewings. The glut of superheroes makes it a costly predicament for theater showings.

    And I share your anticipation for Dark Knight Rises. Nolan has completely revamped the Batman franchise. I loved Begins and Dark Knight. Hathaway is an interesting choice. She has the talent. In Nolan I trust. I think Rises is going to be terrific!