Get Hammered!: A Review of ‘Thor’
It’s the beginning of summer 2011, and that can only mean one thing. Marvel is racing to get the public up to speed before their mega-picture The Avengers hits theaters next year, and they’re determined to get us there whether we feel like it or not. One can only marvel (or DC) at the rate with which these installments are being pushed out, and try to hope for the best. There are origin stories to spool out, seeds to be planted, a host of other metaphors to be abused, all in the name of brand reproduction. There is also a slowly building meta story involving S.H.I.E.L.D. and Samuel L. Jackson being fed in low-calorie nibblets at the tail end of every one of these blockbusters. The very thought of how many episodes of high-finish CG, stunt casting choices, and clunky dialogue one would have to endure just to get to the supposed payoff of The Avengers movie was, and is, exhausting.
So it’s a pleasant surprise that THOR is both watchable, and definitively enjoyable.
Once it gets on its legs, the movie is a fast, paceless, dazzling showcase of Silver Age wonderment rendered in the shiniest effects of the modern world. Chris Hemsworth does his part as the arrogant God of Thunder, delivering speaker-shaking war-cries and, eventually, a measured degree of remorse as Thor learns his lesson in humility. The battle scenes are a mythological thrill, as gods clad in geometric armor face off on a snowy world against the frostbite touch of the Ice Giants. What works on the comic page, such as an iconic thrown hammer, doesn’t always work on the screen, but director Kenneth Branagh and his visual coordinators manage to pull off a few neat tricks. The cosmic backdrop of the Aesir’s home base is awash in breathtaking nebulas and crepuscular rays that bathe our heroes as they ride out to the Bifrost across a shimmering translucent bridge. In addition to the worthwhile look and feel, THOR packs some solid moments of comedy from a few different sources, most noticeably when the newly Earthbound Thor must contend with the tribulations of a regular mortal’s day.
For all the lofty material available, it’s surprising that Branagh was not more daring in his choices. He certainly knows how to play out the familial drama inherent in a pantheon of gods, allowing the fundamental conflicts of parents and sons to give weight to the necessarily flashy proceedings. Perhaps, as is often the case with comic book adaptations, there were concerns about pleasing a historically unpleasable fanbase. (Who, us? Surely not!) Certain concessions are made in the name of cinematic expediency, leading to clumsy editing and even clumsier expository vocalizations. The latter includes such fine script gems as two minutes into the proceedings, when Natalie Portman proclaims “I’m an astrophysicist!” No one was expecting Shakespeare, but with a Bard veteran at the helm, one might be forgiven for expecting a little bit more.
THOR has a big problem twining around its core, like Jormungand around the base of the World Tree, and that is a primary villain whose story and motivations are far more compelling than those of its titular character. As Loki, Norse trickster and brother to this incarnation of Thor, Tom Hiddleston has some meaty material to bite into, and bite he does, with relish. Given the heavy themes of paternal betrayal, royal sibling rivalry, and conflicted loyalty, Hiddleston’s expressive portrayal temporarily overshadows the main event. It’s true that Hollywood has, for some time now, been nursing a chronic case of sympathy for the devil. Such an ailment is out of place here, as THOR is not a root-for-the-underdog tale, but the redeeming story of a humbled hero. As a result, this reviewer found herself rooting for the wrong (or, perhaps, wronged) side. Clearly, the only thing left for the spec screenwriters to do was to muddle Loki’s intentions and methods, leading to some final-act confusion and a hasty re-positioning of audience compassion. Grey moral ground is not a problem. In fact, it should be welcomed from the unexpected quarter of a summer tentpole flick. Feeling little sympathy or interest for your protagonist until halfway through the movie is, however, a serious problem. The movie’s called THOR, not LOKI, but you could have had me fooled for the first sixty minutes.
THOR boasts four main female speaking roles, two mortals and two shimmering immortals, a glut for the kind of movie where a token girl or older woman is usually all that can be expected. (The film passes the oft-lauded Bechdel Test twice over, mitigated only if one extends “about a guy” to said guy’s interdimensional bridge and resulting electron particle storm.) Jaimie Alexander, profiled elsewhere on this site, is the formidable Sif, one of Thor’s gang of ass-kicking Asgardian warriors. Rene Russo gets little screentime as Odin’s wife Frigga, but manages to get a good hit in with a sword as her king lies unconscious during an attack on their home realm. Kat Dennings hams up her adorable college student’s part, and she’s a bubbly, believable research assistant bummed out that the government’s men in black confiscated her iPod along with more volatile data.
Of course, I have yet to mention THOR‘s leading lady, recent Oscar-winner Natalie Portman. Truth be told, I didn’t want to mention Ms. Portman at all. I don’t want to recall the painful minutes I had to watch her onscreen, phoning in a baffling performance as love interest and loudly self-proclaiming astrophysicist Jane Foster. What kind of astrophysicist, after all, stumbles over saying every remotely scientific phrase? It’s as though she can’t believe she’s saying “Einstein-Rosen Bridge”, either. Empty, and empty-headed, is the character who ceases to function as soon as a hunky, potentially insane stranger crosses their paths. At film’s end, I finally sided with a thunder god torn from his mortal love, but I was just as grateful for the break from her presence.
So, by the mighty hammer of Thor, spend a couple of hours traveling the digitally matte-painted cosmos with Hemsworth & Co. You’ll laugh, you’ll plug your ears, and you’ll question that winged helmet. For a franchise installment, you could probably do better, but you could do a whole lot worse.