Thursday, May 3, 2012

Countdown to The Avengers, Part 4: Thor

Part 4 in our Countdown to the release of The Avengers, in which Thor teaches us that it is not the size of the hammer, but all in how you swing it...

THE FILM ITSELF: Out of all the Marvel characters put to screen thus far, Thor was surely the trickiest to pull off. He walks a very fine line between classical myth and outright goofiness. But director Kenneth Branagh and actor Chris Hemsworth manage to nail the character himself, giving us a Thor that is not only powerful and godly, but fiercely human at his core. It’s too bad the movie surrounding him isn’t up to par - a film so scattershot in quality it threatens to sink the sublime work of its leading man.

    Marvel announced Kenneth Branagh as director of the film to many raised eyes - fitting, I suppose, for a character known to speak in faux-Shakespearean mumbo-jumbo. But while Branagh is unquestionably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, his directorial efforts often leave much to be desired, especially those not originally penned by the Bard. And, while Branagh has done movies with an epic scope before (his Hamlet is massive), he proves a bit of a square peg in a round hole when helming an effects-laden superhero movie. But let’s start with what Branagh does well, and nails here in Thor: working with actors.
    Really the single greatest strength of the Marvel films thus far is the casting. They’re not willing to settle for anything less than career-defining performances - actors who so fully embody their characters it’s hard to see anyone else in the part. And Chris Hemworth does such here - his portrayal of Thor is similar to Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, in that it’s a joy just to watch them perform. Hemsworth nails it, playing Thor as a cocky young warrior who, although headstrong and arrogant, wants to do the right thing, deep down. He’s even more enjoyable once he gets stranded on Earth. Early on I feared that the fish-out-water stuff would be far too goofy, but it works - being funny and one of the best elements of the entire movie, a large part of that due to Hemsworth himself. It’s not an easy role to play, and in a less-talented actors hands could be disastrous, but Hemsworth finds the exact right tone.

    Equally excellent is Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s treacherous half-brother, Loki. The best villains are the ones who could have been great heroes themselves, but for whatever reason some defect always keeps them from achieving their true potential. Hiddleston gets this, and imbues Loki with a deep-seated jealousy of his brother. Loki doesn’t even really become the villain until he finds out his true heritage, and even then it feels more like an angsty teenager than some mustache-twirling villain. Under Hiddleston, Loki becomes a wonderfully complex character, one that the audience can identify with as much as they want to see him get punched in the face.

    The rest of the Asgardian cast fares well, too, with Anthony Hopkins at the head as Odin the Allfather. There aren’t many classically-trained British actors left, and the part of Odin demands such a presence. He’s only in a handful of scenes, but Hopkins’ delivery is that of a king who is at once noble, powerful and flawed - in all the right ways. Also appearing are the Warriors Three, played by Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano and Ray Stevenson. They don’t get a whole lot to do other than fight, but they hold their own amongst the weighty cast quite well. Also joining Thor’s band of warriors is the Lady Sif, who is played with such verve by Jaimie Alexander that an extra mistakes her for a certain warrior princess. Rounding out the gods is Heimdall, played by Stringer Be- I mean, Idris Elba. Elba is fantastic as the guardian of the Bifrost Bridge, owning every scene he’s in with his alien, low-key performance.
    On Midgard, Thor meets up with a group of scientists, led by Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Portman is one of the best actress’ around, but often needs a strong, guiding hand to achieve a great performance. She does what she can with the part, but the character is just too thin, and it doesn’t help that the script awkwardly tries to force her and Thor into a relationship. And it’s here we find the movie’s biggest fault: the fact that we’re supposed to buy these two as star-crossed lovers. Now it’s understandable that they’d be attracted to each other, but Thor is a literal god, so if he’s going to fall madly in love with a mortal woman, there has to be something more to her than her looks - but the script fails to provide. Despite her best efforts, Portman’s role feels like an item being checked off a list.

    We also get Stellan Skarsgard as Erik Selvig, who’s sort of like a mentor to Portman’s character. Skarsgard has years of experience in movies both good and bad, and always seems to come out rather well. Plus, he’s part of one of the film’s best scenes, in which he takes Thor out drinking (“We drank; we fought! He made his ancestors proud…”). Rounding out Thor’s Earth buddies is Kat Dennings as Darcy the Intern. In any other movie, this is the character who gets the most groans: the spunky, young smartass. But Dennings turns that cliche on its ear and winds up stealing most scenes she’s in, by some miracle becoming the movie’s funniest character.

    The design of the film was another element that needed to be handled with a delicate touch. Fortunately, Branagh goes against the current grain of making everything gritty and practical, preferring full-on, batshit Jack Kirby designs. There’s a heavy Flash Gordon vibe, which is befitting of Nordic space gods. But awesome as it looks, Branagh never quite makes the sets come alive. Take the opening battle in the frozen world of Jotunheim - the whole scene looks like it was shot in a airplane hangar dressed up with chunks of ice. Were it on Broadway, the set would be fine, but this is a film. It has to look like a living, breathing environment, one that the audience can get lost in.

    The effects are also a bit of a mixed bag, ranging anywhere from okay to terrible. Marvel is notorious for cutting corners to keep the budgets in check, and it feels the most evident in Thor. A movie about the God of Thunder should have an epic sweep, but every scene feels so small and contained - we should be feeling that there is a world beyond the edges of the frame, not one contained by it.

    Of course all of that doesn’t matter as long as it’s held together by a strong script, but Thor features the lazy, humdrum beats you find in nearly every big movie these days; always taking the diet pills to look good instead of actually doing the legwork. The main thrust of the movie is having the headstrong Thor learn a little humility, stripped of his powers and banished to Earth until he can find his true worth and take up his hammer once again. Which is all fine and dandy, except the script takes the easy way out of every situation; we’re told that Thor has learned his lesson, but we never actually see it. The script is so lazy that when Thor proves his worthiness, it doesn’t even require him to go get his hammer from the crater - instead Mjolnir flies to him.

    I’m afraid that Thor winds up being the second misfire in a row now for Marvel, setting up a great premise but failing to follow through.

OTHER THOUGHTS: Due to advances in science and technology - and an overall growing cynicism - it’s getting harder to suspend a modern audience’s disbelief when dealing with fantastic concepts like the Norse gods. Branagh sidesteps this cleverly, casting the Asgardians as powerful alien beings who the primitive Vikings worshiped as gods. It’s also great to see the classical mythic concepts updated for a sci-fi setting, like the nine realms being actual planets covered by a cloud of cosmic dust in the shape of the world tree Yggrdrasil, or making the Bifrost Bridge a portal to those worlds instead of an actual rainbow bridge.

    Branagh uses a lot of Dutch angles in this, a tactic seen often in the old Adam West Batman show. For a certain generation, when you say “comic book adaptation,” that’s the immediate go-to style, because that was the only frame of reference they had for a long time. And Branagh dives into that aesthetic full-bore, to the point where we doubt if we’re even watching the movie on a level surface. Seriously, every second shot in this movie is at an angle, for no discernible reason at all.

    Thor refers to Agent Coulson as “Son of Coul,” which almost makes up for SHIELD’s forced presence in the movie. Almost.

    While the movie lacks the epic scope it needs, the score by Patrick Doyle is wonderfully sweeping, the first in the Marvel movies to actually have a memorable theme.

    This article is published on a Thursday, which was originally called "Thor's Day." Coincidence, or cosmic certainty? You decide!
THE MARVEL CONNECTION: Much like Iron Man 2 before it, Thor suffers greatly from an overdose of SHIELD. The super-secret agency is all over the crater in the desert, and there’s a scene that goes on far too long where Thor tries to get his hammer back and is taken into SHIELD custody. How does he get out, you ask? Dr. Selvig shows up and claims that he’s a coworker suffering a mental breakdown, so the SHIELD agents let him go. Another contender for “Laziest Plot Contrivance” in a script full of laziness.

    Clark Gregg returns as Agent Coulson, getting probably the most screen time he’s had yet. The character is a lot of fun, but is extremely undercut by the fact that he and his agency seem determined to ruin every movie they show up in.

    We also get our first look at Jeremy Renner as future Avenger Hawkeye, which manages to outdo Black Widow’s overall pointlessness in Iron Man 2. Seriously, he shows up, aims his bow at Thor while he fights a guard, and then disappears from the movie completely. I mean, they could’ve at least had him shoot Thor with a tranquilizer arrow or something.
    In the Asgardian weapons chamber, we get a quick look at an orb that greatly resembles the Eye of Agamotto, a talisman of Dr. Strange, another Marvel character currently in film development.

    Other than that, Dr. Selvig mentions hearing of a doctor “experimenting with gamma radiation” being hunted by SHIELD. He also mentions possibly calling a friend to help deal with the agency when they take all of his and Jane’s research, possibly hinting at some upcoming event in The Avengers - also teased in the post-credits tag, where Dr. Selvig meets with Nick Fury to discuss a strange, glowing cube, and we find out he’s under the influence of Loki. 

STAN THE MAN?: Stan continues to develop his acting career, getting what I believe is his first actual line of dialogue in his role of a redneck who loses his truck-bed while trying to pull Thor’s hammer free.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Although featuring a fantastic lead backed by an equally excellent supporting cast, Thor fails at the simplest, most fundamental level - the script. And somebody get Branagh a measuring level, stat.

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