Thor
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring:
Chris Hemsworth (Thor)
Natalie Portman (Jane Foster)
Tom Hiddleston (Loki)
Anthony Hopkins (Odin)
Kat Dennings (Darcy)
Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig)
Jaimie Alexander (Sif)
Rene Russo (Frigga)

Thor has always been the odd-man-out in the Marvel Universe. He was, quite obviously, inspired by Norse mythology, but most of his fellow superheroes originated in shitty sci-fi stories. Iron Man is a guy in a robotic suit, Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider, the Fantastic Four were exposed to cosmic radiation, the X-Men are the next step in human evolution, etc. These sci-fi characters are more fantasy than science, but they’re rooted in a set of genre conventions that American nerds, long accustomed to questionable science in their fiction, accept without notice. But Norse mythology is this weird, funky thing over in the corner. It’s magical, and pagan, and rooted in a dead religion. And to make matters worse, the Norse gods don’t have the name recognition of their Greco-Roman counterparts. In a movie season already saturated with nerd bait, how would Marvel sell such an unusual character?

Marvel Studios and director Kenneth Branagh (a.k.a. that Shakespeare guy) never answer the above question, possibly because they never decided what kind of film they wanted to make. It’s one part high fantasy, one part parody of high fantasy, one part standard superhero film, and one part infomercial for upcoming superhero films. Mix it all together and you get a concoction that isn’t terrible, but it’s never as good as it could be.

First, the good. Thor has an actual sense of humor about itself. This title character does not brood atop rooftops while contemplating the delicate balance between civil liberties and costumed law enforcement. Thor prefers to hit things with his hammer, exclaims how awesome he is, and flirt with Natalie Portman (which seems a pretty sensible way to go through life if you’re a Norse god). And the film freely acknowledges the absurdity of space gods. The special effects look expensive but fake, and the armor and weapons look like toys. But that’s not a flaw, it’s a feature. After all, what the hell are Norse, techno-magical weapons supposed to look like? This is superhero-space god fantasy, not archaeology. Thor is shiny, plastic adventuring in the tradition of Flash Gordon. If only Branagh could have gotten Queen to do the soundtrack …

And the film isn’t exclusive about boys and their toys. There is plenty of action and several gorgeous women to gaze at, but the the filmmakers also threw in some light comedy and a genuinely sweet romance. And there is a gratuitous shirtless Thor scene that elicited several coos and whistles from the female half of the audience I was in.

Now, the bad. While Thor is goofy, it’s never as goofy as it could and should be. Why is Anthony Hopkins required to play such a somber Odin? There are a handful of glorious moments when Hopkins gets to chew the scenery, but the script demands that Odin be the voice of reason. Too bad, because a reasonable patriarch is a boring turd. Plus, while Asgard is garish and weird, it’s never used in an imaginative way. There are no surreal moments or logic-defying architecture. Despite being a fantasy setting, Asgard seems rooted in a tedious realism. But that’s because Thor is still a mainstream action movie, and it has to adhere to the expectations of a mainstream audience. That means action, hero learns a valuable lesson, hero gets the girl, some more action, the end.

The film is also chock full of references to previous and future Marvel films. SHIELD Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) from Iron Man has a prominent supporting role. And there are brief cameos by Hawkeye and Nick Fury, plus set-up for the upcoming Avengers film. In themselves, these glorified shout-outs do not ruin Thor … until the moment when they become the point of the film. That moment comes during the film’s climax, when the main conflict ends on an anti-climactic note because certain plots must be left unresolved until the next Marvel installment.

So that’s Thor. An entertaining, silly, uneven mess. For all its flaws, I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.

 

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