Somewhere along the line during the last decade, Marvel realized that they were one of the most powerful players in Hollywood. Spider-Man was earning the kind of money comic book movies hadn’t seen since Tim Burton’s Batman, Bryan Singer’s X-Men had actually given superheroes a bit of class and critical respect, plus it seemed the public’s interest in superhero movies was like a cockroach, unfazed even after countless disasters like Daredevil, Elektra, X-Men: The Last Stand, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Punisher and Ghost Rider. (Spider-Man 3 was good, shut up.) Maybe it’s because Marvel got a boost from the titanic success of DC’s The Dark Knight, hinting that perhaps superhero movies weren’t played out yet, they just needed, y’know, quality in order to keep people’s interest.
Whatever the reason for Marvel’s Tinseltown clout, it had it, and it made it a desirable commodity. Disney purchased it and folded it into its diabolically diverse portfolio of entertainment companies, like Pixar, ESPN and ABC. Was it this new source of cash that gave Marvel the cojones to finally form its own production company? I don’t know, I’m no Hollywood insider! But that’s exactly what they did, charting a course beginning with 2008’s Iron Man to create an actual cohesive movie universe, with recurring characters and an ongoing storyline and everything. Finally, comic book movies would be as interconnected and impenetrable as actual comic books!
And so Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and, er, Iron Man 2 started to build up to… something! And that something is coming in 2012: The Avengers, Marvel’s version of the Justice League. But before that could happen, even more major players would have to be introduced, namely Thor and Captain America, staples of the superhero team. So now Marvel has the gall to ask America to pay $16 a piece (you want to watch them in IMAX 3D, right?!) for what are essentially prologues to the main event. Does Thor have any meat on its bones or is it a skinny shrimp?
Thor posits that the Norse mythology is actually about a race of immortal beings possessing science so advanced that it appears to be magic to us humans. These beings, Asgardians, live far away in space and travel between worlds via a “rainbow bridge” that is actually a wormhole connecting far-off points of space. A long, long time ago, another race of aliens, Frost Giants, were mucking around Earth causing havok, so the Asgardians went to war with them, resulting in the utter defeat of the Frost Giants’ leader at the hands of Odin, Asgardian king.
Flash forward and Odin has two sons who could possibly take over his throne: Thor and Loki. Thor is fearless and a skilled warrior, but he’s a total blowhard meathead. Loki is quick-witted and silver-tongued, but let’s just say he won’t be winning any arm-wrestling competitions. We catch up with Odin as he’s about to crown Thor ruler of the Asgardians, but the proceedings are interrupted by some Frost Giants sneaking into Asgard’s vault in order to steal back a precious magical frost weapon that Odin took from them in the war. They’re handily defeated, but Thor takes this as an act of war and won’t take no for an answer when it comes to wanting to kick in some Frost Giant teeth. Odin’s response is more measured and considers the matter settled, except that Thor still thinks a genocide is in order and sneaks away with Loki and some friends in order to cause some ruckus for the Frost Giants.
Naturally they get their asses handed to them after an incredibly awesome battle scene and Odin has to come save the day. He’s mortified at Thor’s childish behavior and on top of revoking Thor’s status as successor to the throne, he decides his son needs a lesson in humility and banishes him to Earth as a mortal, stripping him of his hammer, enchanting it so that only one who is worthy of wielding it can harness its power.
Enter Natalie Portman, a woman so homely it’s understandable why she had to become an astrophysicist. She’s charting celestial anomalies in the middle of nowhere when the rainbow
road bridge spits out Thor right in front of her Jeep, whom she promptly hits with said Jeep. What follows is a story about humility and Thor’s amazing body.
No, seriously. Chris Hemsworth’s physical transformation for the role of Thor gobsmacked the audience of the theater I was in. There’s a certain scene in the movie where Thor struts around shirtless and holy shit, you could’ve heard a pin drop. It makes Daniel Craig in Casino Royale look like Gary Oldman in Hannibal. (Look it up.) And the hormonal reaction isn’t limited to the audience, either. Natalie Portman acts like a horny teenager for most of the movie. All Thor has to do is flash his super-white smile (Asgardian toothpaste must be amazing) and it’s clean-up on aisle 3. The relationship that builds between Natalie Portman and Thor during the movie seems based less on genuine intimacy than on two pretty people wanting to jump each others’ bones.
Which takes us to Thor‘s overarching problem: there’s just about zero character development. The movie attempts to have character arcs, but can’t seem to figure out how to get characters smoothly from A to B. Instead, all of a sudden Natalie Portman (whose character is so paper-thin I don’t even remember her name) loves Thor so much that she’s willing to risk her life for him. Out of the blue, Thor develops some mercy and compassion. How? Fuck if I know. When he says the Frost Giants shouldn’t be wiped out, he gets asked “Why?” and I had the same goddamn question. Why not, Thor? If he could actually answer that question in a way that reflected the events he’d been through while on Earth, I’d be impressed.
Although Thor seems to be lacking in the character department, that’s not to say the movie’s a failure. Although Thor’s character arc is unconvincing, Thor as a character is a hoot, slugging back coffee and slamming mugs into the floor, demanding more. Loki is also a much more interesting villain than I thought he would be when I began watching, as well. I thought I’d be watching yet another Jafar-esque scheming political villain but instead got a self-loathing man who had a very complicated relationship to his father. Of course his actions boil down to typical comic book villain mustache-twirling in the end, but the motivations were a lot more interesting than I was suspecting. And surprisingly, Anthony Hopkins DOESN’T choose to
odinsleepwalk through his role as Odin. He brings suitable gravitas and nobility to the role in a way that I don’t think very many actors left today can project. But man, what the hell is Rene Russo doing alive in this movie?
Oh, and the special effects? Pretty good! We’ve come a ways from Neo turning into a Nintendo 64 character during segments of The Matrix sequels; Thor‘s superheroics actually look impressive and authentic on the big screen. Asgard itself is an art design triumph, looking like a cross between Rivendell from Lord of the Rings and the futuristic Esthar from Final Fantasy VIII. And there’s just a sense of fun that was sorely lacking from, well, all of Marvel’s unsuccessful superhero movies. Yeah, Thor is about serious subjects like genocide and father-son relationships, but it’s also about goofy Asgardian warrior-buddies and a beefy guy squeezed into nothing more than a pair of jeans. The director, Shakespearean thespian Kenneth Branagh, was able to attach appropriate respectability to the Asgardian proceedings while balancing the ‘splodey/cheesy elements that summer movie-going audiences crave. Hopefully Thor‘s box office success helps Marvel realize that they need to put fun into their comic book movies. I just hope they remember to give their characters some, er, character next time, too.