The summer movie season kicked off for me this weekend. What that means for me is getting together with my brothers for whatever big tentpole movie is in theaters at the time. This weekend it was Thor (2011, directed by Kenneth Branagh). I'm sure we'll get together again for Captain America later this summer, and probably a bunch of other fanboy-targeted movies as well. Having "event" movies like this as a gathering point makes the experience of watching these kinds of movies more pleasurable than they might be otherwise. I've become very disillusioned with franchise movies lately, because I can't say that watching the multiplexes turn into an upscale version of a comic book shop makes me happy. "Regular" movies have been squeezed to the margins by these kinds of movies, just as every genre but superheroes have been pushed off the shelves in most comics shops. None of this is Thor's fault, really, and, as I say, it's an excuse to visit with my family. I come from a family of comics geeks, so if I can dissociate the comics geek in me from the movie geek, I can enjoy these outings, but it's hard for me to feel the kind of movie-drunk glee I used to feel during past summers.
As I say, none of this can be laid at Thor's feet. On its own terms, it's not bad at all, but I had this weird epiphantic moment about halfway through the movie: I would watch a movie that consisted of nothing but Jane Foster and her friends working. I found myself digging the "girlfriend" character a LOT more than I did the ostensible hero of the piece. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
The story here finds astrophysicist Jane Foster and her mentor Erik Selvig out in the New Mexico desert charting strange phenomena that seem to be portals and wormholes to other dimensions. Also along for the ride is Jane's assistant, Darcy Lewis. During one particular discharge from the sky, Jane and her friends accidentally run over a man who appears from nowhere. He's a tall, blond man who raves at the sky and claims to be Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Cue the exposition. A thousand years ago, Odin, the king of the Norse gods, fought and won a great war against the frost giants of Jötunheim, in which he captured the great weapon of the frost giants, the Casket of Ever Winter. On the day when Odin is to name his heir, a small group of frost giants infiltrate Odin's vault to steal it back. They're undone by The Destroyer, a weapon set to guard the vault, but Thor, Odin's son, wants to exact retribution for what he perceives to be an act of war. Against the orders of his father, he takes his brother, Loki, his friends, the Warriors Three, and the warrior goddess, Sif, into Jötunheim to attack the frost giants. For his arrogance, and for rekindling the war, Thor is banished to Midgard (Earth), though Odin also sends Thor's hammer, enchanted so that none but the worthy can even lift it. The narrative splits here. In one stream, Thor attempts to reclaim his hammer, only to find that he isn't worthy to lift it. Meanwhile, Thor's scheming brother, Loki, seizes power in Asgard and spins plots within plots to keep Thor from returning. Eventually, Loki sends The Destroyer to ensure Thor's demise, but Thor finds his worthiness as he saves his friends and his hammer returns to him...
For being a movie conceived by its director as some kind of pulp fiction conflation of King Lear and Henry IV, Thor has a surprising sense of humor running through it. It gets a lot of mileage from the absurdity of a man appearing from nowhere and claiming to be a fallen god. Indeed, it has a great deal of fun sending up its own comic book roots. The beneficiaries of this good humor are principally characters who would traditionally be second bananas in other movies. This is as much Natalie Portman's movie as it is Chris Hemsworth's as Jane Foster and Thor, respectively. I don't think the movie would actually work without Portman's Jane. This is refreshing enough. That this movie actually manages to ace the Bechdel Test is an added bonus. I mean, this is a boy's adventure made specifically for fanboys, but it's not one that tramples its female characters or leaves a female audience adrift. It's a surprisingly female-friendly film, actually, and not just because Chris Hemsworth without a shirt is one of the glories of contemporary cinema (oh, yes he is!). Kat Dennings steals most of the scenes she's in as the overt comic relief, while both Jaimie Alexander and Renee Russo both look properly majestic as Norse goddesses. Alexander's Sif gets in on the action with the same gusto as the boys, actually.
Thor doesn't indulge in franchise building as overtly as Iron Man II or The Incredible Hulk, but it doesn't shirk it, either. Clark Gregg reprises his role as SHIELD Agent Coulson, providing a measure of connectivity between this movie and the other Marvel movies in the run-up to next year's version of The Avengers, but he doesn't seem like a storyline unto himself in this movie. His presence actually makes sense in the context of the movie. There are plenty of Easter eggs for fans of the comics--some of them are pretty funny, actually--particularly the way the movie handles the character's long history of retconning--but they don't necessarily announce themselves if you've never read the comics. This is probably the best way to approach this sort of things.
As an example of film design and production...well, it's faint praise anymore to compliment tentpole movies on their production values anymore, because the state of the art is so high these days. That said, Bo Welch is one of the few production designers in movies that seems like an auteur unto himself (we'll ignore his brief foray into directing for the sake of everyone's sanity). He puts a personal stamp on things; I didn't even need to see the credits to know he was responsible for the "look" of the movie. This is surprising, too, because the movie totally "gets" the design aesthetic of Jack Kirby's original comics. The half-assed cosmic grandeur that Kirby made seem natural and true is recognizably present in this movie, which is something I TOTALLY wasn't expecting. The fact that Kirby's family likely won't see a dime from this movie makes me die a little inside even as another part of me revels in seeing his work writ faithfully and large on the big screen. Most of the things I don't like about the movie can be laid at the feet of Kenneth Branagh. I don't like the pointless shaky-cam way in which the battle sequences are shot. I don't think the geography of the action sequences is always clear. For a movie intended to be shown in 3-D, this might actually be a kind of information overload (for the record, I saw it in 2-D and I could barely follow the action). For that matter, the production design is so completely huge that human figures are often lost in the landscapes. I don't think Branagh has learned anything about directing action sequences since Henry V all those years ago. Indeed, the expansive ego of Branagh's Frankenstein makes a reappearance here. It hurts the movie.
Still, I there's a lot to like about Thor. The casting is impeccable. Chris Hemsworth has the swagger of a viking and the physique of a god. Natalie Portman choses to play her scientist character as a visionary rather than as a clinical skeptic, which totally matches my experiences of the scientists I know. They're wide-eyed with wonder, most of them, and Portman plugs into that. I think its her most approachable role and performance, actually. Tom Hiddleston's Loki is obviously modeled on Lear's Edmund, but that doesn't stop the actor from getting the character's smooth savoir fair and the hunger in his face more or less right. Marvel's supervillains have always been complex, and so it is here.
When you strip Thor to its bare bones, you have an examination of the power dynamics of fantasy. If great fantasies are about how the powerful lose their power or how the powerless find power within themselves, then Thor knows exactly what it's doing in charting its hero's fall and redemption. I also like the way the movie detours into a kind of delirious romanticism at the end, when Thor is presented with the choice of losing the woman he loves if he lets Loki commit genocide. I like the romance. The comic book action? Well, I could put up with it between the scenes that really matter to the movie. There's a bittersweet longing in the last shot of Thor himself in this movie, which is a totally unexpected grace note for a movie that could have been a rote comic book movie.