Monday, May 9, 2011


In case you hadn't heard, Marvel decided to make a movie about one of its properties by hiring a big-name director to lead a cast that includes a pretty much unknown actor as the title character, a popular actor everyone knows as the title character's father, and a gorgeous brunette that everyone recognizes as the romantic interest. And Stan Lee shows up somewhere along the way too. Audiences flock to see the movie in its first week, helping it to gross over $60 million in its first weekend, but then word of mouth gets out—all the exciting action scenes promised by the trailers and commercials are about the only action scenes in the movie. Instead, the big-name director has taken the comic property to its roots, telling the story of the hero's dysfunctional relationship with his family. And no one wants to go see an action flick that delves into how the characters feel about each other. As a result, word-of-mouth kills the movie and audiences peter out pretty quickly after that first weekend.

Of course, I'm talking about 2003's Hulk, directed by Ang Lee.

And yet Marvel seems to have started the same pattern with Thor, another movie that is long on feelings but doesn't contain the epic action sequences one would expect from a movie about when gods disagree with one another.

I went to the theater expecting something different; between the trailers and my knowledge of the worlds-spanning history of Thor and the rest of the Norse gods as told by Marvel, I expected Thor and the Warriors Three (and Sif) versus all sorts of Kirby-esque monsters. What I got instead was a real story, about how the jealousy of one brother for another leads to strife among many worlds. And that's okay, because honestly, I imagine that if you took a poll of people entering the movie to see if they could identify who Thor's brother is, less than a third would know his name, let alone their story, whether in the Norse myths or in Marvel comics. And so what action sequences there are actually have a reason to exist, rather than just action for action's sake.

Along the way, we get to see the development of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) from a reactionary thoughtless child into a young man (god?) recognizing that he still has a lot to learn about the world before he can assume his father's throne. And we get to see the evil that lies just beneath the surface of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), so that when it eventually is made explicit, it is not a big surprise. Hemsworth and Hiddleston seem to thoroughly enjoy their roles in the movie, so their characters are vibrant and engaging. In fact, it might be argued that Hiddleston's Loki is played too smoothly, so that when he openly revolts against his father and Thor, it may be something of a surprise to a viewer not paying close attention.

Anthony Hopkins's Odin is not quite the Marvel version of the character, a judgmental father who sometimes seems to be looking for the slightest excuse to punish Thor by taking away his powers or giving them to someone else. But it turns out that Odin's plan in this instance is based on fatherly wisdom, more or less grounding Thor until he learns his lesson about compassion and leadership, then letting him get his powers back just in time to get some giant robot butt. Hopkins's Odin is inscrutable and well-played.

The humans that Thor meets as he strives to redeem himself are little more than ciphers. Natalie Portman's Jane Foster is a fairly stereotypical love interest, smart but soft, willing to take on anyone and anything for what she believes his right but then slightly agog at who her boyfriend really is. Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings play the doubtful scientist who must be convinced and the loony sidekick well. The focus is so intense on the Asgardians that the humans are given very short shrift. An unfortunate result of this is that the romance between Thor and Jane Foster makes very little sense. Thor and Jane have very little screen time together where she is not just doubting everything he says, so that when they do fall for each other, it pretty much comes out of nowhere as far as the story is concerned (but is perfectly timed so far as movie stereotypes go). In fact, Mrs. Speculator looked at me and asked "Who knew a single cook-out on the roof of a building could lead to immortal love?" And honestly, that's pretty much how it happens.

Another qualm I had with the movie is how far it goes to make sure the audience understands that the Asgardians are not really the Norse gods but aliens that early Norsemen assumed were gods…and the Asgardians never really told them otherwise. Such meanderings don't really serve the movie at all but instead make sure that the movie is in the right political/religious space so that it will not be the subject of protests about paganism or some such.

I also wonder if less knowledgeable viewers understood how Heimdall (Idris Elba) is. It's clear that he is the guardian of the bridge to Asgard, and Elba plays him wonderfully. But it is only ever implied that he can see and hear everything that happens in the universe so long as he focuses his attention on it, and viewers may be confused when he looks out into the starry night to tell Thor that Jane is doing okay without him. But this could also be a facet of my own bias that I brought to the movie: I wanted something that hewed more closely to the Marvel stories or the Norse myths rather than something that had to explain itself to people unfamiliar with either. Along those lines, I really wanted Asgard to be a riot of Kirby's wacked out architecture instead of the stately golden city we get. I admit to memories of the fold-out maps of Asgard flittering behind my eyes as we swept over and around Asgard.

Ultimately, Thor is a fine summer movie, filled with enough big action sequences to perhaps justify the cost of seeing the movie. It certainly is not nearly so big as its trailers and commercials represented it, which makes me think again about that first Hulk and why reaction to Thor seems to be so much better than what that movie received. I suspect it's because everyone thought they knew Hulk from the TV series and wanted more of that, while Thor has the leisure to establish its own identity. It's a popcorn movie and not liable to stand up to a lot of inspection—but then what superhero property ever can?

Finally, I'd advise seeing the 2-D version. Given that the movie was originally filmed in 2-D and the 3-D effects were added later, spending extra money for what are essentially add-ons seems a waste. It was nice to see Kirby's speed lines and blurred hammer effects carried over from the comic medium, but I seriously doubt that making them 3-D would have made them any better.

Edit: A few days later I realize the biggest difference between Thor and Hulk. Hulk tries to treat its subject mater seriously, trying to imagine a real-world scenario where the Hulk might exist and uses the dysfunction in the family as a method of grounding the story in "reality." Thor, on the other hand, just doesn't take it self very seriously, putting the characters in humorous situations both physically and emotionally, So, if an audience is looking for fun, as most are when they got to a movie based on a superhero comic, they will more likely find it in the humor of Thor than in the serious contemplation that drives Hulk.

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