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How did you get inside that cloud? Also, how could you eat an entire box of Pop-Tarts and still be hungry?

Movie

Thor
(2011)

 

Thor gets several things very right, suggesting Marvel were shrewd to offset their nervousness over a magical/supernatural, cod-Shakespearean departure from their semi-realist pictures so far by casting Sir Kenneth Branagh as director. Being a luvvie, he’s right at home with theatrical tones erupting from thespians hamming it up. Unfortunately, he’s also a movie director of negligible pedigree, one who thinks moving the camera a lot represents style, and that Dutch angles are evidence of auteurism. There’s not all that much hyperactivity in Thor, the less the pity – even the Dutch angles are more subdued than one’s accustomed to – as its biggest disappointment is that it fails to dig into its cosmic absurdity and really relish the material.

As it is, the movie’s pretty much what you’d expect of a budget-conscious representation of a fantastical realm, big on not-very-interactive soundstage CGI and performers in slightly daft costumes (some of them more so, for forgoing imitating the actual “ridiculous” costumes of the comics). I say budget-conscious, but at $150m Thor didn’t come cheap, which rather underlines the importance of picking a director with a more acute sensibility for such spectacle (the blame can’t all be laid at Ken’s door; judging by the scene fighting the Destroyer, the effects team had peanuts left in the kitty by that point).  Pretty much everyone previously in the running would have been more interesting (Sam Raimi’s version would surely have been kinetic fun, and then there were Matthew Vaughn, Guillermo del Toro and DJ Caruso).

Branagh’s hyperreal world is rather vanilla, matching most of his for-hire big-studio efforts (CinderellaMurder on the Orient Express). Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t do anything terribly wrong, and as noted, he does more than right by his actors. But overall, he doesn’t do anything much righter than Joe Johnston did on Captain America: The First Avenger. This is the Marvel tradition after all; get a workman in who’ll service the brand rather than imprint too much personality onto the finished product. Even when that trend has been bucked to some degree – James Gunn, Taika Waititi, Shane Black – it has been in a very economical fashion, as all three came cheap.

OdinYou are vain, greedy, cruel boy!
ThorAnd you are an old man and a fool!

If First Avenger entirely fails to serve up engaging characters, though, Thor largely succeeds. About the worst you can say is that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster is a non-starter; she occasionally gets to smile, but the movie mostly just swallows her up (she hasn’t had much luck with blockbusters). Also superfluous are Thor’s merry band of comrades (Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander and Tadanobu Asano) and Idris Elba’s gatekeeper.

But Kat Dennings reels off some memorable lines (“How did you get inside that cloud? Also, how could you eat an entire box of Pop-Tarts and still be hungry?”; “You know, for a crazy homeless person, he’s pretty cut”), even if she has more presence in the sequel. And Stellan Skarsgård enjoys a drinking session with the Norse god, as well as delivering forced references to Bruce Banner. Although, his best scene is directed by Joss Whedon (post-credits). Then there’s Ant, doing what needs to be done as Odin, which is to cash a cheque and lend cue-card gravitas.

One thing Thor more than proves is that the public will embrace a piggy-eyed superhero. We dodged a bullet when Daniel Craig passed on the part (unless he did it completely deadpan, à la the Stath, I doubt he’d have carried the humour any better than his Friends from the North co-star Chris Eccleston can). Chris Hemsworth brings just the right combination of brio, vanity, egoism and genuineness.

The problems he encounters are more in the nature of Thor’s truncated arc, required to go from banished (“Run back home, little princess”), petulant youth to worthy of his hammer in double-quick time (the Excalibur shenanigans are nicely done, however). The picture is very precisely divided in these terms, Thor losing the hammer at the thirty-minute mark, trying and failing to raise it at the hour point and then finally succeeding at ninety minutes, serving to emphasise the schematic, playing-it-safe structuring.

ThorYou think me strange?

Thor is built on such calculation, on how to integrate an unlikely and untested – to Marvel and Kevin Feige at that point, in hindsight underestimating an audience that had flocked to Tolkien less than a decade earlier – fantasy element into its “grounded” world of advance technology and mutants. The answer they came up with was two-fold, although they’ve since realised such trappings are rather superfluous and that people will just go with it.

One was to emphasise that Asgard still abides by the rules of science – talk of wormholes, how the Bifrost Bridge is an Einstein-Rosen one – and even have Thor come out and say it (of science and magic, “I come from a place where they’re one and the same”). The other was to go the Masters of the Universe route and hedge bets with a Crocodile Dundee/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Thor-out-of-Asgard plotline that comprises the movie’s sandwich filling. To be fair, that forms a crucial part of his Marvel heritage, but the light-heartedness of the approach is all culture-clash comedy.

ThorThis drink, I like it… ANOTHER!

And it works, for the most part. Thor smashes a coffee cup on the floor of a diner in celebration of a caffeine hit, and enters Pet Palace with the exhortation “I need a horse!” only to be told they don’t have any (of the pets on offer he requires “One large enough to ride”). He gets pissed with Eric, or gets Eric pissed, at any rate (“He’s fine. We drank, we fought – he made his ancestors proud”) and his antiquated speech is an effectively sustained source of mild amusement (“Know this, son of Coul”). If one were to criticise, the approach stresses how frivolous his learning arc is; both Tony Stark and Stephen Strange have to become better people to earn the superhero mantle, and while Thor’s fall and rise at least represents a different take, it comes too easy.

ThorThere’ll never be a wiser king than you, or a better father. I have much to learn. I know that now. Someday, perhaps, I shall make you proud.
OdinYou’ve already made me proud.

If Thor is transferred to the screen surprisingly well (not giving him the helmet really is a cop-out, though), his brother, “the great manipulator” is the movie’s unqualified triumph. I don’t think Hiddleston would have cut it as Thor (which he was up for); I haven’t seen him in anything where he isn’t smooth and refined, and as such, he’s perfect for the silver-tongued one. It’s amusing to see his manipulations of his blockhead brother, involving to witness his discovery of his true parentage, and more engaging than Thor’s plotline to learn that all he really wants is to earn the respect of a father he believes favours his natural-born son over him (and let’s face it, he does).

ThorWhy have you done this?
LokiTo prove to father that I am a worthy son! When he wakes, I will have saved his life, I will have destroyed that race of monsters, and I will be the true heir to the throne!
ThorYou can’t kill an entire race!
LokiWhy not? And what is this new-found love for the Frost Giants? You could have killed them all with your bare hands!
ThorI’ve changed.
LokiSo have I. Now fight me!

Thor has changed in rather forced fashion, but Loki really hasn’t, except in as much as he’s no longer disguising his impulses from his nearest. On a basic level, there’s something more appealing about a character using his brains to best his opponents, be that through words or illusion. And his letting go of his brother’s hand at the climax represents a more “heroic” gesture than many a climax, since it gives him the courage of his convictions.

Still, like Eric, his best scene is the Whedon-directed teaser for Avengers (“Well, I guess that’s worth a look”). It’s for good reason that he’s considered the most successful of the MCU’s villains, and more popular than a good number of their bona-fide superheroes.

Agent CoulsonI’m sorry, Ms Foster, but we’re the good guys.

Other aspects of the movie are less impressive. The Frost Giants never take on any kind of threat or menace, something that feels even more lacking in the wake of Game of Thrones’ aesthetically similar White Walkers (and Colm Feore is entirely underserved as King Laufey). SHIELD’s also present and unnecessarily intrusive, naturally. Their requisition of Jane’s equipment at least sets them out as an establishment presence one should be suspicious of, but the “eyes up high” sequence devoted to the epic fail that is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) means he is introduced as he means to go on – an irrelevance.

JaneI still don’t think you’re the God of Thunder. But you ought to be!

Thor closes out the Phase One solo superhero efforts, and the takeaway is faintly underwhelming. Iron Man is the only genuine knock-it-out-of-the-park win among them, making Joss Whedon’s achievement with Avengers all the more laudable (it’s easy to regard it as a fait accompli in retrospect). It’s questionable how sustainable the series would have been, had Avengers not inflated grosses for all subsequent outings (Ant-Man aside, arguably).

Thor did respectably, much more so than The First Avenger, but neither came close to Iron Man, and Thor has arguably only come into his own through capitalising on the first instalment’s humorous potential in Ragnarok (whether that took it too far is another conversation).

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