Monday, May 9, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

Almost exactly a year ago today I was reviewing Iron Man 2, Marvel's follow-up to the ridiculously successful Iron Man of 2008 and the second (or third, I guess, if you count The Incredible Hulk) step in their planned Avengers megafranchise. Iron Man seemingly came out of nowhere; it starred a washed-up middle aged actor and was directed by a filmmaker known more for being Vince Vaughn's fat friend than anything else by the general public. Also, it was based on a superhero that the general public could not be counted on to recognize.

Flash forward to the present. Robert Downey Jr. is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and everybody is excited for a movie about the Norse god of thunder that promises to be tangentially related to Iron Man.

I truly never thought I'd see the day when a Thor movie is number one at the box office anywhere outside of tenth-century Scandinavia; Thor is just too weird a superhero. What's are Thor's superpowers? His powers are that he is Thor. He is literally a Viking deity. He flies by throwing his mighty hammer and just holding on as it propels him wherever he wants to go. This is a real thing and now it's a summer blockbuster. How far we've come...

Thor's story is less one of superheroics than a good old fashioned Norse myth transplanted into the modern day. Played by Australian unknown Chris Hemsworth (Kirk's dad from the first five minutes of Star Trek, that's literally all you'll know him from), Thor is the brash and arrogant (and rightly so, he's awesome) son of the king of the gods, Odin (Anthony Hopkins in the role he was born to play). After unwittingly starting a war with the frost giants of Jotanheim (this movie is awesome, it has frost giants!), Thor is banished to Midgard where he gets tangled up with a comely astrophysicist (Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman) as he quests to learn humility and honor and return to Asgard. All the while, his  brother Loki, god of mischief (Scottish unknown Tom Hiddleston) schemes for their father's throne.

When Iron Man was being initially announced and planned a couple of years ago, I was genuinely skeptical that it could be pulled off. Now the fear that an Iron Man movie would never work seems downright quaint now that Thor has been released, gotten very good reviews, and has opened the box office at number one. Iron Man seemed to work well because the studio took a gamble on giving director Jon Favreau a good deal of control and by casting Robert Downey Jr., an actor who at the time wasn't exactly a summer action movie opener but who was perfect for the role. Thor seems to have succeeded for the same reasons.

The film is directed by Kenneth Branagh, a filmmaker best known as a classically trained actor in the Laurence Olivier mold and a director of Shakespeare adaptations, including both an uncut, four hour version of Hamlet, and a movie of Much Ado About Nothing that starred Keanu Reeves. This did not seem at first like the alchemy for a summer blockbuster (well, maybe the part about woefully miscasting Keanu Reeves) but as with Iron Man, the risks paid off and Thor is a success.

If Marvel had hired an action film director to handle Iron Man, they might have ended up with Transformers. Instead, they hired a director of comedies and Iron Man turned out to be a hit. Honestly try and remember the action scenes from Iron Man. You can't really recall anything specific, can you? Sure, Iron Man flying around, shooting terrorists, maybe fighting Iron Monger for a bit. But what really sticks with the audience was Robert Downey Jr.'s comic performance as Tony Stark, the dialogue, the characters: that's what made Iron Man a hit.

Similiarly, the action in Thor is so-so. Sure, the fights are okay, the special effects are impressive, but what really works is the high drama of the Asgardian scenes and the humor of the scenes on Earth. Branagh directs Hemsworth, Hopkins, and Hiddleston like he's doing his version of King Lear: it's all about the passing of the throne to the next generation, the ungrateful, unworthy heir, and the conniving bastard intriguing for the power and recognition he's been denied.

And then there's the scenes of Thor, stripped of his divine powers, adapting to life among mortals. Sure, it's basically Hercules In New York, but is it ever hilarious. Hemsworth struts around as if a Kanye West song is playing at full volume all around him and only he can hear it, and it works so well.

The film also succeeds where Iron Man 2 floundered by avoiding most of the pitfalls of shoehorning in Avengers/S.H.I.E.L.D. subplots at the cost of sacrificing relevant screentime for the hero's story. Clark Gregg returns as Agent Coulson, and instead on only acting in the interest of building buzz for an Avengers movie to come, actually plays a part as temporary antagonist and ally to Thor. He's part of the story, not just a reminder that Marvel's The Avengers opens in cinemas worldwide summer 2012 (*cough*JeremyRenner!*cough*).

Also, Natalie Portman is beautiful and her hair smells like cinnamon.

Hiring Branagh and Hemsworth was sure a big risk for the studio and I will say that the suits actually deserve some praise for gambling on something that makes a good movie as oppose to a commercially viable one. It seems that Thor may prove to be both.

Final verdict: 65 Congos