It’s very obvious that Marvel Studios movies have developed a style and look that’s quite consistent, from the type of villain to the type of love interest to the Stan Lee cameo. On the spectrum of Marvel movies, THOR falls a little bit south of the first IRON MAN in terms of sheer enjoyability, but north of just about everything else.
The good parts of the formula as developed by Avi Arad and perfected by Kevin Feige are just common sense: a reliable, solid director; respected, award-nominated actors in the villain, father figure, troublesome government figure and love interest roles; and a charismatic hero who looks good in a wife-beater. In the typical Marvel movie, science is both the hero’s friend and enemy — he (and it is always a he) uses science to better his own powers, but the forces of evil are always trying to duplicate and better that research, with the resulting showdown between the forces of order and the forces of chaos at about the 1:45 mark.
From here on out there are going to be SPOILERS, so put on your SPOILER PANTS and proceed at your own risk!
There are a lot of good things about THOR. Like:
• Chris Hemsworth as Thor! He’s not only easy on the eyes, but has a nice physicality that makes all the hammer and frost giant tossing credible. And he pulls off the quiet scenes, holding his own with Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman.
• Director Kenneth Branagh — this is no groundbreaking film, but Branagh understands grandeur and drama and the fantastic. He takes a weak script and gives it some shape and drive, avoiding pointless shaky-cam and letting scenes breath. It’s a brisk film with no dull patches. Really a great choice.
• Likewise, Branagh gives the rather large and colorful cast some room to make an impression. Asgard is a crowded place, but the much criticized ethnic casting helps make the characters stand out from what could have been a Nordic ghetto (Am I the only person who has often thought Stellan Skarsgård WAS Ray Stevenson?) Anthony Hopkins kind of phones in his part as Odin, but getting any deeper on the acting chart wouldn’t have added anything. Tom Hiddleston manages a nuanced performance as Loki. Portman’s role is pretty cypherish but she does what she can with it. I was happy to see for ONCE a woman scientist in a movie had a FEMALE sidekick, Kat Dennings‘ Darcy, who gets all the best lines in the first half hour or so.
• All the hammer shit is AWESOME! Every time Thor smashes Mjolnir into the ground or skins it around or blasts something it’s great! As mentioned above, the action scenes avoid phony camera tricks — in fact, the beginning is a bit underplayed so that the two big showdowns in the end have a lot more impact.
• This is just a likable movie. When I saw the earliest trailers, I called it “Starman meets Lord of the Rings” and that’s exactly what it is. We start out getting a look at Asgard and the war between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore). But Thor disobeys his dad and gets banished to Earth without his hammer, where he meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Portman) and must learn some humility before regaining his mojo and hammer and defeating SHIELD. It’s a pretty simple story: boy meets hammer, boy loses hammer, boy gets hammer.
• Once you get past the whole “They’re not gods, they’re ALIENS!” thing, you forget about it.
• There are tons of nods towards next year’s Avengers movie, with callouts to all the other heroes and a cameo by one in particular. Lots of fun.
• The Destroyer is awesome.
• The cameo at the banquet at the end may be the best Marvel movie cameo EVER.
And now the dubious:
• THAT SCRIPT. The performances and brisk direction really hide the fact of how weak it is. First off Loki. Loki is the mischief maker of the gods, a trickster and a shifty character, right? Then why does Hiddleston spend the whole movie looking sad and acting mopey? If Sif hadn’t mentioned that Loki “loves mischief”, you would never have known it. I get that they were going for a more Shakespearian downfall of a noble man who betrays his loved ones out of feeling betrayed himself, but a huge part of the character’s potential was left out.
• Even more troubling, an entire reel that has the whole story arc for Thor seems to have been saved for the DVD! When Odin exiles his son, he also tosses Mjolnir to Earth, intoning that only someone with the true spirit of Thor will be worthy to wield it. And sure enough, when Thor starts out, he’s a likable asshole, smashing up the Frost Giants out of hubris and ego. The early scenes of Thor on earth are a delight, as his smiting and feasting ways make for a classic fish out of water story. And thus the first time he tries to lift Mjolnir, he fails — he’s still an asshole. And then, suddenly he turns into the nicest guy on earth. As someone else at the screening I went to pointed out, Thor probably repents of his ego and becomes worthy ’round about the time he turns into a hot Nordic waiter, serving up plates of hot tasty breakfast, and saying please and thank you, about an hour into the movie. I guess there wasn’t time for a well-developed character arc AND a lot of fights and in-jokes. My big complaint with IRON MAN 2 was that it was all screwball comedy and not enough physical showdown — here, my wish is the opposite.
• 3D. AWFUL. When are studios going to realize that 3D just makes movies murky and unwatchable? It’s obvious that a movie wasn’t shot for 3D when the credits are the only thing that looks any good.
• Marvel Studios is notoriously cheap/budget conscious and that’s beginning to make all their movies look the same. I thought the Destroyer was the coolest looking thing in the movie, and that’s the only thing that was lifted straight from Jack Kirby. Everything else — costumes, Asgard, SHIELD — looked like something we’ve seen a zillion times before–like, in THE FANTASTIC FOUR. And that’s NOT a compliment. The early scenes of Thor and his companions riding mighty steeds over the rainbow bridge of Bifrost was cool and all — but it really did look like it was set in Azeroth. Marvel has access to the greatest production artists and designers on Earth — it would be great if they actually started to use them. I liked the movie, Asgard and Bifrost more than Dan Nadel did, but I agree overall with his note that the designs in this movie were dull. I dunno, maybe Marvel is trying to make its whole movie universe look like one world. They might be succeeding a bit too well.
• Likewise, get a new composer! The THOR score was totally forgettable.
• I realize despite my moaning about the above, Marvel is not going to change anything because their movies make shitloads of money — THOR is going to do very well and sell tons of plastic hammers, and set up the Avengers, so mission accomplished. Surely not for the last time, I weep an inward tear for the never-to-be Darren Aronofsky Wolverine. THAT could have been the greatest superhero movie of all times. But it also never could happen…and thus Aronofsky departed the project to “spend more time with his family.” Sigh.
Even with my complaints, THOR lands squarely on the list of watchable superhero movies. It kicks off this summer’s comic book movie crop with a standard that other films will be lucky to match.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.