How do you sell a movie about Gods?
That was the tricky question Marvel had to answer when kicking off the summer season with Thor – a movie where the trailers have not managed to get me excited to watch this movie and seeing that posters looked a bit too campy as well my expectations for Thor were pretty low.
Maybe because of that I must say that Thor is a thoroughly entertaining summer blockbuster. It starts of with the typical “random thing happening” at the beginning before we jump into a long flashback to see where this man who has appeared out of nowhere infront of Natalie Portman has come from.
Shooting across the dimensions
What follows is an introduction of Asgard, the realm of the beings that we perceive as Gods. Odin tells the story of the great war between the people of Asgard and the Frost Giants from another realm. The story wisely avoids to paint the picture of the Asgardians as gods – they really are more like beings from a different dimension with superpowers instead of all-knowing indestructible deities. Especially at the beginning when Thor kicks off a quest with his brother Loki and his four interchangeable extra-friends the characters feel more like something from Lord of the Rings, sure they are overpowered, but that is kind of necessary if you are traveling across dimensions to kick some Frost-ass.
The beginning of Thor is it’s strongest part and it is kind of strange in a movie about Norse gods swinging their hammer and traveling through space time by the means of a black guardian in golden armor sticking a sword into a chamber that all those things work perfectly and the problems the movie has start when Thor gets to earth.
I remember reading a script review of Thor a long time ago where the reviewer mentioned that the entire movie was set in Asgard and only at the end there was a little action on earth. Seeing as how much better the Asgard sequences are I can’t shake this feeling that the entire subplot with Thor landing on earth was a big revision to have some “grounded in reality” footage plus some SHIELD cameos.
We’re here to talk about the Avengers Initiative
But don’t worry about SHIELD. Compared to Iron Man 2 Thor stands on his own two feet and the advertisement for the Avengers is not nearly as hamfisted as Iron Man 2’s 2 hour commercial. Shield is only there to secure the hammer of Thor (as seen in Iron Man 2’s ending) to give Thor more trouble. In a way this time SHIELD really works since normally you would just have random FBI suits guarding the hammer for state security, but with the fact that we already know SHIELD they seem a little less like the usual “we are the evil government and just block the road for the hero”-guys.
Of course there is the cameo of Jeremy Renner who will re-appear in The Avengers but again, this is not like Scarlett Johansson constantly reminding us of the Avengers. Renner is there for a few moments, playing the tough guy hired by SHIELD and even if you don’t know that there will be a film with him he works as said hired tough guy without distracting from the story (maybe aside from the fact the he chooses a bow over a sniper).
The obligatory romance
Thor has to learn to be humble because of his arrogant nature and the movie gives him about 2-3 days to change 800 years of being a self-loving douchebag. On top of that is the forced romance with Natalie Portman’s character Jane an astrophysicist who doesn’t do much except fall for Thor because of plot contrivances. It is during that segment that Thor starts losing steam and stops being risky. One must applaud the entire creative team for taking this movie seriously because frankly this could have gone wrong so easily and it is astounding how entertaining Thor turned out to be.
The problem is that during the earth parts the movie gets content with just going along the usual superhero routine. You have the romance angle, the self-doubting period and of course the generic “dramatic scene” plus slow-motion dramatic running. The tension is not really there because while the character of Thor is charming and funny (cudos to Chris Hemsworth for a really good performance) the threats never seem lethal.
Writing this review I was not sure if or when to use spoiler tags since most of the scenes are either already in the trailer or anyone can guess the general direction the film is going (and probably also the deusexmachina relieves all the tension of a scene within seconds).
But thankfully there is a little Asgard action to round the movie and it is actually not that shabby (albeit again very predictable).
A tale of two brothers
Basically this movie has two characters that are interesting: Thor and Loki. As I said before Hemsworth really delivers a great Thor performance and is bound to become for Thor what Christopher Reeve and Robert Downey Jr. became for Superman and Iron Man.
He is likeable, funny, has the gravitas required to become the god of thunder and the comedic scenes where he acts like a god when he is on earth are the thing that saves the earth part from becoming too boring.
Loki played by Tom Hiddleston is the movie’s hidden gem, offering a well acted role plus a interesting character. Hiddleston plays Loki the Trickster in a very sincere, serious way so the movie succeeds in having a villain that is not just a standard “I want to kill everyone”-bad guy like we had in both Iron Man movies or The Incredible Hulk.
The rest of the characters fall flatter than flat, Thor’s four sidekicks are distinguishable only by their costumes and gender and when the movie adds three more characters to accompany Thor on earth the audience is left with seven (7!) characters that are just there for the sake of being there.
The movie would have profited a lot if they scrapped the part about earth and just fleshed out the brother conflict, which is at the heart of the movie.
The great war against the Frost Giants
Speaking of conflicts I did not like the conflict that sets the movie in motion: an ancient battle between Frost Giants and the inhabitants of Asgard. The problem for me was that the conflict never felt in any way like an emotional conflict and more like a fantasy conflict for the sake of having epic battle scenes.
Fantasy conflicts only work well when they reflect our fears and internal conflicts. The battle is more a visualization of this fear. This can be the devastating result of technology and the pollution of our quiet home (The Lord of the Rings), it can be the defiance of a dictatorial force built on slavery and oppression (Star Wars). Even if the conflict is very one-dimensional at the beginning it can be used as a stepping stone to further reflect on the themes, my favorite example for this would be Hellboy II, which starts with a conflict very similar to the faceless “two armies battle” that we have at the beginning of Thor. However Hellboy II twists the story since it makes humanity the villain that destroys beauty (more or less turning our society into a modern day Mordor) and lets Hellboy reflects on the merits of human life despite its shortcomings.
With those examples I feel like a broken record to repeat that the Frost Giant conflict is just that – a conflict. Without genuine emotion. It is never clear why it can’t have a peaceful solution. They use the Frost Giants for an interesting story between Thor and Loki and especially Loki profits from the Giants, but the fact remains that the Giants themselves are very cardboard cutout and could be replaced with any other race from any other fantasy game.
That being said: the realm of the Giants is spectacular, the voices and make up is great, there is a super fantasy vibe when watching the scenes – it is just a pity that it just feels like a set to have Thor fight instead of a living breathing world.
Generally the art direction is very interesting, the exotic world of Asgard is very nice to look at, the costumes work way better when watching the film in context than watching individual character posters. Especially Heimdall, who just looked stupid on the posters in my eyes looks great in this world.
But like the conflict with Thor and Loki the movie would have immensely profited from scrapping the earth part, giving the Frost Giants more character and fleshing out the story for maximum emotional pay-off.
Thor and the Avengers
I have never been a fan of the Avengers and Thor again reminds me why: the movie while standing solidly on two feet cannot shake this feeling that they held back because they knew Thor would return. Having all storylines culminate into one movie might get fans very excited, but I think it cheapens the emotional impact of the individual movies since we know they have to survive because they will reappear.
Naturally one could make that case about every superhero movie since the hero never dies, but with Thor I could never shake this “next time on Thor” feeling.
Without spoiling any plot points: there is a big sacrifice at the end of the movie which would have been very heroic, but the fact that we know that the story will continue somehow makes this sacrifice have less impact than it should have.
I hope that when we finally get this Avengers movie that superhero movies can thrive again and experiment. Not having to adhere to other movies, following their own distinct story and interpretation, not being bound by having to have that and that character survive because he is needed in another movies.
People might hate on Burton for killing the Joker, but at least it was the end of this story. There was nothing held back. Burton made a creative choice to make the story he told come to an end and not rely on a sequel. The same way many fans begrudge Nolan for killing of Two Face at the end of The Dark Knight – they might not like it, but the death makes sense and concluded the story. The movie did not have a scene at the end with Two Face appearing promising us another part with him in a cheap cliffhanger.
That little rant aside – Thor deals with the Avengers set up, the story arc of the hero and the villain way better than The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, it is definitely worth its money but I doubt it will convert people who are already prejudiced against comic book movies.
But if you like those kind of movies and were not sure if Thor would be any good, just watch it and have a fun time!