I said yesterday that I was starting to get tired of comic book adaptations. Thor does nothing to relieve my cynicism with the genre, but it at least didn’t make me feel as if I’d wasted my time. This is probably the best movie that could have been made about Thor. The problem is Thor is still pretty weak material. There’s a reason why so few people read his comic series. Thor is respected more as one of Stan Lee’s original characters and as a founding member of the Avengers than as a superhero in his own right. And there’s a reason for that. He’s pretty literally a god, and that inherently makes him a much less interesting character than the more human Spider-Man, Iron Man, or Batman.
Anyway, director Kenneth Branagh clearly sees something Shakespearean in this tale of gods and giants fighting in faraway lands. The history of this world stretches back over a thousand years to when Odin, father of Thor and Loki, drove away the frost giants from Earth and left behind tales for the Norwegians to pass down through the generations. In the present day, Thor is about to ascend to the throne when he is provoked into an ill-advised raid against the frost giants which shatters their fragile truce. To teach him some humility, Odin banishes Thor to New Mexico and casts the hammer Mjolnir down with him, not to be taken up again until Thor has learned his lesson. At this point, Loki launches a plot to take over the throne, motivated by sibling rivalry and a craving for approval from his father. Meanwhile, Thor learns about the lives of mortals with his human love interest, an astrophysicist named Jane Foster.
The court intrigue in Asgard is the more interesting storyline in Thor, so it’s a good thing that the movie spends most of its time there. Asgard is an entirely CGI world, but it looks so grand and fantastic that I didn’t really care. People who have seen Kenneth Branagh’s full length adaptation of Hamlet already knew that he had an eye for beautiful scenery, so it’s nice to see that he can work with computer generated backgrounds just as well as with set pieces. Loki ended up being the most interesting character to me because of his backstory. To be sure, he does cause a lot of death and mayhem, but once we find out all the details of his past, it’s hard not to sympathize with him a little.
More impressively, Thor himself manages to avoid being a bland ubermensch. A major share of the credit goes to Chris Hemsworth’s performance which can only be described as “star-making.” Hemsworth certainly has the physical presence of a god among men (and his transformation since we last saw him as Kirk’s dad in Star Trek is very impressive), but he also has charisma to match. Thor is a boisterous and cocky character prone to smashing mugs on the ground if he likes his drink. He gets away with it because he is clearly well-intentioned and very friendly when he’s not whacking people with his hammer. Hemsworth ably guides Thor’s character development from an arrogant borderline jerk at the beginning of the movie to a much more thoughtful future ruler at the end. He also turns out to have pretty good comic timing as his fish-out-of-water moments on Earth are genuinely amusing without being overplayed.
Unfortunately, Thor and Loki are really the only characters with any development at all in the movie. What traits we attribute to the characters come entirely from the actors playing them. The most notable is Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin, but we also have Colm Feore as the king of the frost giants, Stellan Skarsgard as Jane Foster’s mentor, Rene Russo as Thor’s mother, and Idris Elba as Heimdall. All of these talented actors are entirely wasted in their roles, but I suppose lesser known actors would have turned them into enormous blank slates. Then we have Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. A big part of the plot hinges around Thor’s relationship with Jane Foster but it comes across as entirely obligatory instead of heartfelt. It’s hard not to snicker a little bit when they have a makeout session while the metaphorical clock is ticking down. The movie also makes the odd choice of showing Sif, a female Asgardian warrior, gazing significantly at Thor on a few occasions and generally looking like she might be carrying a torch for him.
It doesn’t help that Jane Foster is really kind of a jerk. We meet her in the beginning as she stumbles across the storm that Thor makes when he is thrown to the Earth. She decides to drive her truck towards it which is reasonable enough except when her driver starts to get nervous about coming so close, Jane physically grabs the wheel and steers them even closer. Dude, not cool! And then when she accidentally hits Thor with the truck, her first reaction is, “Please don’t be dead!” It made it a little hard for me to see why Thor pined for her so much when he has a perfectly nice Asgardian comrade (who looks like Jaimie Alexander) right there beside him. None of this can be blamed on Natalie Portman or Chris Hemsworth. They might have great chemistry for all I know, but their relationship is too underwritten.
So Thor is much better than I expected it to be, and it will earn its inevitable humongous box office opening. Nonetheless, it still represents a trend that I can’t celebrate. The recent superhero renaissance began with Spider-Man, Batman, and the X-Men, all characters defined by their humanity and flaws. Their stories are designed to be relatable on a human level even when ridiculous things like flying monsters and energy blasts are appearing around them. Superhero movies have been pretty good about maintaining that human connection up until recently. Iron Man 2 took a sudden sharp turn into a full-on alternate universe which doesn’t even pretend to resemble ours any more. Thor has continued that trend, and later in the summer we are going to have Captain America which, besides looking like a steroids commercial, has an alternate version of World War II and uses Hitler as a villain. I just don’t care about any of it.
By all means, see Thor. It’s a rip-roaring good time and a visual spectacle to boot (even if the action sequences aren’t really anything to write home about from a choreography point of view). It’s just that I can’t help feeling as if the talented actors in this movie are just barely holding the greedy corporate bloodsuckers at bay.