I feel the same way about Thor I imagine most people feel about Superman. After all, Thor’s the Norse god of thunder and, as such, he’s ridiculously over-powered and quite a bit alien depending on the personal taste of who’s writing him at the time. Over a fifty year history as convoluted as any other comic book superhero’s, Thor’s been a god trapped in a man’s bod, a man driven insane by a magic hammer, and more or less everything in between. Now he’s a movie star and I say, Good for you, Odinson. Maybe you can tell me why your movie isn’t better?
Except he doesn’t have to because I know the answer. You don’t exactly need to sacrifice one of your eyes to know the problem with all these post-Iron Man Marvel movies: as soon as the internet began harping about the post-credit scene of Stark’s first film, these movies stopped being movies and started contenting themselves being prequels to The Avengers. It’s become evident Marvel approaches all their films with a giant check-list of shit they’ll have to introduce before an Avengers movie even begins to make sense.
Thor, for example, exists to establish the fact one can diagram the Marvel Universe like so:
which is awesome in its own way. No complex star charts or grand catalogs of parallel dimensions necessary. Just one (sort of) metaphorical tree with nine out-and-proud fantasy realms clinging to its branches. The film softens this by having both its lead characters misquote Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) at some point. Whatever, movie. You can’t have it both ways. You’ve got to do what Jack Kirby did and just deal with the fact your story centers on the Norse gods…who, being gods, are by their very nature some insanely powerful motherfuckers.
Instead, they did the simplest thing you can do with an epic fantasy protagonist and stuck him into our boring world so he can get the hots for Natalie Portman. And learn to stop being such a colossal shit. But mostly get the hots for Natalie.
So either the Norse gods are the Norse gods or they’re aliens with the most fucked-up life cycle in this or any other universe. The movie kinda glosses over on that point. It glosses over a lot of points since it’s got fifty years of history to catch everyone up on. During the opening narration, courtesy of Odin (courtesy of Anthony Hopkins – the only choice for the role, really), we learn Frost Giants invaded Germany back in the tenth century. Odin and his armies repelled them, and withdrew, becoming legend…despite the fact people worshiped the Norse gods for centuries beforehand.
Never mind. In the present, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is receiving his official recognition as heir to the throne of the Realm Eternal. I think. I’m not exactly sure why there’s a big celebration at the beginning of the movie, other than to show off the wonderful job all the production designers and matte backdrop artists did with Asgard. It actually looks…kinda…sorta…like a Jack Kirby interpretation of Norse mythology. So kudos to you, film. On that score, at least.
Really, the ceremony only exists to be interrupted by a small Frost Giant raid on Odin’s armory. (Which is packed with little nods to Marvel lore for all we good nerds.) Thor invades the Frost Giant’s realm and insults their king in retaliation, destroying the century’s-old peace between Asgard and Jotunheim. Odin, understandably pissed, busts his eldest down to the level of We Mere Mortal and exiles Thor to Earth, tossing the war hammer Mjölnir down after him as a final lesson in humility.
Both land in the New Mexico desert. Thor bumps into an astrophysicist named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) after she bumps into him with her RV. Mjolnir becomes a roadside tourist attraction and is soon surrounded by a full S.H.I.E.L.D. Science Squad under the command of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). This is where Iron Man 2 left him hanging, after all, and Lords know he’s got so much to do around here. Like ordering the other S.H.I.E.L.D. redshirts around. Or once again failing to intimidate a superhero.
What Thor‘s done here is condense an entire movie into its first act. Now we’re into territory most superhero movies save for The Sequel. (Because let’s face it, baby: these days, you gotta have a sequel.) Our Hero’s lost his powers and has to get them back before the Villain takes something over. Asgard or the White House, it doesn’t really matter. I’m just glad this leaves them no choice but to do something different for Thor‘s Inevitable Sequel. Probably rip-off Lord of the Rings, if they’re smart.
Back in this movie, we watch Chris Hemsworth’s Thor realize his own unworthiness without realizing what a duplicitous bastard his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who’s much better for the role than he needs to be) really is…until the last act, of course. In fact, Thor seems to be the only one in the movie who isn’t aware Loki’s full of shit from Frame One. That would be fine if we got to hang out with the two of them for more than two scenes…but we’ve got to knock Thor down to a level the average mouth-breather can easily “identify” with and/or “relate” to. So bye-bye, character- and relationship-building scenes. Assuming you even existed in the first place.
Instead the film does what so many fish-out-of-water/fantasy stories do and splits its focus. On boring, normal Earth (the Planet of the Dutch Angles), Jane Foster and her astrophysics Obi-Wan, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) try and fail to grasp what Thor is and where he comes from, while he acts very much like a god-prince, humoring the humans, looking like he’s about to pat poor Natalie on the head and give her a dog biscuit as soon as play tonsil hockey. Back in Asgard (the Planet of the Video Game Cut Scenes), Loki plots to kill Thor once and for all, while Odin Allfather falls into his yearly period of rest and regeneration, the Odinsleep. This leaves Asgard vulnerable to attack by its myriad and various enemies…all they need is a traitorous Second Son of the House to hold the door open for them. Which Loki does. Of course. He’s evil; didn’t you know?
For some stupid reason, the movie thinks it has to play coy with the fact Loki’s evil. Probably the same reason that compels them to play coy with the fact that these are the Norse gods we’re dealing with here. Loki’s been Designated Evil since at least the thirteenth century A.D. The first book of the Prose Edda (a go-to, non-poetic reference text for Norse mythology) straight up labels him “the backbiter,” and “the originator of deceit.” And “the disgrace of all gods and men.” Now, maybe you’ve never read Gylfaginning. No problem. That’s why most Thor stories label him “the God of Mischief” and call their jobs “done.” Does the God of Mischief truly need an elaborate back story to justify his love of fucking shit up? No.
Why not? Because he’s the God of Mischief, for Beowulf’s bare-assed sake! Oh…wait…I’m sorry…I’m being told these aren’t the Norse gods. They’re inter-dimensional aliens that just so happen to look, sound and act exactly like Norse gods. So Loki needs a reason to turn evil. Let’s spin the big wheel of Evil Motivations and see where it lands…and…Loki is…adopted! Yes. Turns out he’s a Frost Giant by birth, snatched by Odin after the last big War and raised as an Asgardian. To protect him from feeling different, obviously.
One would think (if one were thinking like a writer of overwrought melodrama) this would drive Loki to kill Odin and claim the throne of Asgard for himself now that the Fortunate Son is safely neutered and confined to Midgard. Yet, during the Climactic Battle, he tells a recently re-powered Thor, “I never wanted the throne! I only ever wanted to be your equal.” What…? He conspires to sneak the king of the Frost Giants, Laufey (Colm Feore) into Odin’s bedchamber…only to kill Laufey at the last second. Whaaaat…? “When [Odin] awakens,” Loki says to his brother, “I will have saved his life. I will have destroyed that race of monsters and I will be true heir to the throne!” –the fuck?
Seriously, Loki’s plan is stupid. If Odin is aware of all that transpires during the Odinsleep, (King Laufey wastes time whispering “It’s said you can still see and hear what transpires around you” to the sleeping Odin when he should be making with the regicide) he would, of course, be privy to all Loki’s machinations and understandably pissed upon awakening to find Jotunheim destroyed. Fucking with the Jotuns was exactly what got Thor exiled, so…does Loki honestly expect to win any brownie points with this genocidal gesture? Why is his plan so needlessly complicated? It doesn’t just swallow its own tail, it chokes itself to death with ill logic. Someone didn’t think this through very well, did they? No.
And correct me if I’m wrong here, internet, but I don’t remember the Rainbow Bridge ever possessing the capability to destroy planets. That’s like having an armed ICBM wired to your doorbell. No wonder Odin’s reigned over a thousand-year Pax: Asgard has its own Death Star.
Given that Our Villain sucks, its up to Our Hero to carry the show. Chris Hemsworth does a fine job with what he’s given, but he’s given the un-godly chore of being heroic at all cost, even if this is supposedly the story of how Thor learned to be a hero…or just nice to people…or something. He should’ve started off as a bigger dick and earned his redemption in some way that involved a really personal loss of some kind. Basically, someone on Earth needed to die horribly, and it needed to be Thor’s fault. Like Jane Foster’s assistant, Darcy (Kat Dennings, another great actress with nothing to do, last seen around here in Defendor). You could’ve killed her. She’s the Odious Comic Relief, meant to snark at the obvious ridiculousness of all this so we in the audience don’t have to strain ourselves. Meaning she’s a complete redundancy. Or you could’ve killed Stellan Skarsgård’s character. He’s little more than an exposition delivery system, his job safely done by the end of the Second Act. Wise Ol’ Father Figures are always buying the farm…provided they’re mortal.
Instead, Branagh and his three screenwriters chose to go the subtle route, and grab your ankles because I think I just found the one subtle touch in this whole film. Thor re-proves his worth by sacrificing himself to save his friends (human and Asgardian) from the aptly-named Destroyer. This is a reference to classical mythology that’ll go right over everyone’s head unless you’re familiar with a particularly gruesome bit of Thor’s family history – specifically, a bit from Odin’s backstory.
See, the Allfather once hung himself upside down from a high branch of the World Tree in order to gain knowledge of the future. He’d already given up his right eye for a peek at the Apocalypse but, like any king, Odin needed what our present kings call “actionable intelligence.” So he sacrificed himself to himself, since death is the price for such foreknowledge…and, being a god, Odin got better after nine days. Nine being the number of the Holy Hand Grenade in his cosmology.
This, among other things, is the reason for Odin’s special interest in humanity. At some point every god worth a damn must take this risk. Thor must become a mortal and die in order to be reborn as a worthy successor to his father, who made basically the same kind of choice Way Back When for much the same reason. So, Kenneth Branagh, Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne…I salute you in the manner of Asgard: with a big ol’ mug of booze. I see what you were trying to do here. Payne, I could almost forgive you for putting your name on the Fantastic Four films. Almost.
But as with all the other Marvel movies, Thor falls apart in the third act because of its parent company’s impatience. Jane, being the Love Interest in all this, suffers the most from lack of attention, which is a damn shame. Throughout her long and rocky relationship with Thor she’s been the plainest Jane in all of comics and I’d hoped someone would take this opportunity to beef her up a bit for the silver screen. Instead, she’s the fan stand-in, entirely willing to accept the crazy man’s stories about being Thor Odinson because…um…
Yeah. I’m sure that has nothing to do with it. I’m sure our Jane Foster’s driven by the purest scientific objectivity. What does it say when the nicest thing anyone can think to say about her character is, “At least this Big Dumb Summer Movie reverses the usual gender roles. Here at last we see a socially-awkward woman waste the whole film crushing on an absurdly hot dude. For once.” Well glory be to Sif the Shieldmaiden (Jaimie Alexander). I guess that’s what we call “progress” these days.
It probably sounds like I hated this movie, but nothing could be further from the truth. I went in with expectations so low I assumed the pressures of the Earth’s core had already crushed them. Its action scenes are well-handled and scattered about the film in all the right places, keeping the pace taunt. I never got bored, not even during the Earth scenes, which drove some into a foaming rage. The pacing is so fast you can’t help but be pulled along and surprised when the film stops (as opposed to “ends”). In fact, it’s breakneck pace is the movie’s biggest problem.
So, if you lower your expectations accordingly, you’ll find Thor a painless, largely brainless sit-through. If you’re a fan, then you’re probably as pissed off as I was with the Fantastic Four films. Thor‘s almost as rushed and ill-thought-out as those bastards, but it benefits from the original Iron Man‘s and The Incredible Hulk‘s unrepentant, straight-faced belief in its own material. It finds a much better way to integrate S.H.I.E.L.D. into the story than Iron Man 2 and, unlike Captain America, it focuses on telling one story for its entire running time. I hereby pronounce it “the second best pre-Avengers movie, behind Iron Man.” By default. Time to start praying The Avengers doesn’t suck. Otherwise, we’ll have wasted these last four years and five films in useless anticipation.