Monday, May 9, 2011

Oh Ye Olde Gods

Okay, enough of that; back to actually SEEING movies, and not just talking about them. Summer officially kicked off this past weekend with the arrival of expected cinema superstar Thor as it hit the big screen. Though the expectations were obviously high for the blockbuster leading off the year's hottest season, there were a few obstacles standing between Thor and automatic box office dominance. First of all, the obvious: a comic book movie is being directed by Kenneth Branagh. That's right, the film's helmsman is the guy best known for his film adaptations of Shakespeare plays Henry V and Hamlet. Say all you want about comic books being art (and I'd agree) but the difference between colored paper and the written word of the Bard is a big one, no matter what your feelings on the matter. Secondly, who in the hell heard of Chris Hemsworth before he was cast in the film's lead role? Sure, the Australian actor has the proper physique to portray the God of Thunder, but who knew anything about him before he played Jim Kirk's ill-fated father in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot? Unknown actors don't carry the same weight as known quantities like Will Smith or Matt Damon. Finally, the character of Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby back in the 60's is not exactly a known quantity to fans outside of comics. Based on Norse stories and popular in Marvel Comics' heyday, Thor was a result of Stan's obsession with mythology, which resulted in several myth-based superheroes, including Thor, Hercules, and The Forgotten One/Gilgamesh. Unlike more grounded heroes like Spiderman or the X-Men, the character of Thor was never one meant to connect with the similarities of his audience. Instead he was supposed as an icon, an unreachable pedestal for other heroes to look up to. This hardly lays the groundwork for a film franchise, but Thor was one of the few untapped Marvel Comics properties, and introducing him to theater audiences was crucial if he was to star alongside Iron Man and Captain America in 2012's Avengers film. Being a mid-level comic fan myself, I still had high hopes despite these lingering concerns, which helped me to check out Thor in its opening weekend.

Apparently, Thor's working on the railroad... all the live-long day
After his hubris results in war between the noble city of Asgard and their ancient enemies the Frost Giants, Thor (Hemsworth) is exiled by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth and stripped of his godly powers as punishment, to learn humility. Once on our planet, Thor meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist theorizing of gateways and bridges connecting intergalactic destinations. Now she has her biggest piece of evidence, but before things can move forward her work is confiscated by the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its operative Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Meanwhile, things are not all well in Asgard, as the ailing king Odin falls into a coma, leaving his wicked son and Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as the sole heir to the throne. Soon, Thor's allies are attempting to get him back to Asgard as Thor himself attempts to prove worthy of harnessing his godly powers while becoming smitten with Jane in the process.

Hey, it's "what's-his-name"!
I needn't have worried about Thor disappointing. In the same vein of similar recent Marvel adaptations, it manages to be a complex mix of action, drama, character and comedy, a delicate tightrope that is managed thanks to respect for the source material and assistance from comic creators like J. Michael Straczynski who have been a huge part of Thor's presence in pop culture. While Branagh might have been expected to play up the seriousness of the story, he does a masterful job of actually making the experience a lot of fun, especially involving a liberal dose of humor that catches the audience off guard while never feeling out of place. This should have been expected, since the original comics did much the same thing, but it manages to be a pleasant surprise, especially when the comic timing of film is impeccable. The interaction between characters never feels forced, with the perfect casting done to make these characters feel real whether they live on Earth or in a different dimension.

Twenty years later, the fallout of the father-son three-legged race still rages on
That cast is what really makes the film fall in place. Hemsworth proves himself as the next generation of action star with not only raw physicality and force of presence, but a lot of legitimate acting talent to boot. Stepping lightly between action hero, hilarious comic and romantic lead, Hemsworth is asked to wear a lot of hats in what might be his largest ever role, and he manages to juggle these different bits into a strong character that will hopefully translate into a real franchise and not a one-hit wonder. Portman seems to be everywhere this year, as Thor is her third film released so far in 2011. The actress may never again reach the critical acclaim that netted her an Oscar nomination for last year's Black Swan, but she's never less than amazing in any film she chooses to be seen in, and her role here shouldn't be construed as simple love interest. Jane Foster is a genius, a strong woman in her own right who keeps herself going despite lack of support or notoriety. Tom Hiddleston got the role of trickster Loki from having worked with Branagh in the past, and it's a good thing, too; I can't think of anybody who could match his delivery and look that perfectly captures Thor's enemy and yet loved brother. Probably the best role in the film, Hiddleston will most likely get a good, long look from major studios after this.

Hiddleston got the part by being seven years late for a Severus Snape audition
For the secondary characters, there is a lot of talent boasted between both Asgard and Midgard (that's Earth, for you mortals out there). Stellan Skarsgard plays Jane's scientific advisor and friend of her father's, bringing a sense of professionalism to the cast. His near-humorlessness is perfectly foiled by Kat Dennings, who plays Darcy, Jane's intern and gofer. Dennings has some of the funniest dialogue in the script, but her humor is not just confined to the spoken, as her actions often illicit the same amount of chuckles. Gregg is no star, but his character, introduced in Iron Man and something of a connecting piece between the films, is interesting enough to compensate for his lack of actually doing anything. As the leader of the evil Frost Giants, Colm Fiore adds to a list of compelling antagonists under his resume. Though not his best role, his convincing work does wonders for the film's tale as a whole. Perfectly cast are Thor's friends, Sif and the Warriors Three. Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano and Joshua Dallas are all excellent and perfectly capture the essence of these characters from the comics, though I honestly wish more had been done with them, especially their backgrounds, which are largely absent. Alexander in particular demands interest, since in the comics Sif is romantically interested in Thor, though that is ignored here. Racists might have had issue with Idris Elba playing the Asgardian Heimdall, but I had no problem with such a talented actor taking the role. As the all-seeing guardian of the realm, Elba has an unexpectedly strong part, and it was nice to see the Wire veteran getting a meaty role in a successful film. The only real disappointments are Thor's parents as Hopkins overacts his way through a stunted role, and Rene Russo does nothing of interest as Frigga, Thor's mother.

Elba shows the Council of Conservative Citizens where to suck
Speaking of disappointments, beware how you watch Thor in theaters. I saw this film on an IMAX screen and in 3D, and I can't honestly recommend it for most viewers. While most scenes and special effects look great in these conditions, it is ironically the film's few action scenes that suffer from the 3D conversion. Fights are disjointed and blurry, with so much mashed together that you find yourself squinting to try and see what exactly is going on. I've heard that he 2D showings clean up nicely, and I'd have to suggest that you don't pay the extra dough to see it in 3D, since it's just not polished enough to be pretty. Most theaters should have that option open to you, so if you can, avoid the crowds and go low-tech.

Seriously, where did this guy come from???
Thor might not be everyone's cup of tea, but at #5 for 2011 I honestly can't understand why not. Like most of Marvel's recent comic book adaptations, Thor is easy for non-fans to appreciate and enjoy but truly rewards the comic fan, a trend that keeps geeks waiting for the inevitable Stan Lee cameo, secret scenes of famous characters and nods to the superhero universe around the film, making it feel like a part of a whole instead of a stand-alone clunker. I had a lot of fun at the theater, and I think if you give Thor a chance, you'll be happy with the results no matter your disposition to the genre.

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