Although I grew up as a comic book kid, I could never get behind Thor. Like Superman, the character of Thor is more of an archetype than someone you can relate to. It’s hard to picture hanging out with (or even being) a god, so Thor has always been a character that needs a good story around him, otherwise the books and movies that feature him can turn out painfully bad.
Translating that to a film is a risky proposition. You are essentially trying to take a relatively realistic universe that was created in the Iron Man movies, and introduce a Norse Viking Asgardian god with a magic hammer who can control thunder and hit people so hard that they explode. The two worlds seem diametric opposites. Captain America, by comparison, and even the Hulk to a degree, are both explainable and could exist in Iron Man’s world. A thunder god is a bit trickier. Judging by the momentum Marvel has going, Thor would have to be a complete mess to truly sink next summer’s The Avengers, but obviously a hit would be much preferred by Marvel, and the fans. Thankfully, Thor should satisfy fans, and possibly even exceed their expectations.
Welcome to Asgard, please remember to tip your Valkyries
One of the best decisions the film makes is to avoid the pitfalls of making the Asgardians gods. There is a bit of deliberate vagueness, but it is suggested that the Asgardians are simply an advanced race of people who interacted with humanity and were treated as gods due to their advanced power. It immediately grounds the characters, and while they are still superhuman, they are not deities. Their world is extraordinary, but not impossible, which is a wise choice from the filmmakers.
After a brief history of the Asgardians the story catches up to the present, when Thor is the heir-apparent to the throne of Asgard, but not everyone agrees that it is for the best. At the start of the film, Thor is good natured, but he is also arrogant and brash. He is a warrior first and foremost, and would lead the kingdom in the same manner. His father and king, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has faith in his son, but he also carries grave reservations about his ability to rule. When the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, an ancient enemy long ago defeated by an army led by Odin, attack Asgard, Thor’s reaction is to immediately strike back. Odin wisely overrules him to prevent a war, but that does not sit well with Thor.
Thanks partly to the quietly whispered encouragement of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor disobeys his father and heads to Jotunheim with his friends Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Loki, and the Warriors Three: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tobanobu Asano). There they start a fight with the Frost Giants that quickly escalates and boils out of control. Odin intervenes, but it is too late, and the two worlds are on the brink of war.
As punishment, Odin strips Thor of his power and banishes him to Earth, which turns out to be not so bad a deal because he is found by the astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who was tracking the bridge between worlds that sent Thor to Earth. After Thor appears, a second bridge sends his hammer, Mjolnir, to Earth with Odin’s command that only those worthy be able to wield it. S.H.I.E.L.D. soon arrives, and while they aren’t clear on what Mjolnir truly is, they understand that it is a powerful object that deserves scrutiny.
Meanwhile, back in Asgard, Loki becomes heir apparent. But when a secret from his past is revealed, he confronts Odin and things go badly. Soon Loki ascends to the throne while Odin is ill, and his true colors begin to show. On Earth, Thor is soon forced to admit that he cannot return home and he is not worthy of the power. He and Jane grow closer together, but Loki refuses to leave his brother be, and Earth is soon drawn in to the growing conflict.
If Shakespeare plotted comics
The story of Thor is as close to a Shakespearean tale as a larger-than-life comic book plot can be–at least in terms of themes. Thor won’t kick out a soliloquy that will move the soul and bring people to tears–he’s more about hitting things with a hammer–but there are several currents of betrayal and familial ties that could be found in a Shakespearean play.
While Thor is the focus of the film, the plot is truly driven by Loki. Rather than following the comics where Loki is simply evil of the “mustache-twirling” variety, instead he has a fairly rational explanation for his motives. That doesn’t forgive many of his actions, but you understand them. He truly does love his family, but he also sees things that others don’t. He handles them badly, but the character is complex enough that it adds depth to what could have easily been a fairly shallow character. The big twist for his character is somewhat difficult to buy, but it acts more as a spark for his continued descent than anything else. It also makes the later machinations possible, and it is true to the comics.
Thor’s transformation from braggart to hero is also one of the central themes, but the story stumbles here a bit. For the first half of the movie, Thor is brash and even somewhat foolish. There is then a moment where everything changes for him, and the careful build up to this point is then somewhat ruined by his immediate transformation. One day he is hard to deal with, then after an admittedly crucial moment in his life, a few hours later he is a completely different person who acts and thinks differently. It is inevitable, but rushed.
The rest of the story is mostly well paced, and Brannagh does an excellent job of making the Asgardians seem as believable as possible. They are not gods, nor are they all archetypes. If anything, Brannagh casts them in a light similar to a fantasy movie. The realm of Asgard wouldn’t be out of place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, nestled between the cities of the elves. By comparison, the scenes on Earth are somewhat drab, and the dusty setting of New Mexico doesn’t help, but that is a visual thing, and a necessary evil for the story to progress.
It is hard to imagine a fantasy-driven film like Thor being subtle, but at times it is. Loki is not evil in the true sense, and Thor is not noble at the start of the movie. Asgard is an amazing place, but it is one that you could believe was the result of a different type of science rather than mysticism. It could have been easy for a director to go way over-the-top with the magic of the Asgardians and the nature of Asgard, which makes the choice of Branagh appear even smarter.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the movie are the fight scenes during the climax. There are two major fights, but they are both more about the reasoning for the fights than the action. One ends extremely suddenly, and the other fairly one-sided. The battle at the beginning of the movie is much more epic, and the final battles pale next to it. They do bring a solid conclusion to the plot though, so it is a minor gripe.
Thor is the story of a wayward son, a jealous brother, and redemption. Then, of course you throw in fire-breathing automatons, giants that shoot ice and a magic hammer, but the core of the story is very human. The overall plot is never really much of a surprise. From the first few scenes, you can form a general idea of what will happen during the course of the movie, but it is done well, and the actors help sell it.
A good Actor is worth his weight in mead
The choice of Chris Hemsworth to play Thor was the most scrutinized decision leading up to the release of the film, and with good reason. Getting Branagh to direct was not just a good choice, it was a bit of a coup for Marvel, as were the casting of Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins. But it is Hemsworth who will be the face of the franchise, and more than that, he will define the character for years to come in the almost inevitable sequels — and most importantly — in next summer’s The Avengers. He was a more-or-less unknown actor, whose biggest role to date was a ten-minute part in Star Trek, where he played the doomed father of Captain Kirk. So the pressure was on.
To put it simply, Hemsworth is going to be a star. Shy of a dead-hooker-in-a-hotel-room-style scandal, he is destined to go on to great things. Hemsworth takes a role that begins as arrogant, then becomes alien when the character comes to Earth, and then becomes noble. And through it all, he remains likeable even when it is hard to relate to the character. There was also a concern that he would be the weakest actor of the bunch in The Avengers when compared to his costars, most of which have shelves filled with awards and nominations. That may still be true, but he should be able to hold his own. He may not win an Oscar anytime soon, but he will be making movies for a long time.
Natalie Portman turns in a typically strong performance, as do the rest of the cast. But the real scene stealer is Tom Hiddleston, who is the other star of the film. While Hemsworth will deservedly get the credit for making the character of Thor a success, Hiddleston should receive the credit for making the movie more than it could have been. It was an excellent decision to skip over many big-name actors and instead choose someone that comes from a dramatic background rather than an action one. Loki is a complex character. He loves his brother, but has reasons for working against him. During the film, while the character of Thor is on an upward trajectory, Loki is falling. While Thor has a critical moment that leads to his redemption, so too does Loki have a moment but it sends him in the opposite direction.
It would have been easy to make the character more one-dimensional. In the comics, he is the bad guy, with very little room for interpretation. In Thor, he does bad things but has reasons for them. Hiddleston also has a look that works perfectly. He can go from innocent to malicious at the drop of a dime, and he sells it well. It will be interesting to see him return for The Avengers. The character of Loki is in a downward spiral, and that should change him fundamentally when he returns.
Thor is better than it has any right to be. Branagh took a property that was nowhere as popular as Captain America or Iron Man, cast two relatively unknown actors in the starring roles, then took a world filled with pitfalls and made it into a successful fantasy. It isn’t a perfect movie–the climax could have been a better more action-packed–but it is a good one, and it does more than enough to keep the Marvel snowball going as it gains speed on its way downhill towards next year’s The Avengers. If Captain America: The First Avenger is even close to being on par, then Marvel can sit back and celebrate.
Thor has a slightly more epic feel than Iron Man, and the plot is a little better laid out — both of the Iron Man movies were successes due as much to Robert Downey Jr. as to the scripts. Thor has one or two pacing issues and the story won’t knock you over with originality, but it sets up an entire world and creates flesh and blood characters out of beings that were basically magical concepts in human form. The comic character of Thor is literally a god of thunder, which makes for a neat-o fight against Galactus, but it is also tough to watch a being like that sit down and have a beer. Thor manages to find a suitable balance between the powers and the man, and that is the success of the film. The same is true for the character of Loki, who is more interesting than expected.
Overall Thor takes the Marvel formula created by Iron Man and builds on it. All it had to do for Marvel to be considered a success was to create a believable origin for the characters of Thor and Loki, but it goes much further than that. The action is well shot, especially a fight at the start, but the final battles are more about character development, and so come across as a bit anti-climactic. If you actually like the characters though, then this isn’t necessarily bad thing. By the way, be sure to stay all the way through the credits for an additional scene that sets up the future movies.
What could have been a disaster is something of a triumph. Maybe that is because it is grading on a bit of a curve, and the potential for disaster was so high. Regardless, the results are a movie that can easily hold its own against Iron Man, and should help fans rest easy about the fate of the Marvel universe on film.
(Thor is rated PG-13, with a running time of 114 minutes)