Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Thor (2011)
Dir. Kenneth Branagh
Written Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stenz, Don Payne
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson

I don’t know if this one really deserves a full 3,000 word review like SAVAGES got, but I gotta say it impressed me enough that I thought it was worth telling the world. Directed by Shakespearean actor and one-time Hogwarts Defense-Against-The-Dark-Arts instructor Kenneth Branagh, this one continues the current run of Marvel adaptations which seem to have finally found their footing somewhere between the glowering grimness of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN films and the Saturday-morning cartoon frothiness of the FANTASTIC FOUR. For that, you gotta give some credit to Jon Favreau, who with his flawed but great IRON MAN movie managed to rediscover the art of entertaining through drama and character instead of spectacle.

And of course, once you realize how well that works you can’t believe you never noticed it before. Comic books are actually not at all the action-packed spectacle machines that movie producers first took them for. They’re mostly soap operas with more outlandish characters inhabiting an ever-widening, ever more densely layered universe of absurdity. Their charm is in the characters themselves, and the appealing good nature they bring to story arcs that are absurd on their face. Tone, it turns out, is key to capturing that amiable earnestness that makes comic books the prevailing mythology of our time. And THOR continues the trend of finding the right tone to make that mythology appealing and engrossing.
    Which is particularly necessary in this case, because of course Thor is more than just a part of the vast Marvel Comics mythology, he’s actually a character from a real mythology. Having  --in my younger wilder days-- studied Norse mythology at some length, its fun to see it run through the prism of a comic adaptation, a movie adaptation of that adaptation, and then a movie production of that adaptation, and still come out more or less intact. THOR fiddles with the details here and there, but honestly it probably keeps more of the original tale and characters intact than, say, BEOWULF did a few years back. It’s completely ludicrous, of course, but there’s a pleasing flavor of ludicrous that comes from the hundreds of years that these stories were honed into their most efficient mythological forms.* The fundamental relationship between Odin, Thor, and Loki, and their relationship with the other realms of their mythology, works on a level beyond anything a Hollywood script writer** could really dream up -- it works on a mythological level. People believed this shit, it was their religion. And it strikes an emotional chord because it’s laboriously built out of story elements which instantly get a psychological reaction out of you. Ask Joseph Campbell about it. Or George Lucas prior to 1999. 

And it was the best white rap video ever

    Anyway, Branagh gives the mythology a big budget Hollywood treatment, but keeps the mystical silliness in there without any cheap postmodern pot-shots. In Valhalla, everyone treats their problems with frost giants as though they’re in King Lear. Which makes it all the more fun when Thor ends up stuck in Midgard (that’s the human realm, kids) and somewhat out of touch with the locals. So it goes from its big CG fantasy battles at the start to being a 150 million dollar fish-out-of-water comedy, as Thor befuddles the likes of Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and agent Coulson.

    Again, it’s silly, but it works because Branagh gets the change of tone right and keeps his actors working perfectly with the material. Whoever this kid Chris Hemsworth is, he’s beyond perfect for the role -- not only is he physically imposing, but he perfectly transitions Thor’s broad, epic personality traits between the worlds in a way which feels complete, consistent, and entertaining. The worlds of the film, like in mythology, are very different places where the rules and tone change dramatically. But Hemsworth, like Thor himself, connects them beautifully. He’s a god for the people.

    Nothing particularly dramatic ends up happening, and the stakes stay pretty small throughout. But that doesn’t stop Branagh from making each sequence as entertaining as possible. When it’s dramatic, it’s gonna be high drama. When it’s comedy, it’s gonna be broad comedy. When it’s action, it’s gonna be ridiculous spectacle (except the hand-to-hand fights, which are disappointingly shot in that post-action shakeycam style). It’s as silly as you could imagine, but Branagh trusts his cast and the fundamentals of the story to keep our attention, and it ends up paying off beautifully.

    Most of the cast works beautifully, particularly Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who’s so excellent as Loki that you can’t help but sort of root for him. One thing that does not work is Natalie Portman, who after turning in a magnificent performance in BLACK SWAN returns to her day job of being really embarrassing in movies like this. She’s playing a scientist who may well give those PROMETHEUS jokers a run for their money at being the worst scientist ever. She sees a mysterious cloud formation, and later sees a blurry picture of a dark slightly human-looking shape in that cloud, and immediately decides the only logical course of action is to find the guy who obviously fell out of the sky and ask him what all that was about. Which is not very good science if my grade school education was at all accurate. She then spends the rest of the movie giggling like a schoolgirl every time Thor appears, and at the end I guess they fell in love at some point. You almost believe it because of Hemsworth’s charm, but it’s one of the few points where the idiotic writing feels like bad writing instead of comic book writing.

Blatant false advertising.

Still, its appealing comic book sensibilities win out in the end. It’s a movie which understands that comics are the new mythology of our age precisely because they’re broad and preposterous. We don’t need to see gritty, R-rated reimaginings set in the real world. We did that in the comics when postmodernism hit in the 90’s, and we did it in cinema with the deluge of deconstructionist mumbo-jumbo which followed WATCHMEN and Chris Nolan’s self-consciously grown up BATMAN films. OK dude, we get it, Batman is a psychologically rich concept. But you know what, it’s still psychologically rich if we have fun with it. You don’t have to be so stodgy and literal about everything for us to get the stuff that makes it good. THOR gets that. It doesn’t care if you think it’s edgy and cool. It just wants you to think it’s fun. And it has the goods to deliver on that desire. Thanks, pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe islands.   

*Unless you believe, like the guys from ANCIENT ALIENS or the writers of this movie, that Norse mythology actually represents accurate historical accounts of early alien encounters which humans, which as the authoritative-sounding narrator of that program assures us is entirely possible and supported by many unnamed experts.  

**in this case, the two artists behind AGENT CODY BANKS and one of the two guys it took to write the episode of the Simpsons where Krusty finds out he has a daughter.

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