Review: Thor in 3D

May 8, 2011 | Reviews

So, last night I had the pleasure of seeing Hollywood’s take on Marvel’s take on the Norse god of thunder. I must admit, I was expecting to be singularly unimpressed. I’ve long since gotten tired of seeing these kinds of stories that revolve around a few white Caucasian male characters – and honestly, the fanboys can bitch all they want about how the comic book characters were originally white Caucasian males, but Hollywood has no problems deviating from the source material when it suits them. See, for example, the utter travesty that will inevitably result from a Hollywood adaptation of Akira, if rumors are to be believed – a story that is rooted in the Japanese psyche, stars Japanese characters with very Asian names, set in Neo Tokyo, and they have no problem shredding it so that they can get (you guessed it) white Caucasian males into the lead roles. I was prepared to hate this film with a vengeance. At the end, though, I thought it was alright.

My first impression of Thor is that it wasn’t that bad. It’s watchable, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies. The design of Asgard is very beautiful, and a lot of the sets were actually built as opposed to being pasted in behind the actors. Kudos to the art director for doing an excellent job in creating the look and feel of a magical realm, but he was clearly hamstrung in creating the world of the frost giants, Jotunheim – dark, snowy wasteland filled with rock and ice? Meh. It might as well have been Siberia at night.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the plot, such as it is. There are spoilers here, so don’t read on if you actually care about being surprised at the ending – although it’s so completely predictable that even spoilers won’t matter much to your enjoyment of it, in my vaunted opinion. You’re not watching this for the drama, trust me.

Thor and Loki are sons of Odin, the king of Asgard. Odin’s getting on a bit, and he’s preparing to name Thor his successor and finally retire. Loki isn’t too happy about this, obviously. Shenanigans happen with their enemies, the frost giants, who have been slightly annoyed at Odin ever since he slapped them around and took away the glowing blue brick that is the source of their power. Thor gets angry, and goes to Jotunheim with his buddies to raise some hell. A fight sequence ensues.

Odin appears in the nick of time to get Thor and his friends before they wind up dead. The king of the frost giants is all like, it’s on now bitch, and Odin is understandably angry that Thor has upset the peace that he damn near killed himself to get all those years ago. He banishes Thor to our little slice of the firmament, and – for reasons unknown – chucks his hammer after him as well. Thor lands on Earth, gets hit by Natalie Portman pretending to be a scientist, and has to learn how to be… something something something. Who knows. It’s not exactly explained.

Loki starts scheming to get the throne of Asgard. Back on Earth, S.H.I.E.L.D. get their mitts on Thor’s hammer and Natalie Portman’s research. Thor bumbles about for a bit, doing the fish-out-of-water thing, then goes off to get his hammer back. A fight sequence ensues. Afterwards, he discovers that he can’t pick up his hammer! Oh noes! He’s not worthy anymore. Cue Natalie Portman doing whatever that will probably make him worthy later on.

More stuff with Loki results in Odin falling into some kind of magical sleep that’s also not very well explained, but okay, let’s go with it. Loki becomes king, and makes  a quick jaunt to Earth to tell Thor that Odin’s dead and he’s not allowed back to Asgard or else the truce with the frost giants will be broken. Thor’s horribly sad, and apologises, and sort of comes to accept his fate here.

Thor’s buddies are a little miffed about Loki taking over, and they sneak down to Earth to tell Thor what’s going on. Loki, being the sneaky master magician guy that he is, sends this giant metal robot down to destroy ‘everything’, where ‘everything’ equals a one-horse town in New Mexico where Thor just happens to be right now. A fight sequence ensues. Thor offers up his own life to stop the destruction, the robot backhands him across the face and nearly kills him, and apparently the self-sacrifice is enough for his hammer to magically wake up and fly to him, transforming him back into his usual badass mode.

He heads back to Asgard to confront Loki – who’s planning to annihilate Jotunheim completely rather than putz around with a peace treaty – and a fight sequence ensues. The Bifrost bridge, which lets them travel between realms, gets destroyed, so Thor can’t actually get back to Earth until they fix it. Loki gets cast out of Asgard and disappears. Stuff is mostly made right, except for things that are blatantly a setup for the Avengers movie.

Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, and by god, does he ham it up. He does a great job of being the totally-over-the-top Viking lunatic. It’s great to watch him having such fun while looking like a reject from the Village People. He spends much of the movie in the armor and cloak thing that Thor normally wears, which is a crying shame because he looks so unbelievably good in jeans and a T-shirt. Yes, there is one topless scene, and yes, it is delicious – and I’m happy because it’s about goddamn time that Hollywood added in some eye candy for the ladies and non-heterosexual males in the audience.

One thing that I found interesting was that the same was never once done to Natalie Portman. She’s always fully dressed in casual hiker/scientist gear. This is progress, of a sort, and I salute Kenneth Branagh for it.

Some of Thor’s formative scenes on Earth have good emotional impact. When he finds out that he can’t lift his hammer after fighting his way through dozens of S.H.I.E.L.D. goons, his despair and anger is palpable. When Loki tells him that Odin is dead and he can never come home, his pain feels real and honest. Chris Hemsworth can act, and I get the feeling that he’ll be one to watch out for in later films. He delivers Thor well at least.

Tom Hiddelston is another relative unknown, to me at least, playing the role of Loki. He is easily the best thing about the scenes in Asgard – he plays him with such twisty, manipulative zeal that you can truly believe he’s doing bad things for altruistic reasons. He’s almost sympathetic, in many ways, and despite the sometimes dodgy dialogue, he makes a wonderfully well rounded character out of what could have been a cardboard cutout of a villain. At the end, there’s some random crap about how he was doing it all to impress Odin and one-up his brother that I thought was completely superfluous – it was a surprisingly juvenile response for a guy who’s into such Machiavellian tactics. It wasn’t needed, really. Still, he makes a good foil for Thor, even if their last fight was laughably dull.

Now, on to the bad things…

Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who’s studying the magical wormhole-making tech that lets Thor and his buddies flit around the universe. Considering that this is the same woman who won an Oscar for Black Swan, I simply cannot believe how terrible she is in this movie. When I said she’s pretending to be a scientist, I really meant it – I didn’t believe for a second that this was a woman who did research for a living. She might as well be a non-entity when Chris Hemsworth is on the screen with her.

The big problem with this is that Jane is supposed to be the one who helps Thor become worthy of the power of the hammer, or something, but none of his interactions with her feel honest. It doesn’t look like she has any effect on him as a person, in fact – no part of her place in this movie is essential to his development over the course of his time on Earth. She got some of the worst lines I have ever heard in any film – ‘Oh. My. God’, for example, when Thor finally gets his hammer back and starts kicking ass? I cringed.

The romance arc was another thing that made me want to barf. Their attachment to each other felt completely contrived and false. The idiotic kiss at the end had no, repeat no, emotional impact WHATSOEVER. This annoys me, frankly, because if there is any director/actor who knows how to do emotional impact, it’s Kenneth Branagh! He did Hamlet, for gods sake. I have to compare this with the end of Iron Man, because that is the yardstick that I use to judge all superhero movies, and the difference is astounding. Here’s what I said in my other post:

We expect the hero and heroine to kiss, because that is the tired old Hollywood trope, but once again Iron Man throws a curveball; Tony brings up the night on the balcony, and Pepper just as quickly shuts him down in a not-so-subtle reminder that she can see right through him. But the brief exchange afterwards: “‘Will that be all, Mr. Stark?’ ‘Yes, that will be all, Ms. Potts.’” They’re back to being playful, even affectionate, because they know each other so well, and the moment is so wonderfully intimate that the audience never needs to see them kiss.

Oh yes, my irritation with that knows no bounds. Jane is a petulant, annoying cardboard cutout/convenient plot device in Thor, someone whose part could be completely torn out of the movie without much in the way of repercussions, someone who has little of any actual personality. Pepper Potts is a force to be reckoned with in Iron Man, essential not only to the plot but to Tony Stark himself, and a believable, powerful character in her own right. Could Jane have been written the same? Yes, without a doubt – Hollywood proved that it could do it, and the fact that it didn’t here is a failing.

I’m baffled as to why the studio cast an expensive Oscar-winning actress in what is arguably a minor role. Perhaps she asked to do it? Kat Dennings, who plays Jane’s assistant, Darcy, could have easily played Jane herself for far less money. On that note, though, Thor does pass the strict reading of the Bechdel test that I use, as Jane and Darcy have a bit of a chat about their research at one point.

The other headlining female character is Sif, one of Thor’s buddies. She didn’t get enough screen time. She had a personality, more than Jane, and she was also appropriately clothed at all times. Her armor does not excessively highlight her curves or try to make her sexy, she fights just like guys and, most importantly, she takes the hits like the guys. Jaimie Alexander did a great job portraying her as headstrong, loyal, and brave in the face of danger. I was afraid that there would be some kind of silly romantic tension between her and Thor, but it was nice to see that she was treated at all times as a warrior. You never, ever question that she’s a fighter on the same footing as them.

I could write about Anthony Hopkins as Odin, but let’s be honest here – it’s Anthony Hopkins. He’ll do a good job whatever role he’s in. The gold eyepatch suits him, I think.

All in all, I’m impressed with many things about Thor. It could have been much, much worse, and it wasn’t. The 3D, of course, added nothing at all to the impact of the movie and frequently annoyed me by making it impossible to focus properly on the action. One of my favourite scenes was when the frost giants attacked Odin while he was in his deep sleep – his wife, played by RENE RUSSO of all people and looking fabulous as always, pulls a fucking sword and kills the first one who comes through the door. It’s an image of female empowerment that you just don’t expect to see in a Hollywood blockbuster; the wife, the mother, who is also presented as a warrior willing to kill for the sake of her loved ones, and it’s barely three seconds of throwaway action in a larger scene. I’ll forgive the movie a lot for this alone.

A quick note on the casting of a black man as Heimdall: You may have heard that Idris Elba caught some flack from the fanboys over his role as a god who is canonically white. The ones who are crying about how it should be a white guy in that role? I’d like to ask why they’re not raising a stink over Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury, or about how the story of how Thor got to Earth in the comics is radically different from the movie, or, in fact, all of the massive liberties Hollywood routinely takes with source material for the sake of commercialism. Then I’d ask if they like being racist. Bottom line here, you didn’t whine when they changed the X-Men’s costumes from primary colors to black leather back then, and you don’t get to whine about a character’s skin tone being changed from white to black now. (For the record, he does a fantastic job as Heimdall.)

So yeah. I think most people will enjoy Thor. It’s got a lot going for it – not as much as I would have liked to see, but again, there’s hints of progress here and there that suggest Hollywood is slowly getting to grips with characters that are not white Caucasian males, and is becoming aware of an audience that isn’t entirely composed of white Caucasian males. It almost makes me feel more hopeful about upcoming blockbusters like Captain America. Sure, it’s no Iron Man, but it’s entertaining enough that I wouldn’t turn off the TV if I saw it on.