Monday, May 9, 2011

Summer Blockbuster Season Starts Lukewarm With Thor!

The Good: Effects, Much of the acting
The Bad: Utterly contrived plot elements, Disconnected preview moments, Hemsworth doesn’t pop.
The Basics: In a very, very weak “recommend,” I find Thor to be a pretty pathetic Marvel film outing to open a highly competitive Summer Blockbuster Season.

It is here at last! Yes, every year Summer Blockbuster Season comes to us with the big special-effects driven movies that seek to get the 11 – 19 year old reckless consumer dollars, despite jacked up movie prices and declining film quality. Summer Blockbuster Season is a time when the quality films that get noticed for awards are almost entirely absent and spectacle rules. That does not mean that great films cannot be released during Summer Blockbuster Season, as The Dark Knight (reviewed here!) and Inception (reviewed here!) have amply proven. Even among the usual super hero and sequel schlock, Summer Blockbuster Season sometimes produces some cool films with great replayability, like last year’s Iron Man 2 (reviewed here!). For 2011, Summer Blockbuster Season looks to be mostly filled with sequels, from Transformers, Pirates Of The Caribbean and X-Men. This summer there are surprisingly few original flicks to look forward to, so one has to assume that the rollout of the new franchises is supposed to prey upon the hopes of fans looking for the appearance of new. Sadly, Thor is not that.

This past weekend was Free Comic Book Day and I spent the day working at the comic book store I manage and hearing many people praise the film Thor, its acting and the way the movie fit into the larger Marvel Universe. My reward to myself for a well-executed event on Free Comic Book Day was to go to a late showing of Thor in 3-D with a person who seems to have a lot of the same interests as me and with whom I am beginning to forge a friendship. When the movie was done, we shared thoughts and while he liked the film, I was much, much more neutral to it. This, I feel, has a lot to do with what some call “ridiculously high standards” on my part and which I just call having standards.

Thor is not a bad movie, but it is riddled with problems and the fundamental one was that the movie never seemed to pop on its own. Allow me to explain: the best aspects of Thor seemed to be with the tie-ins with other Marvel Universe films and the sense that this is a weaker chapter in a larger story comes through whenever the film is not being painfully dull on its own. This is, in many ways, a big, special-effects driven movie which suffers as so many other special effects films do: it doesn’t develop the story as much as it ought to and it hopes the viewer won’t notice because there are so many shiny lights and bright objects on the screen. The other aspect of not popping on its own I will address more in a moment, but it has to do with the way the film was promoted. I saw the preview trailer for Thor exactly once. One time, no more. When the moments that were in the preview trailer came up, I recognized them instantly. While some might call that great memory, I recognize it as what it is: the moments from the film’s trailer were mostly incongruent moments which pull the viewer outside the narrative. In other words, those moments do what they are supposed to do, SELL the film, not tell the story. So, when they came up in the movie, I was pulled out of the story for these moments where characters were essentially saying, “Hey, look at this cool thing we created!”

While Jane Foster is out in the New Mexico desert chasing storms of a celestial nature, she and her team run into a man. That man is Thor and how he came to be in the middle of the desert is then explained. As one of the two sons of Odin, on the plane of existence known as Asgard, Thor is raised with the responsibility of protecting the realms of the universe from the Frost Giants. For decades, Odin has kept King Laufey and the Frost Giants bottled up in their own, desolate world. But as Odin prepares to pass the mantle of leadership on to Thor, Frost Giants invade the weapon’s vault of Asgard. Stopped immediately, the Frost Giant invasion inspires Thor to defy his father and lead his friends on an invasion of the Frost Giant realm. Rescued from the overwhelming odds by the power of his hammer and then Odin himself, Thor is then banished to Earth.

On the higher realms, Loki takes up the mantle of leadership as Odin falls into a mystical sleep and on Earth, Thor finds himself both mortal and powerless. Discovered by Jane, Thor breaks out of his hospital room and goes in search of his mystical hammer, which has arrived on Earth as well. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, led by Coulson, have discovered the hammer and when Thor is unable to dislodge it, all involved feel dismayed. So when Thor’s friends decide to defy Loki and bring Thor out of exile, it falls to the comparatively powerless hero to stop the Destroyer that Loki sends after them.

While I know I am in the minority with feeling more neutral to Thor, writing up the plot summary only helps to illustrate my point. Thor strings along viewers with a series of fairly weak events and it fails to pop. There is never a moment that defines the hero or the villain in such a way that the viewer feels like the movie is building to something. The result is a string of events which meander toward an eventual end which is neither unpredictable nor spectacular. As my viewing companion noted, when one of the battles occurred, it seemed like it was the climax, but then there was another hour to the movie.

Put another way, Thor both tries to be too many things and it follows such a disappointing formula that it is utterly unsurprising. The two are deeply intertwined, but they add up to a largely unsatisfying cinematic experience on every level but in terms of spectacle. Thor is split between the higher planes and Earth and this might be the first big mistake that writers Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich make. I might focus my sense of blame a bit more on Straczynski for one reason: Stracyznski is an accomplished writer whose works like Babylon 5 have proven that viewers can become completely invested in a place that is not Earth and has little to do with Earth. Works like The Lord Of The Rings (reviewed here) have illustrated that viewers today can handle menace to a completely fictional realm and become entirely transfixed by the situation. So, why then, does Thor insist on spreading the story between the higher realms and Earth? We could have handled a story of a war between the Asgard people and the Frost Giants without any interaction on Earth. In fact, that might have worked even better as the film leaps from Thor and Loki as children together to the day Thor is prepared to ascend to his father’s throne and as he struts through the hall of people, my thought instantly was “what has he done in the years in between to make him so beloved among his people?” Sure, he twirls his hammer, gets cheers from the crowd, but who is the man and why do we care? My answer to the latter question was “I don’t.” And that cripples the movie right out of the gate.

Moreover, when one is dealing with archetypes and mythology, the story ought to do something that challenges or interests the viewer. After meandering from the political machinations of Asgard driven to the brink of war to Thor being banished, there is no real surprise that the jealous Loki is somehow involved. In fact, the acting of the child playing the young Loki ruins any sense of surprise as his reaction to Odin saying that only one of his two sons will be king informs the viewer instantly that Loki wants that for himself and knows he will not get it. But without having read any Thor comic books, viewers with minimal mythological education are set up for disappointment. Loki is the trickster god in Norse mythology. So, we expect Loki to be a trickster in Thor and lo and behold, the machinations that affect Asgard are deeply related to Loki and his ambition. This is the exact type of disappointment that comes from writers naming characters Brutus or Judas and then expecting viewers to feel some sense of surprise when they betray the hero of the story. It’s built in to the premise; you name a character something like Loki or Brutus and there are expectations. Thor rather stupidly seems to expect that viewers will be surprised by Loki doing mischief.

But more than that, and I harp on this because Thor is very much Loki’s story (as evidenced by the post-closing credits scene), Loki becomes such a disappointing villain because his ambitions are never adequately explored. I’m sick to death of villains where they want power for no particular reason. What is Loki’s reason for wanting to be king, what does he want to accomplish? This might seem like a stupid question, but all of the great writers who have great villains address this question and Thor’s do not do this. Director Kenneth Branagh deserves a real poke in the eye for failing so spectacularly in this regard. Branagh is well-known for his movies based on Shakespeare works and one need look no further than The Tragedy Of Othello to see what makes a truly convincing villain. In Othello, Iago is not blindly ambitious; he and Othello do the same work and only Othello gets the credit. Iago is a great villain because he has been slighted, his talents have been overlooked. In Thor Loki is just a pissed off guy because he’s a whiny brat.

To be fair to Loki, it’s not like Thor has done anything demonstrably great, so the weakness of Thor is that the hero isn’t all that great and the villain isn’t all that notable, so neither truly deserves to take over for Odin (who is seen doing more for the realm of Asgard than either of his sons). So, to reiterate, a whole film spent with Asgard and the Frost Giant realm might have set up an Earth-bound sequel that made the viewer care about the protagonist and the antagonist.

Which leads us to Jane, Dr. Selvig, Darcy and the plot of Thor on Earth. I can barely muster up enough interest to write about them because when the hammer of Thor falls to Earth, Agent Coulson becomes an antagonist and for those who have seen the Iron Man movies, it is hard to consider him a compelling villain. And by the time Thor’s friends arrive and the big bad, the Destroyer, is dispatched, the viewer does not care.

Why is that? That comes back to what I mentioned before. Thor is busy telling its story when the main narrative is cut out of for bits that have no particular relevance to the tale and were, coincidentally enough, used in almost all of the promos. So, bits like Thor shirtless being commented on by Darcy, Thor having coffee and smashing his mug and Jane hoping desperately that Thor is not just crazy are incongruent with the tone and pace of the rest of the film. Thor topless and being commented on as “cut” pops up in the movie like, “Hey, look at how hot Chris Hemsworth is! Okay, now that you’ve seen it, let’s get back to the story!” While I’ve loved Kat Dennings in everything else I’ve seen her in (and to Branagh’s credit, this is the first movie I’ve seen her in where she is not wearing excessive lipstick), her character is so utterly unnecessary in Thor as to be unenjoyable to watch. All of the worst lines that don’t fit the movie – and were in the trailers – are delivered by Dennings and it pains me to write that. The only thing worse is the contrived kiss that pops up late in the movie and Branagh and the writers ought to feel some sense of shame over putting together one of the least compelling, least believable pseudo-romantic sequences of modern cinema. Honestly, there is not a kiss on screen I’ve seen ever that didn’t feel like “we need to have this in because it is That Kind Of Movie” than the eventual kiss in Thor. Forget actor chemistry, there is so little character chemistry built into the moment that when Thor and Jane mack, it feels cheap.

On the character front, in addition to Loki not being painted as a particularly compelling villain, Thor does not rise to the occasion as a hero, at least not in a meaningful way. Separated from his mystical hammer, Odin’s purpose is clearly to teach Thor the benefit of humility and some measure of judgment whereby pacifism may be realistically considered. The ridiculous notion of Thor is that he gets his taste of humility long before anything cinematically spectacular actually happens. When Thor awakens in the hospital bound to his bed, his helplessness and frustration are palatable and for a god to be so trapped teaches Thor the lesson he was supposed to learn. Only, it doesn’t because it’s not cinematic enough and more contrived events happen that lead Thor to the understanding of compassion and a protective instinct that leads him not to value life much more, but does allow him to go kick some ass with his hammer again. I’m sorry, what was the character journey in Thor?

As for the acting, there are some great performances in Thor but they come where they are expected. Sir Anthony Hopkins delivers as Odin and Colm Feore rocks his few scenes as King Laufey and when the two are on screen together, they have the movie’s most powerful dramatic moments. Chris Hemsworth, who made the most of his ten minutes in Star Trek (reviewed here!) lacks the substance to actually make the viewer care about Thor. I’m not sure that the problem here was writing, but I don’t think it has to do with physicality. Hemsworth is convincing enough with the strength of Thor, but he doesn’t sell much else from him. Natalie Portman, as Jane, is likely to shock viewers by how she took such an unremarkable role. Jane might have potential as a character, but her parts are mashed in between so many fantastical elements and being talked down to that she never truly develops. That Portman goes along with it is disappointing after a string of strong and interesting characters that she has played. It would not surprise me if Portman refused to return for the inevitable Thor sequel.

Finally, the spectacle front (worth only one point in my ten-point rating scale). Thor is appropriately trippy and spectacular, especially on the celestial realms of Asgard and the Frost Giant realm. Even so, there were noticeable moments during the spectacular battles where character movement was off and it was obvious what was done with CG technology. The 3-D effects were all right, but I’d recommend sticking with the 2-D version as nothing is so incredible in the 3-D (I’m seeing Thor again with my wife this week and we’re not paying for the 3-D, so if that impression changes, I’ll revise). The settings, make-up and costumes are actually more impressive than the battle sequences in Thor.

Ultimately, Thor opens Summer Blockbuster Season and it does so with a movie that only works if one truly disconnects their brains or enters with no expectations that the journey will be as meaningful as the destination, for the movie wanders about until it eventually ends without actually doing much in between. I would recommend staying through the final credits, as the scene there actually was interesting. But, it’s a lot of set-up for yet another Marvel movie and it’s hard to get excited about that one after this one was so mediocre.

For other Marvel universe films, please check out my reviews of:
Blade: Trinity
Iron Man


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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