Monday, May 9, 2011

What Makes Danny of The Mighty THOR ...?!?!

THOR Review:

- Despite being a certified comic book fanboy, I never had any particular fascination with Marvel Comics' THOR. Even as a kid, I always thought the Viking-helmeted God of Thunder looked goofy and out of place next to his fellow street-smart Marvel heroes like Spiderman and Iron Man. The best part of Thor was, if anything, the gleefully crazy Thor-isms that the hero would utter thanks to the unabashedly over-the-top penmanship of Stan Lee - a man who never met a bit of alliteration that he didn't like. But I will say this: as footage of the Thor feature film was released, as more details of the cast and crew began to leak ... well, I couldn't help but get excited. With a grandiose mythology and an epic feel, I could start to visualize how THOR could indeed become a different sort of superhero movie. With master thespian and award-winning director Kenneth Branagh onboard, I realized that Thor could play out like a Shakespearian epic with a superhero twist - a grand melodrama that could be the Marvel Movie Universe's version of Lord of the Rings. Somehow, this vision for what a Thor movie could be, combined with the fact that THOR marks the unofficial kickoff of the 2011 Summer movie season, perhaps gave me unrealistically high expectations. After a mostly underwhelming Winter and Spring at the movies, I was ready for the kind of ass-kicking, mind-melting blockbuster that would have me shouting "Excelsior" at the heavens. So is THOR the sweeping superhero epic that I wanted? Well, I'd say it is about 3/4 of the way there. There are moments where Thor shines - thanks to majestic visuals, a couple of great performances, and some kickass action. But there are also times when Thor feels too overstuffed and poorly plotted to fully work as a self-contained movie. It was an entertaining film, but it didn't blow me away as I had hoped it might. And yet, as I'll explain, sometimes a movie like this has to nail the *essentials*, and the other stuff becomes less important in the grand sceme of things.

What THOR is sort of emblematic of is the new challenge that faces both DC and Marvel as they try to turn some of the second-tier characters into big-budget film franchises. It feels like Thor was the victim of too much tampering by the studio or whomever, in an effort to balance out the cosmic, epic, mythology stuff with a lot of cutesy/goofy earthbound stuff. Now, sure, selling some fun, fish-out-of-water humor with likable actresses like Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings - riffing with Chris Hemsworth's Thor - may help to make the movie feel more mainstream. But having these sorts of moments take up so much of the film definitely lessens the impact of the Shakespearian drama taking place on Asgard - the mythological realm which the Norse gods of legend - including Thor - call home. It also means that a lot of plot points in the movie feel VERY rushed. This is true on Asgard, where the machinations of Thor's manipulative brother Loki never really have time to feel meaningful. Loki is an intriguing character and villain - as played by Tom Hiddelston, he has just the right mix of nobility, self-assurance, and sleaziness. And yet, his transition from adversarial ally to full-on *evil* villain happens very quickly, to the point where Thor's anger and rivalry with his brother comes across as tacked-on. Same goes for Thor's romance with Natalie Portman's character, an astrophysicist (groan) named Jane Foster. Their relationship feels pretty forced, and it felt cheap to escalate the two from having some awkward flirtations one minute to being star-crossed lovers the next minute. We have no real grasp as to why Thor is so smitten with Jane (other than the fact that she's Natalie Portman), or why she has legitimate feelings for him. And while I'm railing on the Jane Foster character, I have to say that Natalie Portman plays her as way too wide-eyed and girlish for someone who's supposed to be a freaking astrophysicist. We all know that Portman is an incredible actress, but I think the combination of the part being underwritten and her playing it wrong really makes Jane Foster feel like a buzzkill in the movie.

And to that end - why does every superhero movie NEED a love interest right off the bat? Sure, there are some legendary superhero romances out there - Superman and Lois Lane, Spiderman and Mary Jane. But when you think of THOR, do you think of it being a love story? No. So why is an underdeveloped love story awkwardly shoehorned right into the middle of this movie? For that matter, why is Kat Dennings' goofy intern character here? I like Dennings a lot, and she has great comic timing, but again, it's a character that feels completely unnatural to the story. It's funny, the little group of astrophysicists (Portman, Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgard as the experienced leader of the outfit) ALMOST works in an endearingly 80's-movie sort of way (you know, how all 80's adventure movies featured a ragtag, makeshift family unit of some sort). But then you wonder - am I watching Adventures in Babysitting (which, of course, famously featured Thor) or, well, THOR?

Now, I know that sounds like a lot of criticism, but the fact is, THOR can be pretty damn entertaining and badass at times. The fact is, the movie COULD have been a complete mess given all of the disparate elements woven into the script, but Branagh manages to steady the ship and give the film a sense of awe and wonder and visual splendor that will send audiences home happy. I loved the design of Asgard in the film - from the gleaming spires and citadels to the entrancing Rainbow Bridge that serves as a gateway to other realms. I loved the awesome ANTHONY HOPKINS as ODIN, the regal father of Thor. Hopkins just flat-out owns in the movie, delivering his lines with gravitas-infused pomp and circumstance. I know some people rag on Hopkins for the over-the-top acting style he brings to genre films, but dammit all, I say he kicks ass. He's not playing some random dude here, he's playing by-gum ODIN, king of the Norse gods. And by Odin's beard, he was, in my estimation, one of THOR'S greatest assets. Similarly awesome is Idris Elba as Heimdell, the guardian of the gate that leads from Asgard to other worlds. I wish Elba had more screentime, but man, does he kick some ass in the time that he is given. I also greatly enjoyed Ray Stevenson and the other actors who comprised THE WARRIORS THREE - Thor's loyal friends / allies. These guys were all real scene-stealers. And after seeing Jaimie Alexander in badass she-warrior mode as Sif, you wonder why Thor would pass her up for the bland Ms. Foster. So yeah, visually, and in terms of the cast of characters that inhabit it - ASGARD is truly one of the things that makes Thor pop. Of course, there's also additional visual sizzle when Thor and co. visit the world of the formidable Frost Giants - longtime rivals of the Asgardians. Early on in the film, there are some truly epic sequences involving god vs. giant combat. And Colm Feore, digitally transformed into the king of said Frost Giants, is pretty awesome to boot.

Of course, the MVP of THOR is undoubtedly Chris Hemsworth as the title character. Hemsworth is one of the best casting choices in any big-budget comic book adaptation to-date. He IS Thor, plain and simple, and I don't think they could have gotten anyone better for the job. Hemsworth just has that larger-than-life presence where you never doubt for a second that he is a bonafide superhero. He's not a scene-stealer like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, or doing deep, Oscar-caliber stuff like Christian Bale in Batman, but he basically just embodies the role and makes it all look pretty effortless. Marvel has found the definitive Thor, and it's going to be fun to see him continue the role in future sequels and in THE AVENGERS.

Speaking of which, in addition to the Asgardian drama and the romance and the astrophysicist stuff, there's ALSO a large chunk of Thor that'd dedicated to the ongoing Marvel Universe saga involving SHIELD and the planting of seeds for The Avengers. The SHIELD bits in Thor are decent, but too much of it feels like a mere warm-up for bigger things to come. For example, I got excited when Thor prepares to break into a SHIELD compound that's been built around the site where Thor's mystical hammer Mjolnir lies encrusted in desert rock, sword-in-the-stone style. But the big scene mostly consists of Thor taking out C-list SHIELD red-shirts. A confrontation with HAWKEYE is teased (Jeremy Renner makes an applause-worthy cameo as the future Avenger), but never comes to fruition. And Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is nowhere to be found, until his obligatory post-credits epilogue scene. Left to carry the load is Clark Gregg as Agent Caulson, but let's face it, his presence isn't particularly exciting, except as a hint of more epic Marvel Universe adventures yet to come. And the way that Thor is eventually freed from the clutches of SHIELD, with Skarsgard simply waltzing into their compound, explaining that Thor is simply a crazy guy named Donald Blake (a nod to Thor's comic book alter ego) under his protection? One of the more groan-worthy moments in the film.

And you know, all this stuff crammed into one movie makes you think about the very concept of adapting serialized comic books into self-contained feature films. With TV shows like GAME OF THRONES currently weaving complex, big-budget, serialized mythologies on the small-screen, you just wonder if, in all the excitement to create a cohesive Marvel movie universe, the ability to create a truly awesome Thor movie gets lost in the process. To me, it felt like THOR had the makings of a true epic, but at some point in the creative process, the hammer fell and someone said "this is too out-there, give us more comic relief and romance and earth-bound stuff." Okay. Then, word came down from on high "okay, this is better, but now we need to devote a chunk of the movie to provide set-up for The Avengers." Okay - now what you're left with is a THOR movie that's seemingly being pulled in a couple of different directions. So the rivalry with Loki ends up feeling rushed (again, despite the best efforts of Tom Hiddleston to create a great villain). The romance with Jane Foster ends up feeling rushed, and a bit ridiculous. The movie never gets to find a great rhthym, and the final act therefore ends up feeling anticlimactic.

At the same time, I don't want to undermine the fact that Kenneth Branagh and co. somehow make the movie work despite all of what I just said. They are walking a tightrope, no doubt, but what Branagh does is to make sure that it's his sensibility - his knack for epic, sweeping melodrama - that ultimately rises to the forefront of Thor. He is able to tilt the movie's goofier aspects more to the side of "charming" than annoying. He and the movie's artists and f/x team make Asgard and the movie's other cosmic realms look awesome - Jack Kirby, I think, would be proud. And he benefits from a couple of killer performances, including an iconic turn from Hemsworth as Thor. At the end of the day, I think that Thor does have some large-scale plot issues, but part of me is willing to forgive it if only because, let's face it, Marvel Comics' THOR has always been a weird, random sort of character that never quite fit in with the rest of the Marvel Universe. It makes sense that the movie version would have a similar clash of tones. But the fact that the character has existed and endured is a tribute to Stan Lee's "what the hell" willingness to try any idea that seemed cool or fun no matter how insane it seemed. I think that's why I always get such a kick out of Stan The Man's cameos in these movies - to think that the out-there superhero universe that Stan helped create in the 60's is now the stuff of serious blockbuster movies - that always makes me smile. And it's why I am willing to somewhat shrug off Thor's weaksauce romance with Jane Foster, at least a little. Because although I as a modern filmgoer expect a little more from blockbuster moviemaking, part of me also just wants to see a movie version of Thor capture, well, the essence of Thor - that being a huge guy with a magical hammer fighting monsters and saving the day. And for all its flaws, THOR gets the important stuff right.

My Grade: B+

End note: I don't usually factor in poor 3D conversions into my grades, and I haven't done so here. But I will say, the fact that THOR is mostly playing in 3D in theaters across the country is pretty upsetting as a movie-fan. The 3D in Thor adds absolutely nothing to the film, and, if anything, it detracts from the visuals by making them darker and less sharp than they should be. If possible, I would say see this one in 2D. And movie studios, either shoot a movie in 3D, or release it in 2D. Simple as that. These unnecessary post-conversions to 3D need to stop.

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