When I reviewed The Avengers, I wrote (some would say that I confessed) that I had not seen Thor. Now that it’s on Netflix Instant, I have no more excuses.
The thing is, Thor never seemed particularly interesting to me as a character or as a film. The source material (Norse mythology, not the comic book, which I am completely unfamiliar with) hardly outlined a nuanced character that a film could explore. Unlike the typical Greek/Roman mythology, which presented conflicted heroes and men struggling to find their place in the world, most of Norse mythology can be summarized as “smashing stuff sure is fun.” Such a summary would fit right in with an average comic book – the type of story that actual good comic book writers (Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman) have to apologize for. And this adaptation of Thor looked like it was going to be the sort of average comic book movie – something that great comic book films (The Dark Knight, Sin City, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2) have to apologize for.
I was hoping that I could say that this was the wrong impression to have. But it’s not. Thor is not a complete disaster, but it is not a good film either. Compared to what Joss Whedon managed to do with many of the same characters in The Avengers (Thor actually makes me like The Avengers more, which I guess is a sort of compliment), this feels like a hopelessly antiquated comic book movie, with ill-defined heroes, standard one-dimensional villains (you know, the kind that are evil because the story needs SOMEONE to be evil) and dialogue that sounds as though it was written by George R.R. Martin after catching Hamlet on TV and downing half a handle of rum.
Thor is – well, alright, picture a movie called Thor. Make it up in your head. The plot you just created is the plot of the actual film. Thor, the Asgardian (Chris Hemworth), is banished to Earth by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) after he attacks the Frost Giants (themselves). A scientist named Jane (Natalie Portman) finds him and realizes there’s something odd about him (mostly because he asks for more coffee in a diner by shattering the mug on the floor). Loki (Tom Hiddleston) seizes the throne of Asgard and sends a creature to kill Thor on Earth. And Kat Dennings is in the movie. Her character doesn’t really play much of a role, bu I like Kat Dennings.
What was weird to me is the lack of humor Thor has with himself. When I say that the film reads like drunken Shakespeare, I mean it. Every single line is said by the actors as though it is supposed to be the most profound statement in the universe. I know director Kenneth Branagh is used to Shakespeare but that approach makes Thor so ridiculous that it borders on camp. Everything else wrong about the film, from the hammy performances (Portman in particular embarrasses herself, playing a more effervescent version of Holly Golightly when she should be playing a scientist) to the pacing problems (including the abrupt non ending), to the fact that there is no suspension of disbelief all stem from the fact that everyone involved in production thought they were making the next great screen epic.
To be fair, the original Superman film had the same problem. But at least that film had the advantage of being about a genuine American icon. Thor has never been the most well-known character; certainly not one that requires the sort of lofty Shakespearean treatment. Yes, comic book films can take themselves seriously. But they also must have the plot and depth to back up that treatment.
Did I like anything about the film? Yes – the effects and design. The end scene at the Bifrost looks fantastic, and actually LOOKS like an actual place with depth, rather than just a blue screen with pretty stuff painted on it. It makes the climax work, to a certain degree. And Thor’s costume was nice – I’m glad they got rid of the silly helmet.
But here’s the thing. I give a lot of guff to superhero films (especially Marvel superhero films) for not being more like The Dark Knight or Iron Man. The reason is that those films presented something that, in retrospect, seems so simple but is also something that most films in this genre ignore. I’ll use Iron Man (since the character is also in The Avengers with Thor) to illustrate what I mean. In that film, Tony Stark was not presented as a mild weakling who sought to do the right thing. In many ways, he was actually quite a despicable man, who was responsible for causing the deaths of untold numbers throughout the world through his arms development. He was also a callous man who cared more about drinking and casual sex than about the good, loyal people around him. All that changed when Tony Stark actually became Iron Man. At first, it was for himself (to escape captivity). Then it was to show himself the merits of his genius. Only later did he realize how beneficial it could be to the world – and how easy it would be for others to challenge him. Obidiah Stane wasn’t a comic book villain; he was the man who Stark was at the beginning of the film and easily could have remained, even after he built the armor. Tony Stark actually becoming Iron Man was a perfectly realized character arc; to put it more simply, the transformation actually meant something to the man and those around him.
Thor has none of that complexity. He stays more or less the same throughout the film, with no challenge to his mind-set – except for one tiny concession that is never properly explained. But why does he act like a hero? Why does he fall in love with Jane? And what does his time on our planet mean to him? The film never says or elaborates – except to point out that, to bring this whole thing full circle, “smashing stuff sure if fun.” Well, in the future, count me out unless you are willing to explain to me WHY I should consider it fun.