Sunday, May 8, 2011

DAMN Good Movies -- THOR


Yes, I'm back with another of my infamous movie takes, this time focusing my keyboard strokes on the film Thor, based on the classic Marvel Comics character.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then in the name of Smilin' Stan Lee, please stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...you are worthy to hold the hammer of Thor...

Although I read a lot of Marvel Comics growing up, I was never much of a Thor guy until the classic run by writer/artist Walt Simonson that debuted in Thor (vol.1) #337.  With his stylish, distinct visuals and full-on embracing of Norse mythology, Simonson crafted the character's defining stories that have yet to be equalled, at least as far as I'm concerned.  The one to come closest is probably Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, who along with artist Olivier Coipel, came up with the concept of bringing the Asgardians to Earth and centering the series around the small town of Broxton, Oklahoma.

Between this film, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger, this is going to be a busy summer for superhero films and based on their respective trailers, all four seem to have something going for them.  Also, as the latest installment of the build-up to the upcoming 2012 film The Avengers, I was curious to see how this key component of the shared Marvel film universe would complement the others.  Thankfully, though, Marvel seems to have another winner on their hands.

The film opens with the exiled and powerless Thor arriving on Earth/Midgard (New Mexico, to be precise) in a burst of special effects, where he is found by astrophysicist Jane Foster and her two companions, Erik Selvig and Darcy Lewis.  After a brief flashback to 10th century Norway, we then race across the nine worlds to Asgard for the backstory of events leading up to said exile and then pick up Thor's exile from there.

Now, you would typically expect the film to focus more on New Mexico because of the cost-effectiveness, but surprisingly, the center of the story is around Asgard.  A good thing, too, because the Golden Realm never looked better.  One of the great things about this movie is that you can see every ounce of the film's budget up on the screen -- elaborate sets and costumes right out of Flash Gordon, mixed in with some impressive CGI background design make for some truly spectacular visuals.  Out of all the Marvel Comics drawn by the late, legendary Jack Kirby, Thor is the first film to truly honor his artistic style with an incredible (or should that be mighty?) sense of the cosmic.  It's going to look absolutely killer on Blu-Ray.

Director Kenneth Branagh keeps things moving as well, hopping back and forth between New Mexico, Asgard and the Frost Giants' realm, Jotunheim.  I was a little concerned when I first learned of Branagh's involvement, having been singularly disappointed by his 1994 version of Frankenstein starring Robert De Niro.  Thankfully, Branagh handles Thor more like his Shakespearean films, playing up the father issues and encouraging the actors to boom their voices theatrically.  Combined with the elaborate visuals, he gives the film its needed epic scale, balanced nicely against the smaller, less-godly setting of Earth.  He's not much of an action director, however, as he tends to focus too closely on the chaos instead of pulling back a bit to showcase what's taking place.

Of course, it helps that Branagh had a very solid cast to work with, some using their considerable screen presence to overcome something that could easily turn campy and silly.  This film could've been the next Flash Gordon in terms of campiness in addition to set design and costumes, but Thor fans can be reassured that everything is played straight and any fears you might've had are quickly tossed aside.  Of course, there were specific things that stood out about each of the characters and here's some of what I noticed...

THOR ODINSON -- Obviously, the entire film rides on Chris Hemsworth, probably best known as Captain Kirk's father George from the 2009 Star Trek.  With the amount of strutting, fighting and flirting he gets to do in the role of a thunder god, you can easily see this being a breakout film for him.  I know he's tied up with The Avengers and Thor sequels provided the first one does well enough at the box office, but I won't be surprised to see him in other major films down the road.

JANE FOSTER -- Natalie Portman somehow overcame being Natalie Portman in this one.  I've found her to be a very wooden actress at times, but her chemistry with Hemsworth works well and snarky sidekick Darcy seems to encourage Portman to finally breathe some life into her line delivery.  You tend to buy Portman as an astrophysicist about as much as you did Denise Richards as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, but mercifully, she doesn't get much in the way of technobabble to mangle.

LOKI LAUFEYSON -- As the official Big Bad, Tom Hiddleston comes off a bit too sympathetic for the devious trickster god Loki.  He's not so much menacing as he is in desperate need of some family counseling or perhaps an appearance on Dr. Phil.  By the end of the film, however, you start to see that his journey to the Dark Side of the Fjord is complete and especially in the post-credits Avengers teaser.

ODIN BORSON -- Sir Anthony Hopkins does his best Sir Anthony Hopkins here, turning in his most memorable role since Don Diego de la Vega in 1998's The Mask of Zorro.  His voice is appropriately booming and shouty when needed and his acting cred certainly gives the role of the All-Father enough weight.  Odin ends up being marginalized, however, sending him conveniently into the Odinsleep, a process to restore his energy, only to wake up just in the nick of time to rescue Thor.

ERIK SELVIG -- Sweden-born Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd is probably the only actor in the cast who could legitimately be considered a Norse god, so of course he plays a mortal astrophysics professor.  He's mostly a surrogate father to Jane, but the post-credits Avengers teaser gives him more to do than the actual film did.

DARCY LEWIS -- Kat Dennings gets the role of snarky comic relief for several scenes as Jane's assistant, Darcy.  She's the one who gets to state the audience's response to the strangeness going on and as a result, she can keep the film from taking itself too seriously or be a bit annoying or both.  Most of the time, though, she's both.

AGENT COULSON -- Clark Gregg reprises his S.H.I.E.L.D. agent role from the Iron Man films to illustrate the shared Marvel films universe, although here S.H.I.E.L.D. is depicted as your stereotypical government goons whose sole function seems to be just to screw with someone because they can.  They take Jane's research and equipment for some unexplained "We're the government" reason and then end giving it right back to her at the end because a god of thunder tells them to do it.  I guess they had to do something to pass the time.

HEIMDALL -- As something of a comic book purist, I was initially a bit thrown by the diversified casting of traditional Norse gods, but Idris Elba certainly justified the move.  Heimdall is essentially depicted as the stoic Badassgardian, the one you don't mess with and makes other characters seem cooler simply because he's standing right next to them.  If Heimdall was given this kind of attention in the Thor comics, he'd probably end up with his own series.

VOLSTAGG THE VOLUMINOUS -- I'm a big fan of the HBO series Rome, so I'm always glad to see Ray Stevenson, the former Titus Pullo, especially as an Asgardian warrior.  That said, he's probably the most miscast in this film.  Volstagg should be loud and literally larger than life, like a fat, jolly Klingon, so casting the guy who recently played the Punisher was probably not the way to go.  If only Brian Blessed was at least thirty years younger...

HOGUN THE GRIM -- Tadanobu Asano was another PC diversity replacement, although one that doesn't work nearly as well as Idris Elba did as Heimdall.  No, this Hogun is more bland than grim and doesn't complement his fellow Warriors Three comrades Fandral and Volstagg the way he truly should.

FANDRAL THE DASHING -- Josh Dallas, meanwhile, pretty much nails the role of Fandral.  Capturing the best of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, Dallas' Fandral gives a playful wink while swordfighting with Frost Giants and makes you wish he had a lot more screen time.

SIF -- If Thor accomplishes nothing else as a film, it manages to finally find the perfect actress to star in a Wonder Woman movie with Jaimie Alexander.  Alexander's Sif is everything you'd want to see in a live-action Wonder Woman, so if Warner Bros. and DC Comics are smart, they're already calling up her agent.  Watch the scene where Sif saves Volstagg from the Destroyer if you don't believe me.

FRIGGA -- Renee Russo doesn't have much to do apart from watch over Odin as he catches forty winks, but she does get to take out one Frost Giant before getting smacked around by another.

THE DESTROYER -- Absolutely perfect.  Although it's a CGI character, the Destroyer manages to carve a nice path of destruction through the small New Mexico town where the story is partially based.  It's like an update of the Phantom Zone criminals from Superman II laying waste to the rural town of East Houston.  Although, to be fair, the Destroyer doesn't get to arm-wrestle one of the local hicks.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Stan "The Man" turns up as a truck driver who tries to haul Thor's hammer Mjolnir out of its impact crater, only to lose the rear end of his truck.  Not one of his best cameos, but still fun.

WALT SIMONSON CAMEO -- One of my favorite things about this movie was seeing Walt Simonson seated alongside the Asgardians during their victory feast at the end of the movie.  A wonderful nod and richly deserved.  Kudos to Branagh.

J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI CAMEO -- Yes, even Straczynski gets a cameo here as the first person to find Mjolnir after it crashlands in the New Mexico desert.  Very appropriate, considering he wrote the comics that featured this actual event.

OBLIGATORY NICK FURY CAMEO -- Samuel L. Jackson shows up and makes his required appearance in the post-ending credits Avengers teaser.  He doesn't get to meet Thor (yet), but he does show off none other than the Cosmic Cube to Erik Selvig, just so Loki can lurk in a reflection and go "Excellent" in his best Mr. Burns impression.

CLINT BARTON/HAWKEYE -- Interestingly, Jeremy Renner's debut as Hawkeye has him showing up in the middle of the movie, but not so interestingly, all he does is stand in a crane basket with his bow drawn and ask if he can shoot Thor...which he doesn't.  Sounds like a scene that probably should've been cut?  To quote Lana Kane from the FX animated series Archer...Yuuuuup.

Overall, Thor is a great film to open the summer movie season and is definitely worth your valuable time and money.  If you're the type to waste spend some extra bones on 3-D, then go for it by all means, but the film looks sharp in the traditional and less expensive format.  And with the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie not out for a couple of weeks, Thor should do nicely at the box office and have at least one sequel after The Avengers.  How about bringing in the neglected Balder the Brave and Beta Ray Bill to fight Surtur, guys? 


And for those who might be wondering, here's the updated and revised list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. Watchmen (2009)
4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
5. Spider-Man (2002)
6. Batman Begins (2005)
7. Iron Man (2008)
8. X2: X-Men United (2003)
9. X-Men (2000)
10. Thor (2011)
11. Batman (1989)
12. Superman II (1981)
13. Iron Man 2 (2010)
14. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
15. Hellboy (2004)
16. Superman Returns (2006)
17. Sin City (2005)
18. 300 (2007)
19. The Crow (1994)
20. V For Vendetta (2006)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

4 comments:

  1. WOW! Thor get's the 10 spot above Batman!???? That is saying something! I'm gobsmacked! Must go out to see it now - thanks for your awesome review!
    ~Gwyneth
    The Daring Librarian

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  2. And thank you for the lovely comments, Gywneth. I'm sure everyone will have their own film rankings -- they always seem to -- but this is how I see things. Here's hoping you enjoy Thor and don't prove me wrong!

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  3. Great review, Charles! Looking forward to you adjusting your top 20 list a few more times in the coming months!

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  4. Thanks, Michael. I'm hoping Green Lantern director Martin Campbell dumps at least some of the comedic goofiness shown in its first trailer and focuses the film more on the science-fiction aspects shown in recent trailers. GL has some serious competition this summer, so it better keep stepping its game up!

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