Ever since Marvel took control of the films about their characters (Iron Man, then The Incredible Hulk) the superhero genre has matured beyond doe eyed children (Spider-Man) to cocksure teenagers with some justifiable swagger. Despite not owning the rights to some of it’s most popular characters (the Spider-Man films are controlled by Sony, and the X-Men, 20th Century Fox), Marvel has its sights set high on an Avengers film in 2012, featuring Iron Man, Captain America (coming out this summer), Hulk, and Thor. The ultimate question is if they will not just introduce interesting characters, but give us stories to care about. Thor strives for such storytelling, but struggles to escape painful melodrama.
Hammer swinging Prince Thor of Asgard proves himself unworthy of his father’s throne, which lands him on the strange dirt ball Earth where he meets astrophysicist Jane Foster and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents curious about his origins.
Considering Thor is a film that re-writes Norse Gods as aliens from another world and manages to wring some Shakespearean drama from something so foreign (everything in Asgard is shiny with a touch of rainbow) speaks to Kenneth Branagh’s direction and performances from Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Anthony Hopkins as father Odin, and even Tom Hiddleston as little brother Loki.
Of course, a sense of humor can do wonders for a film and just like the other Marvel productions, the little character quirks and amusing banter allow the audience to blow off some steam before they start laughing at the film’s sense of self-importance. Passing references to Tony Stark will get an acknowledged giggle, showcasing how the company is deftly cultivating a full universe of Marvel characters mainstream audiences are familiar with in the same way the Harry Potter films have built that friendly familiarity.
And when Thor has to throw around his hammer, the special effects range from desensitized CGI destruction to legit fireballs and downtown mayhem when battles come to Earth. It is interesting to reflect that the most CGI battles were those taking place away from Earth, while the practical stuff was used heavily when amongst us mortals. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t help the audience connect with our heroes by deploying faceless CGI goons at them (where are the stakes, the danger?).
What I’ve outlined is an okay film. It has bits of drama, comedy, and action without falling flat on its face. The real problem is with the film’s script. Thor’s brother Loki seems to be one person at the beginning of the film, only to evolve into an unlikely character the next. Certain character development pieces don’t line up with future actions, which leaves you wondering how many re-writes happened for this script? The screenplay bears the names of three different writers and the results of such revisions is felt bubbling beneath the superficial conflict: There are several interesting threads hinted at that are unfortunately never taken up.
Which leads to one of Marvel’s worst flaws: they can’t craft a film that makes you care about the story. Sure, we love us some Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Edward Norton resurrecting the Hulk from Ang Lee’s moodiness, but both of those Marvel characters have villains that don’t challenge their heroes. Stark fights robots at the end of both Iron Man films and Hulk fights another big Hulk-monster. The antagonists are phoned in, thereby never generating the fear for our hero that a villain like the Joker elicited in The Dark Knight. A hero can’t just beat up on some random, cliché bad guy – they have to be more of an ideological challenge than just a physical challenge. And so far Marvel has yet to produce a solid bad guy, and therefore a solid story.
Thor is okay, but I can’t wait for Marvel’s films to mature into adulthood.