Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

The true measurement of Thor is not known until the end, when the credit "Based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby" comes up. It'd be one thing for Thor to succeed on its own terms, as the latest in what is now a long line of comic book adaptations, but for Thor to truly be special it has to either break totally free of its legacy and be its own weird little thing (like Ang Lee's Hulk, of which I am a fan), or be the perfect live action embodiment of what the character was created for (like Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films).

You can count Thor in the latter category, if only by accident.

Stan Lee is sort of a brilliant mind, specifically in the realm of inventing and identifying instant archetypes in his own work. In a modern media environment that seems structured against innovation, it seems impossible for anyone to come up with Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, or The Incredible Hulk, much less for all of them to come mostly from one person. But Lee was not then, nor is now, a great writer. It was the ideas that provided the hook, and the incredible imagery that artists like Jack Kirby built around them.

And in that way, Thor is kind of the perfect Thor film. The plot is forgettable to the point of being disposable, and since the only world in jeopardy is the one we were introduced to five minutes ago, the stakes are shockingly low. The characters function as archetypes and nothing more, in spite of whatever flavor the actors give to them (and they give quite a bit). And setting the majority of the story of a Thor film in the New Mexico desert is pretty weak - you can say costumed superheroes always look ridiculous, but the fact is they just do look way more ridiculous in small town America. It screams "low budget."

But Asgard is spectacular. The bridge they travel across to pass between worlds is a stunning thing to behold, and in rare moments one does get the sense that this was the world Jack Kirby imagined. Thor, as played by Chris Hemsworth, is a spectacular screen presence. And Kenneth Branagh's direction is so outlandish, so over-the-top, and so perfectly suited to his bold source that the film is so much better than the script deserves. Branagh never saw a conflict that wouldn't be better settled with screaming, and a simple set-up that wouldn't be better suited to outlandish cranes and dutch angles. I love big, silly direction in my comic book movies, and I so wish the screenplay was as willing to be as theatrical as the film Branagh ended up crafting, because ultimately the plot and storytelling do drag the film down.

Thor, as a character, is barely one at all. He has an arc, eventually, and so we're told, but we never see him engage with any internal struggle at all. And again, I'm fine with Thor having no internal struggle. He is THOR after all. But the film presents a change in his character that isn't developed so much as occurred. Can't have it both ways, fellas. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Odin (Anthony Hopkins) are allowed some depth, but aren't terribly present in the film. Everyone else - Jane (Natalie Portman), the Warriors Three, etc. - are all background material. Every summer film needs a romance, and this one has Natalie Portman, but the Oscar winner's talents are put to even less use here than in Your Highness.

After an early, kind of great battle between Thor, his companions, and the Frost Giants, the action also takes a backseat. Sure, Thor eventually has to break into a government facility and stuff, but this is a Thor film without much THOR in it - most of the time he's stripped of his powers and is just a guy. And that would work in a sort of deconstructionist way if the film were at all thinking on that level. It'd also work in a sequel when we already know the character (Spider-Man 2, Superman 2). It'd also work if he had any kind of personal journey, but he's mostly the same guy at the end as the beginning, and what does change is too sudden to fall under the realm of "journey." As it is, it just robs us of what we paid for.

In all, it feels like an odd middle chapter to a slightly more interesting story. The beginning would have epic Thor action as he pillages and plunders. The end would show him returning to Earth to bring the thunder. This just has him moving sort of listlessly about, "learning about himself." If only we were to benefit. Branagh's direction of the camera and the actors is commendable, and nearly makes a good film from a lousy script, but there's only so much one can do with the words on the page.

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