Marvel Comics has had a much better success in bringing their 2nd-tier characters over onto the big-screen than DC Comics and they’ve made the risky decision to tie-in every film they make into one shared universe. Comic book fans have begun to call this the Marvel Film Universe since it contains the same characters and backgrounds as those of their comic book counterparts but also with enough changes to make them stand-out on their own. They’ve already begun this with the first two Iron Man films and a recent reboot of the Incredible Hulk. With the X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil and Fantastic Four film rights still under the control of other film studios it left Marvel (now Disney) to use other characters in their control to fill out the rest of this shared universe. The next one to get their turn on the bigscreen is the live-action adaptation of Marvel’s Asgardian God of Thunder. The studios picked British filmmaker Kenneth Branagh to handle this adaptation and his background in bringing Shakespeare to the big-screen has made Thor a flwed but very entertaining superhero film.
To start off, it has to be said that Thor was always going to be the most difficult of all the characters that will make up The Avengers film to bring to the bigscreen. While all these Marvel films do have their fantastic elements due to each character’s superhero nature it was even more fantastic with the character of Thor. This character is in effect a being who has been worshipped by humans in the past as one of their deities. God-like characters have always been tough to make human and relatable in stories and film. It’s a testament to Branagh’s handle of the Asgard characters such as Thor, Odin and Loki that we don’t end up with just all-powerful beings, but individuals whose impulses and motivations definitely are human. It’s this dynamic between Thor, his father Odin and his brother Loki which drives the Shakespearean angle of the film’s storyline. It’s where Branagh’s history of making Shakespeare accessible to the general film audience that makes their story easy to follow and understand.
The film actually begins with the human characters of Dr. Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) and her colleagues (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) driving around in the New Mexico desert at night looking for atmospheric disturbances which should validate Foster’s theories on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge aka wormholes. What they end up running to instead is Thor himself arriving on Earth (Midgard in Asgardian terms) to begin his banishment from his homeworld. Yes, I say homeworld as the film has turned one of the more difficult aspects of Thor’s background into something that makes sense for the audience not steeped and learned from decades of Thor comic books. Thor’s home of Asgard is just one of nine worlds around the galaxy of which Earth is one.
It’s right after this scene that we go back to what started Thor’s banishment. The film does a great job explaining the role the Asgard’s played in Earth’s past history and the consequences of their war against the Frost Giants of the world of Jotunheim (one of the nine worlds). It’s through the narration by Odin himself (Anthony Hopkins) that we learn of the origins of the Gods and myths of Norse culture. This intro scene also shows Odin showing his two young sons in Thor and Loki the relic he had taken to end the wars between Asgard and the Jotunheim. For an origin sequence it was able to set up the rules of this fantastical world of Asgard and it’s Nine Realms. It’s the sequence right after which would lead to Thor’s banishment from Asgard and the stripping of his all-powerful hammer, Mjolnir, and his powers.
For some, and I would have to agree, this sequence which takes Thor, his brother Loki, childhood friends Sif and Warriors Three to the icy world of Jotunheim made up the best action setpiece for the film. The battle which begins between Thor’s forces and those of King Lauhey (Colm Feore under some very elaborate make-up effects) of the Frost Giants. This scene shares some similar qualities with an earlier action setpiece in the first Iron Man film in that it surpasses all other setpieces which would occur later in their respective films. This is not to say that the other action scenes were boring or just simple fare. They were exhilirating and full of energy, but that very first one in the beginning just had even more energy and action that it might’ve been better saved for the climax of the film.
Once the banishment occurs we finally catch up to the film’s first scene and the film begins to go back and forth between Asgard and Earth. With the former we see the machiavellian side of Loki finally assert itself. While Loki’s character is never truly shown to be evil his mischievious streak does show to have a cruel side to it. The bombshell of a news from Odin about his true origins was a nice touch, but it doesn’t lead to the sort of evil character turn we’re used to. In fact, I would say that Loki’s character (played with Iago-like relish by Tom Hiddleston) ends up becoming like the son who does the wrong things for the right reasons. He’s a nice contrast to the more open-faced Thor who does what he says instead of dancing around the subject even to the detriment of his standing with his father.
The scenes on Earth itself is where the comedic aspect of the film comes in. Most of the comedy comes at the expense of Thor’s “fish out of water” reaction to the new world around him. It’s helped much by some great comedic timing by Jane’s assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings who steals the film from Portman whenever they’re on together). It is also the time on Earth where some of the flaws in the film really become apparent. First and foremost would be Portman’s Jane Foster character who seem to be so uneven. She goes from brilliant astrophysicist one moment then giggling schoolgirl the next whenever she’s in close proximity to Thor. While Portman and Hemsworth do make quite the radioactively beautiful couple there’s a sense of untapped chemistry between the two that might have been left on the editing floor. It’s a shame really since so much could’ve been done with the Foster character to really give reasons to why Thor ends up valuing the lives of said mortals to earn his God of Thunder status once again.
Thor really does entertain despite some character and storytelling (really most of it on the Earth side of things) flaws which could’ve sunk the film right from the start. I believe that it’s director Branagh’s handling of the Shakespearean tragedy on the Asgard side of the film that holds the film together. This is one reason and the other being a star-turning turn by Chris Hemsworth as Thor himself. His performance goes from cocky, brash young man on the cusp of leadership to lost, confused and rudderless once banished then back again to a maturing prodigal son who finally learns the lessons his father has been trying to teach him. It would interesting to see Hemsworth’s Thor truly interact with Downey’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers when The Avengers comes out in 2012.
The riskiest part of Marvel’s attempt to create their Marvel Cinematic Universe succeeds where most seem to think it will fail. It’s not as strong an origin film as Favreau’s first Iron Man, but it does add a sense of wonder that film could never grasp through two films. Even the controversial casting choices to put non-white actors to play Asgard roles (Tadanobu Asano as Hogun and Idris Elba as Heimdall) comes off well that the audience shouldn’t even wonder why a black and Asian person were playing characters written originally as white.
From the look of things there’s no official word whether there will be a second Thor film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was no matter how the film does boxoffice-wise. There’s just too much great stories to tell about Thor, Asgard and the rest of the Asgard Nine Realms now that the foundation has been laid down with this first film. I do hope that Branagh returns for those sequels if they do happen. One thing which Branagh has proven was his handling of action sequences. They weren’t amazing, but they were handled with enough skill that I believe a second time around we’d get even better action from a director known more for serious dramatic films.
A final thing to mention would be the Easter Egg final scene which occurs once the end credits finish their run at the end of the film. For those who stayed to see this scene it should be a nice treat for Marvel and comic book fans. It shows a certain artifact that should tie Thor to the upcoming Captain America film later this summer. All I can say for those who didn’t stay to see it and knows their Marvel trivia are two words: Cosmic and cube.
PS: An Avenger member makes a cameo appearance halfway in the film that doesn’t look tacked on despite what some of the more “glass half-empty” film bloggers on the net would make you think…Also, it’s safe to forgo seeing Thor in 3D. It’s not a bad post-conversion but it doesn’t really add to the film. See it in 2D to save yourself a few bucks on the ticket price.