Chris Hemsworth as Thor prepares to bring the mighty while Tom Hiddleston as Loki practices his best trick of achieving a Linus Van Pelt level of sincerity in a scene from the new movie based on the Marvel Comics adventures of the Norse thunder god.
Not enough Loki making mischief. Not enough Don Blake doing good deeds---serving one plate of pancakes shouldn’t be enough to earn your way back into Asgard. And not enough Kat Dennings.
As the Norse trickster god Loki, the Mighty Thor’s not as mighty but a lot slipperier brother, Tom Hiddleston comes close to walking away with the movie. If he’d been given a little more to do, audiences might even have forgotten Anthony Hopkins was in it, never mind Natalie Portman. But I think director Kenneth Branagh and his team of screenwriters should have taken the risk. Compared to the first Iron Man, which so far is the best of the series of movies based on the Marvel Comics heroes who will eventually assemble together as The Avengers, Thor, the movie, is somewhat lacking in a sense of humor and a sense of fun. That’s in keeping with the spirit of the comic books when I was a kid. That’s no longer the case, I’ve been informed by current fans, especially since the addition of Thor’s merry band of swashbuckling sidekicks, the Warriors Three, who, happily, are in the movie, making merry, buckling their swashes, and providing some of the fun and humor. And I’d better be clear. Thor isn’t humorless or without fun. I just think there could have been more and Hiddleston and Loki represent an opportunity missed.
Branagh and company count too much on our knowing Loki’s role in the myths. We’re told Loki’s a trickster and we believe it because Hiddleston looks like he’s capable of all kinds of mischief, with his best trick his ability to look as sincere as Peanuts’ Linus about to tell us what Christmas is all about. I would have liked to hear him deliver a speech on the true meaning of Yule. But maybe the filmmakers were afraid a couple more witty speeches and a couple more scenes of Loki reaching into his bag of tricks for the sheer mischief of it and the movie would have had to have been re-titled Loki.
As I said, I think they should have risked it and I think they’d have gotten away with it, because, good as Hiddleston is, I don’t think he could have taken the movie away from its star, Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth handles the mighty-ing well, with the requisite amount of thundering and storming and hammer-throwing. What’s surprising is how well he handles the charming.
Charming? Thor? Definitely not in keeping with the spirit of the comics when I was a kid. But, again, my in-house experts inform me, things have changed. Still, a charming thunder god is a novelty to us old-timers.
We expect Thor to be a natural when it comes to battling frost giants and---after he’s lost his hammer and his divine powers---mixing it up with agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. We don’t expect him to be a natural at whipping up a batch of pancakes and graciously playing waiter to set of mortals who are pretty clear that they don’t believe he’s a god and think he’s a nutcase. We don’t expect him to understand and sympathize with a young scientist’s devotion to her vocation or share her enthusiasm for her theories or be able to follow her thinking and even help her solve some problems. We don’t expect him to be able to do the science and the math and have fun while he’s at it. And we don’t expect him to treat her middle-aged mentor with kindness and respect and to understand that the man’s irritation and resentment and suspicion are signs of his fatherly concern and affection or see him instinctively make an effort to draw some of the older scientist’s fatherly feelings towards himself.
Hemsworth handles all this, including the plate of pancakes, with intelligence and wit and infectious good-humor, and even when he’s not fighting he moves with an old-fashioned movie star’s grace. You can think Errol Flynn but you should and can also think Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper as well. Hemsworth has more than a touch of the swashbuckler and acrobat and he’s got a bit of the roguish song and dance man in him and some cool cowboy to boot.
If you’ve read the comic books or seen the trailer, you know the set-up, but even if you don’t I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that through his “arrogance and stupidity" the vain and rash young thunder god nearly starts a war up in Asgard, the Norse gods’ home and the Vikings’ heaven. To punish him, Odin, Thor’s father and Asgard’s king, (Hopkins, pulling the same trick he pulled in The Mask of Zorro of coming across as cooler and deadlier than the movie’s actual young hero), strips Thor of his godhood (Basically, he takes away his superpowers.) and exiles him to earth where he will have to learn humility, self-restraint, and how to use his head and consult his heart before acting if he’s to earn his way back into heaven.
Thor’s time on earth include some of my favorite scenes in the movie, but I wish there’d been a little more done with them, not just for the fun of it, but because Thor seems to have too easy a time of it learning his lessons.
The movie suggests that Thor has the heart and the decency to adapt himself to his situation, that is, he knows how to be polite, he knows how to put people---and presumably gods, elves, and dwarfs too---at their ease. He’s been to Midgard (earth, to us non-ancient Scandinavian pagans) any number of times and it might have been fun and amusing to know when, where, and why. Whenever it was, it wasn’t recently, and wherever it was it wasn’t the United States. Thor likes humans and has insight into what makes us tick, but he isn’t well versed in the manners and mores of 21st Century America. He has a few things to learn about how to deal with the traffic---obey the lights and use the crosswalks---and the proper way to compliment the coffee at the local diner and ask for another mug---hint, you shouldn’t literally need another mug---and that pet stores aren’t stocked to equip banished Norse deities who need to ride heroically to the rescue at a moment’s notice---few pet stores sell giant eagles large enough to carry a six-foot seven inch thunder god.
But Thor needs to learn that a side of himself he takes for granted to the point of forgetting it’s there is actually his best side. That’s where Don Blake could have come in.
Old school fans of the comic will remember that Odin didn’t just make Thor human, he made him live as a human and as a particular human, a doctor named Don Blake. The movie makes an inside joke out of that. Time and plot constraints meant that the movie couldn’t delve deeply into that part of Thor’s origin story. But more could have been done with the Don Blake idea. It goes without saying that Thor is a great warrior, even without his hammer and superpowers, but in order to become a superhero and mankind’s protector, he needs to learn how to be protective.
Of course, Thor feels kindly and protective towards the young scientist. For one thing, she’s played by Natalie Portman and who wouldn’t feel kindly and protective towards Natalie Portman (besides Darren Aronofsky)? But she’s also the love interest. And it follows that Thor would feel kindly and protective towards her friends. What we should see is Thor feeling kindly and protective towards strangers.
It wouldn’t have taken much to show that, just a couple of scenes of Thor not just pretending he’s a doctor named Don Blake but actually having to act as if he is Doctor Don Blake. I don’t think they’d have needed to take it so far as to show Thor delivering a baby, but a we should get the idea that Thor has to spend some time as Don Blake doing good deeds and getting to like it, both doing the good deeds and being a decent human being.
What Thor finally does to win back his godhood is fairly convincing, on the mythological level. It would have had more of a pay off on the dramatic level if we’d seen him working towards redemption in a more human way so that his moment of truth, while a win for him as a god, is a loss for him as a man, and a loss for us too. As much as we want Thor back as Thor, we should miss having him around as Don Blake.
Ok, so not enough Loki making mischief, not enough Thor as Don Blake. Now about not enough Kat Dennings.
As Darcy Lewis, the young scientist’s less than helpful student assistant (Older scientist: “I thought you’re a science major.” Darcy, with an unspoken duh at the end: “Political science.”) Dennings is adorable and funny. She’s smart about not being smart. Darcy’s not a ditz, but she’s lazy. She’s paying attention with only half her mind. The rest is…elsewhere. Nowhere in particular, just otherwise engaged. The part of her that’s here would rather not be. Darcy’s a character it must have been tempting to go to for easy laughs, and I guess it’s good Branagh resisted. It’s probably better to have just not enough of her than just a little too much.
In her short interactions with Hemsworth, Thor treats Darcy with kindness and amusement and with the kind of adult respect she has to grow up a little more to actually deserve, and Dennings lets us see that really does need to grow up and that she might actually manage to do it…someday.
But the best thing she does is give Natalie Portman something to play off of.
Portman is the clear favorite to replace Julie Roberts as America’s movie sweetheart. But that puts her in danger of having happen to her what happened to Roberts. Roberts is a good actress whose fans and directors stopped expecting to act. They were happy if all she did was smile her way winsomely through a movie and too often that’s all she did. Portman does a lot of winsome smiling in Thor, most of it around Hemsworth. It’s around Denning that she gets to act.
As Jane Foster (originally Don Blake’s nurse in the comic books, an astrophysicist here), Portman stars as her first bone fide grown-up. Her doctor character in No Strings Attached is really some screenwriter’s wistful memory of the theater major he couldn’t get up the nerve to ask out back in college and her ballerina in Black Swan is most definitely a daughter. Jane is a fully-fledged, independent, self-reliant, competent adult. Portman doesn’t have to strain to pull this off or reach for any actor’s tricks to make us forget the manic pixie side of her. She can even smile winsomely whenever a winsome smile is called for. All she has to do is field whatever Dennings tosses at her and lob it back gently. As worked out together by Portman and Dennings, grown-ups are the people who teach the Darcys of the world how to be grown-ups, mainly by example, but also by expecting them to act like grown-ups while at the same time being quick to understand and forgive them when they don’t.
A grown-up, as Portman plays one, is kind and patient and protective towards those who aren’t yet as grown-up as she is, which makes Jane as good an example for Thor as she is for Darcy.
Thor is the fourth in the series of movies that will center around next year’s The Avengers. The other three are Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2. The fifth, Captain America: The First Avenger, comes out in July. As I said, Iron Man is the best so far and the best by a long shot. But Thor is a solid second. It’s intelligently and heartfeltingly directed by Branagh, who seems to have been inspired more by King Lear and his own film adaptation of Henry V than by the comic book or the myths. But he maintains a light touch and doesn’t try to oversell the high drama or the potentially tragic. Thor is a well-made and exciting action-adventure movie whose hero happens to have superpowers, and what makes it good is that Branagh never forgets that all the fighting and chasing and blowing things up, along with all the attendant special effects, are meant to serve the story, not the other way round. (I especially liked it that he gets the required embedded ad for the video game out of the way in the first twenty minutes instead of using it for the movie’s climactic battle, which is what happens in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man II, turning the endings of both those movies into great big noisy messes.) Branagh keeps his focus, and ours, on his actors and their characters.
And he doesn’t just rely on the fine work of his leads. Branagh gives the whole of his attention to his talented and likable supporting cast too.
Stellan Skarsgard plays Jane’s mentor and surrogate father with the a nice mix of paternal indulgence and professional detachment. He’s affectionate without getting sentimental, irritable without losing sacrificing any of the affection. Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, and Josh Dallas as the Warriors Three, along with Jaime Alexander as the warrior goddess Sif (in the myths an enigma, in the comic books Thor’s lady love, here more of a spunky kid sister), make a formidable team, playing with and off each other nicely. Colm Feore sparkles icily with wicked intelligence through god knows how many layers of make-up and cgi as the king of the frost giants. And Idris Elba is suitably stentorian and immovable as Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge of Asgard where the booming heavens roar and we behold in breathless wonder…whoops. Sorry. Got carried away there.
Only Rene Russo, as Thor’s mother, the goddess Frigga, isn’t given much to do. So that’s one more thing there’s not enough of, Russo swinging her sword and slicing and dicing frost giants.
Special mention has to go to Clark Gregg in his third go-round as S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Coulson whose job here is the same as it was in the two Iron Man movies, which is to keep a spoiled brat superhero in line. Superheroes don’t impress Coulson. They’re amateurs. If it weren’t unprofessional, he’d let himself get irritated by their childish and selfish misbehavior. But he’s good at keeping his feelings under wraps and settles for talking to them with a stern patience as if after enough repetition it will sink in that they’ve all got some serious work to do and while showing off one’s superpowers is fun in the proper time and place, now isn’t that time and this isn’t the place.
Coulson gets of a good zinger at (an offscreen) Tony Stark/Iron Man’s expense that pretty much sums up Coulson’s feelings. In Iron Man 2, Gregg established that Coulson’s ideal superhero is Captain America, and it’s too bad Gregg wasn’t in The Incredible Hulk and can’t be in the Captain America movie, unless it’s as Coulson’s grandfather---it’s set during World War II---because Gregg is now the connection tying the first four movies to Captain America by being, essentially, Cap’s representative. Captain America is, after Spider-man, who is his own show anyway and so maybe shouldn’t count, the Marvel superhero. The point of the Avengers as a team is that it brings together Marvel’s most arrogant, self-centered, and go-it-alone heroes---Iron Man, Ant-Man, Thor, and, sometimes, the Hulk---to make them all better heroes and better people/gods/monsters by their having to follow Cap’s lead and example.
Which brings me to poor Chris Evans who’s playing Captain America in the series.
Evans was going to have a hard enough time holding his place on screen next Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.
Now he’s not only got to deal with Downey, he’ll have Chris Hemsworth charismaticking all over the screen. If Evans can still make himself the star of The Avengers, as he should be if they’re doing the movies right, he’s mightier than Thor, more invincible than Iron Man, and more incredible than the Hulk.
Viewers’ advisory: As fans of the movies have learned, you need to stay all the way through the credits!
3D vs 2D and Mannion vs. Ebert: We saw Thor in 3D. We had no choice. I don’t like 3D. It gives me a headache and adds nothing to most movies. So I was going to recommend you see it in 2D if you can. But Roger Ebert saw it in 2D and he hated it! It’s like he saw a completely different movie. Weird.
Not exactly Bulfinch but handy all the same: MTV has posted a guide to all things Thor. Be warned. Major spoilers.
Also: Wev McEwan has a few choice things to say about certain people’s problem with the casting of Elba as Heimdall, and a few things to say that I should have said about Dennings and Portman’s scenes together, and she agrees that Branagh wasted Rene Russo in her Thor Thread.
Real life astrophysicist Adam Frank blogs about the convergence of myth and science in Thor in a post for NPR.
And, because I brought it up and I don’t want to be the only one with it stuck in my head---