by Dan Fields
First published May 07, 2011 by the California Literary Review
What? No showdown with John Henry?
Once upon a time in the New Mexico desert, there lived a brilliant young astrophysicist with fabulous hair, whose obsessive devotion to the study of aberrant gravitational fields masked a lonely, vulnerable side which made her all the more adorable. Lucky for her, the perfect specimen of Nordic manhood was just about to tumble from the heavens.
Could it be…. Thor, God Of Thunder?
Why yes! Mythology and wacko science are about to shake hands, and it falls to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to reap the jackpot. She and her reluctant colleagues (Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård), rambling around in her storm chaser jeep, stumble without warning on a gateway to another world, complete with visitor.
Kenneth Branagh, noted Shakespeare enthusiast and oddball character actor, bewilders us once again by throwing in his lot with Marvel Studios for this latest timber in the ambitiously interwoven Avengers project. With Iron Man on fairly solid footing and Captain America slouching towards Hollywood to be born, it must be time to install a few of the more esoteric players in the saga.
Fortunately for all (except Stellan Skarsgård) Thor falls out of the sky babbling not in norsk, but in his best and most neatly scrubbed English. It is the same commanding, mythical tone to which Brad Pitt aspired when he played Achilles in Troy. It would have made an early late Heath Ledger proud. Does it make sense? Well… no, but we are used to it.
You see, something is rotten in the state of Asgard. Allfather Odin (played with half-hearted authority by Sir Allfather Anthony Hopkins) has decided to name the heir to his throne. Naturally, the first choice is his gigantic, hotheaded son Thor (Chris Hemsworth), he of the red swaggering cape and big bad hammer. As expected, younger son Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the trickster of Norse folklore, has a few ideas of his own on the matter. Meanwhile, Thor’s thirst for battle stirs up the threat of war with the jötunn (frost giants), for which Odin banishes him to… you guessed it. Earth! Stripped of his godly powers (but still unbelievably strong), Thor joins up with Jane Fosters’s ramshackle science club in pursuit of his holy hammer and the long road home. Hope Loki doesn’t get up to any mischief in the meantime. Hope that we won’t have any covert interference from S.H.I.E.L.D. (the men in black on this particular planet earth, whose presence signals the upcoming tie-in to more movies about Marvel’s Avengers).
What does this movie need to be more entertaining? Lots more fighting. The dramatic interludes drag everything down, and the comedy goes stale pretty quickly. The idea of gods, or medieval knights, or aliens or whatever trapped in modern America lends itself to a very narrow and predictable selection of jokes. Say what you will, Hercules In New York wrote the final word. It is cute for a while, but Thor would be much more entertaining as a rambunctious, destructive barbarian than as a rather genteel and sensitive meathead.
All this leaves aside questions of adaptation from the Marvel comics incarnation of Thor. The frank truth is that I have no idea how the movie measures up in that respect, and in terms of entertainment value it is (or should be) immaterial. The Marvel studio’s greatest triumphs — I am thinking of Blade and Iron Man especially, and why not throw in X-Men and Spider-Man — made immense crossover splashes, so that most people enjoyed them whether or not they could recognize Stan Lee’s cameos, or even knew who the hell Jack Kirby is.
At a glance, Thor and company seem modeled not so much on their comic page counterparts, but on a plastic armor playset version marketed to very large children. The realm of Asgard is sprawling and impressive, but hardly the dingy Viking Olympus that we laypeople came in expecting. There is far too much Phantom Menace in the design. And why does Odin’s royal citadel look like a giant pipe organ?
Jötunheimr, the lair (planet?) of the frost giants, is by contrast quite impressive in its stark simplicity. The all-too-brief combat between Thor and these hulking nasties is a major highlight of the film, and comes so early in the story as to be nearly forgotten by the end. Look for Colm Feore, the diabolical creep from Stephen King’s Storm Of The Century, as the frost giant king.
Thor’s allies in the crumbling kingdom of Asgard are four mighty warriors, who do a little bit of fighting and make many weak attempts at comic relief. There simply are not enough characters who count in this film. And why don’t they look cooler? Couldn’t director Branagh bear to hide Chris Hemsworth’s angelic mug behind a proper beard? Something that says “I am a war god!” instead of “Dude, Dave Matthews is so freakin’ underrated!” Even a clean-shaven Thor would have been infinitely preferable to this obvious bid for an underwear modeling contract.
It is now time for a brief revival of a well-worn tirade. The concept of magic and science being two interpretations of the same force is neither an original nor a particularly clever idea in storytelling. Fortunately, Thor does not dwell unduly on the point. Science battling magic… well, that’s okay. Science’s inability to overpower magic is even better. However, explaining one away as a function of the other is decidedly anti-mythological and categorically lame.
Compared to the majority of comic book adaptations out there, Thor is safely above average, but not well above. Enjoy the action, laugh at the stupid helmets, and try to pretend that a rainbow bridge across the universe reminds you of something besides Katamari Damacy (the socially functional will please disregard my last remark). If you are not going in a Thor fan, you are unlikely to come out one, but for ultra-light entertainment of grandiose dimensions, it is perfectly suitable fun for all. Bring the kids.