The marketing for Thor was real iffy. Including a very uninspired poster campaign, it was very hard to tell from trailers and TV spots if the film worked balancing out drama, humor, and action along with the stark contrasts of our world and the fantastical realm of Asgard. For me, I feel most films today are not marketed well or appropriately. It seems more like the film has to adhere to what they want to market instead of the marketing adhering to what the film is. Either that, or the advertising firm is a bunch of hacks who don’t know how to capture what’s special about the property. Regardless, the trailers and TV spots didn’t sell me enough on the film to run out to theatres. Later in the summer, Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I ran out to see it, and highly enjoy it. However, some major plot points harkened back to the mythology of Thor,and so, I got the urge to see it if only to fill in any gaps that I was not aware of. It was too late to catch it in theatres, and so, the DVD has arrived to help me out. Simply said, I very much like this movie, and was highly satisfied at the end. Of course, for those unaware, here is the obligatory synopsis.
Amongst the nine realms, the forces of Asgard, led by their king Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and the icy realm of Jotunheim (pronounced Yodenheim) populated by the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore) have been enemies for countless ages. After a great battle in Norway, 965 A.D., Odin and his courageous warriors defeat the Frost Giants and seize the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters. Many years later, Odin’s sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) grow to manhood, and while Thor is the great warrior ready to be granted the throne of Asgard, Loki is a mischievous practioners of magic and illusion. However, the Frost Giants infiltrate the palace and attempt to retrieve the Casket. They fail, but subsequent actions in retaliation of this by the impulsive and battle-hungry Thor and his warrior friends leave Odin in contempt of his oldest son. As punishment, he banishes Thor to the realm of Earth, and relieves him of his greatest weapon and source of his power, the hammer Mjolnir. From here on, the hammer and its power can only be wielded by one who is worthy of the power of Thor. Thus, Thor must go through an evolution of character to prove himself worthy of being the man he needs to become. On Earth, he comes into the graces of the young and passionate Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her astrophysicist team. Jane gradually forms a caring relationship with the wayward son of Odin. Meanwhile, Loki uncovers long held secrets, and plots his own rule over Asgard. Amidst this, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive to examine and quarantine the downed Mjolnir which is embedded in stone like Excalibur waiting for its future king to wield it.
There is so much I could talk about here, but perhaps the best, most apprehensive aspect, is how all these different realms of existence are handled and balanced out. Frankly, I think Kenneth Branagh succeeded in doing what very few probably could have done. The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim are wonderful. They establish the grandeur of the society that Thor comes from. He is used to a world of honor and glory. A place ruled by gods that is magnificent in its visual spectacle. The production design is fantastic here, and the realization of it all in CGI and set design is quite remarkable. In Asgard, people speak with large, proud voices and passionate words of an extraordinary culture, and it all fits, it all works in this realm of gods. When Thor is dropped to Earth, literally, he still acts this way, but to Hemsworth’s credit, I think it’s his charm that makes it all endearing to me. It does comes off comically, but I feel Branagh and Hemsworth make it work because of that charm. They handle Thor with gallant heart and compassion instead of some dumb brute who just doesn’t get it. I, personally, did not find one joke misplaced, mistimed, or out of character. Unlike in Green Lantern where all the Earth scenes were mishandled, poorly executed dead weight, and all the CGI’d otherworldly sequences were the real juice, Thor strikes the balance correctly. This is also due to the plot being tightly crafted to keep the pace up, the emotional threads alive, and the plotline or character relationships developing throughout. Branagh and his editor kept this a lean film from beginning to end.
The only detracting element of the film, for me, and what could’ve been used to make the Earth and Asgard realms stylistically different was the camera work. The biggest gripe is the obscene, excessive use of Dutch angles throughout the film. Usually, a Dutch angle is used to give a scene or the filmed subject an off-kilter feeling. Here, it is used without an intended effect. Branagh’s audio commentary on the DVD gives insight into this choice. These are angles and compositions that were frequently used in the comics he saw and read. So, he intended to translate that onto the screen. He says that there was a concern that he may have been overdoing it, and I believe that concern was warranted. The simple fact is that it’s annoying, and has no positive effect on the shots or scenes it’s used in. There are Dutch angles used on crane shots, dolly shots, steadi-cam shots, static shots, and so on. It was very distracting to me since I am more aware of it than most people likely are due to me being a filmmaker. If Branagh used this style for just the Asgard sequences, and stuck to a more natural style of framing and composition for the Earth scenes, I think that would have enhanced the stylistic differences between the different worlds. As it is, I think it’s exceptionally distracting because it is used with no real storytelling purpose in mind.
Now, where these Marvel Studios films have mostly excelled is in the casting. Attracting some higher grade talents to fill these modern mythological roles is something that Richard Donner started with Superman: The Movie over thirty years ago. Hemsworth is a slight exception to Robert Downey, Jr. and Edward Norton in terms of high profile talent, but he inhabits the dimensional role of Thor impressively well. Again, his compassionate charm carries much of the character through, and allows an audience to connect with his personality. He starts out as a temperamental, hot headed young warrior in search of battle over wisdom, but as the film progresses, more of his heart develops to show his depth. None of us can really relate to the situation he’s in or the cosmic forces he’s battling against, and so, making the man and his emotional conflict relatable is the key. When he turns on the action hero mojo, he continues to impress. Hemsworth clearly worked out for many long months to create the physique of a god, worthy of myth and legend. Furthermore, it is not easy to hold up your end of a scene opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, but Chris Hemsworth did so with great success. I think that says a good deal about how Branagh handles his actors, and helps them to balance their drama out. However, I will take no credit away from Hemsworth because he greatly displays his wide range, powerful screen presence, and passionate commitment to his role. And of course, Sir Anthony Hopkins really delivers well as Odin. Who else do you get to play a role filled with this breadth of wisdom, power, compassion, and fatherly weight? Hopkins brings a definite sense of history and wisdom with him. He exudes strength, commands respect, but also demonstrates the moments of Odin’s weary age well. He is also a hero of legend that does what he does because he is a good father, and knows what his son must go through to become the man he wishes to be.
The darker side of the spectrum is occupied by Tom Hiddleston as Loki. What could’ve easily been a whiny character is handled with a fine breadth of dimension and intelligence. Deceit and bitterness are what forge his character, and they live and breathe in an actor able to turn those elements back around as a weapon for Loki. As others have deceived and used him, so he does to others in order to gain the power and authority he feels entitled to. Hiddleston handles Loki’s devious nature quite well like a puppet master manipulating his pawns across a chess board to service his ultimate goals. There is also the leader of the Frost Giants, Laufey, portrayed by Colm Feore. Granted, the man is covered by a great deal of make-up and prosthetics, and his voice gets some post-production treatment. However, Feore plays the darkly evil role subtlety. A sullen, methodical villain that is not easily intimidated, and being a giant, does not back down from a challenger. He achieves a lot by doing so little. He uses the make-up to sell the character, but even without it, there would still be a chilling, memorable performance.
Natalie Portman has more than proven her worth as an exceptional acting talent over the last 15-20 years. Sometimes, it’s hard to articulate what makes a great performance. People get wrapped up in the grandiose awards show displays of performances, but great acting can be defined in many different aspects. Here, Natalie portrays a role that is more subtle and graceful to win over an audience’s heart. Maybe it’s just me being struck by how much more beautiful she has become over time, but I was very engaged by her in this movie. Likely, it’s because she can project so much genuine, honest emotion on screen that it easily ensnares me. Portman holds her ground well opposite Hemsworth, and their chemistry is very, very good. As Jane Foster, Natalie projects passion, conviction, heart, and warmth here. Jane is very enthusiastic about what she does, and the mystery around Thor is something she finds charmingly compelling. She slowly involves herself more and more in his well being, and desires to know more about this peculiar stranger. Their relationship slowly develops to a very honest and heartfelt romantic connection. Jane’s associates allow for some good dynamics to bounce off of to give the character some context. Portman really sells everything well, and at the end of the film, I truly feel hopeful for Thor and Jane Foster to reunite.
Again, I feel the production design of Thor is really great. I was in real awe of the innovation and grandeur of Asgard. There are no limits to this realm. It is fantastical beyond known logic. Branagh and his team really create a unique, colorful world worthy of legend, and the costuming reflects that creativity and detail. The film doesn’t burn any unnecessary time away showing it off either. On the flip side, there’s not much to say about the Earth scenes. It’s a small town in New Mexico, and that feeling is captured well.
The visual effects, for the most part, are very well done. There are moments or elements that don’t sell quite as well as others. When the Destroyer (a fire spewing mechanical monster from Asgard) comes to Earth, the CGI construct does feel a little too artificial at times, but it’s mostly during its interaction with its live action counterparts. I was glad that the Asgard scenes did not feel cheap. They took a lot of time and attention to detail to make them hold up strongly throughout the film. They are marvelous to behold. The effects, like the production design, service the story and characters instead of overwhelming them. That’s what visual effects are meant to do, and far too many filmmakers have forgotten that. I’m glad to know that Kenneth Branagh is not counted among those filmmakers. I’m not a supporter of 3D, and seeing this firstly on DVD, doesn’t even give me the option to watch it as such. So, all my impressions of the film’s visuals are based on the traditional 2D viewing.
I’m also glad to be reassured that Branagh never degrades the film down to shaky cam action sequences. They are shot with a good sense of geography and composition so that an audience can follow the scene competently. Really, aside from those aforementioned Dutch angles, the film is shot with a great deal of emotion and epic stature. The cinematography does have character. The shots don’t just capture the personality of the performers, but they enhance them with how they captures them. Much of the same compliments can be translated to the vibrant, powerful score by Patrick Doyle.
I feel the brightest praise I can give this film is the fact that when Thor finally reclaims his power, the thunder roars, and the lightning strikes, I was as choked up with momentous enthusiasm as I am during the helicopter rescue scene in Superman: The Movie. The ascension of Thor’s greatness has reached a level equal to that rousing moment in the first blockbuster superhero film for me. Perhaps that is only me, but I was so very entertained and engaged with this film to have that sort of emotional reaction. What that really means is that the film was successful in every storytelling aspect from direction to acting to cinematography to music and beyond. It made me feel for this hero, his journey, and his triumphs.
While the marketing left something to be desired in convincing me of the film’s quality, the actual film itself leaves no doubt behind. It’s been laborious writing this review because there’s so much to praise that I didn’t want to leave anything significant out, but I had to limit myself to not scouring every single performer or detail. Simply said, in this especially long review, is that Thor is another big win for Marvel Studios. I’ve enjoyed all these films leading up to The Avenger including Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man lit the torch, and while not every entry has been perfect, there has not been enough of a misstep to derail the cinematic plan that Marvel Studios has been carefully planning. So, with a man I have a lot of confidence in directing the picture, Joss Whedon, I feel that climactic movie will be a great achievement. I also highly look forward to what might be crafted for a direct sequel to Thor.