Three years ago on a rainy Friday night I sat in a semi-crowded theater and saw Jon Favreau’s larger-than-life adaptation of Iron Man. It wasn’t just the first film I was able to drive myself to go see, but it was also one of the single coolest theater-going experiences of my life. Something clicked that night. Maybe it was the overwhelming sense of freedom that came in the form of seeing a mega-blockbuster with my new driver’s license, maybe it was Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma that just melted off of the screen, or maybe it’s just because I like watching superheroes duke it out with other superheroes and seeing metal bang against metal, but that experience in that theater, including squealing in nerdy delight as Samuel L. Jackson stepped on the screen for the first time as Nick Fury to introduce the Avengers initiative, will be one that I hopefully never, ever forget. Three years and billions of dollars later, we’ve seen 1/2 the Avengers assemble with the inclusion of “The Incredible Hulk” (an entertaining, although flawed experience) back in 2008, and now in one summer we’re “assembling” the final half of the best crime-fighting team in the universe, The Avengers. Now that we have less than a year before Will Wheaton’s carefully handled, meticulously written, and ceremoniously protected take on Marvel’s “best of the best” hits the screen, people are getting nervous. Both Iron Man and the Hulk are big successes, and now not only does the currently filming “Avengers” obviously have to be a hit, but the two precursors, Captain America and Thor have to be a success or Marvel’s biggest project ever will be sitting on some shaky ground. Sure, Captain America makes me nervous because you have the hit-or-miss director Joe Johnston on a character who’s tone and subject matter you have to hit just right, but then there’s Thor, which on paper could either be a humiliating disaster or a daunting inspiration as to what Marvel can really do. Before the incredible buzz came rolling in I was convinced Thor was going to be the former, a film that can’t manage the formality of Asgard and the light-heartedness of Earth that balances the character out for the casual audience. I’ve never been happier to be wrong about a movie, because this is an unbelievable pairing of dedicated performances and a clear direction that knew from the get-go what it wanted to be. All together it’s a film that doesn’t just settle for being fun, but a very intelligent yet consistently entertaining jump start to Summer 2011 that rivals the quality of the classic that is Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man. The film is basically one of the sleekest origin stories ever, telling the wide tale of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), an arrogant king-to-be that is banished to earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) after starting a needless war with the neighboring Frost Giants. The film follows his quest on earth to prove himself to be a noble warrior by helping a local scientist (Natalie Portman) while his brother, the mischievous Loki, has some evil plans for the throne of Asgard. Let me start by saying the decision to put Kenneth Branagh, former helmer of Shakespearean projects like Henry V, as the head of Thor (arguably the most Shakespearean superhero ever created) was one of the most inspired creative decisions since Raimi was put on Spiderman or Favreau was assigned to Iron Man. Everything about Asgard looks spectacular, from the costumes all the way down to the rainbow road. There’s some apparent pain-staking detail in the costumes of Asgard’s residents including Thor and even the Warriors Three, and it brings out a very genuine aesthetic to the characters. Not to mention the simple fact that the costumes just look cool. As I mentioned earlier, Branagh is a Shakespearean vet, and it shows in some of the beautiful Asgardian sets. The dining halls, Odin’s sleeping chambers, heck even the more mystical elements like Rainbow Bridge, the Observatory, and the countless breathtaking shots of the city itself look like they were taken straight out of one of Shakespeare’s finest tales. Although less elegant, the small town Thor is banished to in New Mexico is also just as beautiful in a much different, more subtle way. It almost reminded me of my own small hometown, having a very compact feel that worked to both give you an very easy-to-grasp concept of location and to give even more weight to how out of place a mystical god like Thor really is. Matching up with these striking sets are some just-as-striking performances. Being the Anthony Hopkins fan I am, I found a lot to enjoy in his portrayal of Odin, even if it’s your standard Hopkins fare. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t quite knock it out of the park as Loki, but he’s menacing enough to keep your attention without necessarily breaking down genre standards, and both Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings are fun distractions during Thor’s stay on Earth. Idris Elba has a fun bit in the film as the gatekeeper and with his 20 minutes of screen time proves he’s ready for bigger parts. (Possibly Luke Cage anyone?) It’s Chris Hemsworth as our title character Thor that truly sets the film apart. While Hemsworth might give off the classic Hollywood meathead stereotype, the way he visibly dedicates himself to the role is awe-inspiring, and it’s something we haven’t seen the likes of since Robert Downey Jr. perfectly encapsulated the part of Tony Stark. Hemsworth’s bravado, the way he convincingly pulls off the Shakespearean drama, the Marvel big league action, and most surprising of all the hilarious nature of his character that there’s not a single doubt in my mind Hemsworth isn’t destined for greatness. I’ve heard different critics even compare him to 1977 Harrison Ford, and while that’s a high bar to set, Hemsworth is for sure within reaching distance of that. Needless to say I can’t wait to see what’s next for this guy aside from The Avengers and the almost assured Thor sequels. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as seeing an actor on screen as their character for the first time in the film, and, having had all of these pre-conceived notions as to what they should look like, how they should sound, and how they should behave, seeing them knock it out of the park, leaving you with your jaw on the floor.
Finally, what impressed me most about Branagh’s Thor was just the fact that it didn’t suck. Maybe I should elaborate just a little bit more. Like I said earlier, whenever I first saw the trailers and press coverage for Thor, I was absolutely convinced the film was going to be terrible. Praise be to both Odin and Branagh for making an entertaining film that mixes immensely funny fish-out-of-water sequences and deftly molding that with very striking, imposing Asgard sequences with a few kick-awesome battles between the two worlds. It almost feels like there were two separate teams, one working on the Asgard scenes and the other on the Earth scenes to ensure maximum quality. Maybe I’m exaggerating here, I mean the film’s not Oscar quality (aside from visual effects and Hemsworth’s performance), but it means so much to me that it wasn’t the wacky-goofy shenanigans of Earth and then the overtly serious nature of Thor’s home world. The world of Asgard hits just the right balance between seriousness and not too serious that it’s almost laughable, and it was so refreshing just to be able to laugh at the genuinely funny Earth gags. I never
thought I would laugh so hard at a Norse god being hit by a car multiple times or the old face-smearing on a window trick we’ve seen abused so many times. The fact that the humor, action, and drama not only work, but excel and genuinely blend to make one cohesive result that’s so much fun to watch makes it one of Marvel’s finest and most impressive achievements to date. I’m also impressed that there was a good bit of effort into putting a lot of emphasis on his fierce rivalry with Loki that makes some of the film’s later scenes and even where we’re led to assume that character is going even more exciting. There’s also a lot of apparent respect for the source material here, thanks once again to Branagh’s filmography and I’m sure the other immense talent behind the camera. Thor, despite being one of Marvel’s B-Level heroes, is treated with as much respect as Spiderman or Iron Man, and while his arc is similar to Tony Stark’s in Iron Man 1, there are plenty of moments that give you genuine time to get to know Thor, his complicated relationships with Loki and Odin, laugh with him and even sympathize with him. As if the developed character wasn’t enough, the aforementioned beauty in the sets and costumes also does its fair share of showing the respect to Asgard’s finest. While I was a little disappointed at first at Thor’s $66 million opening weekend in America (almost half of Iron Man 2’s opening on the same weekend last year), the film is thankfully not a financial failure, mainly due to two facts. A) The film is based off of a very minor superhero, and it’s honestly a darn hard film to sell, and B) the movie is doing gangbusters overseas, making it’s budget back worldwide by the end of its first weekend here in America, almost guaranteeing a sequel that can do even better on U.S. shores. While staring at awe at the screen, I was dumbstruck thinking about how only in 2011 could we have made a film like this. Not just from a marketing point of view in that you just couldn’t sell a film like this 20 years ago in a cinema world dominated by straight-laced action conceits, but also from a visual effects point of view. The visual effects in Thor, not just from an artistic point of view but also just from sheer powerhouse standards are top of the line phenomenal. Thor’s metallic opponent “The Destroyer” that’s showcased heavily in the trailers and TV spots could pass off as a practical prop a few times in the film, and a number of effects including the rainbow bridge featured heavily in the final act look so real you’ll almost believe there’s a rainbow bridge out there somewhere. It goes without saying I’m thankful for the Thor film we have now. One thing that bothered me about last year’s summer opener Iron Man 2 was how heavy-handed a lot of the Avengers elements felt that were obviously shoehorned into Favreau’s script, and the film was undeniably more unorganized because of it. Thor on the other hand feels supremely more natural with its Avengers sub-plots, obviously designed from the get-go to showcase the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson. Their main involvement in the story (excluding the bone-chilling after-credits scene) actually is relevant to Thor’s main objective in the film and thankfully the film never forgets what it’s about, Thor, instead of the group Thor’s planning to join. Thankfully they also have fun with it, poking fun at the group’s ridiculously secretive nature, making very subtle references to Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk that will get fans excited but not confuse the casual viewer like Iron Man 2 did, providing what is possibly my favorite Stan Lee cameo, and even an extended appearance by an until-now-unseen member of the Avengers. Not to give too much away, but the solid 2-3 minutes we see this new character took me all the way back to that semi-crowded theater in 2008 seeing Samuel L. Jackson for the first time in that Nick Fury get-up. After the semi-disappointment of Iron Man 2, Thor, bringing two of its members to the screen at once, makes me incrementally more excited for next year’s cream of the crop, The Avengers. Thor is a film that can stand on its own as a fantastic piece of entertainment even if 2012’s The Avengers fails, mainly because the main priority of the film is always teaching us more about Thor. If there’s anything Thor does wrong, it’s being almost too fast of a film. The movie’s less than 2 hours long, which is totally effective in keeping the kiddies’ attention, but I just know with an extra 1/2 hour padding there would have been more time spent on the love interest relationship between Thor and Jane and even more slower stuff between Thor and Odin. By the time things get going it felt like they were already winding down to the big climax, which was kind of a bummer for me. On one hand there were certain elements that could have used more time, but also a pretty serviceable compliment to the film that I wasn’t ready to leave the world they created. The week before I was able to finally see Thor was a long one. Aside from my crippling anticipation for the film after hearing fantastic word of mouth for it, it was also my finals week at my university and I was having to endure a lot of tests that were going to decide if all of my hard work that semester was for naught. Having passed all of my finals and getting the grades I needed to in order to hold onto my scholarships that basically decide if I get to keep going to my university, Thor was hopefully going to be a fun release, a sharp tack to my balloon of stress. I’m so elated to be able to say Thor was all of that and more. It’s really a phenomenal piece of entertainment that doesn’t just rely on being dumb and fun summer popcorn entertainment like it easily could have been, but it’s an expertly crafted film that’s lovingly dedicated to fans of the genre. Most astounding of all is that amidst all the balancing acts of Earth and Asgard, the side splitting comedy and the stirring performances it never forgets to be a fun film the Summer’s known for. It’s going to be a film that I yearn to re-watch again and again when this Fall rolls around and I need stress relief from my new classes, and I firmly believe will stand in my memory much like Iron Man 1 did 3 long years ago. All I wanted was a fun film last Saturday night, what I got in return from Hemsworth and the Marvel gang was surely a gift from the gods.
5 out of 5