by Thom Yee
I kind of feel like I owe you guys an explanation. At the beginning of our Iron Man 3 simul-review from this past summer, I put forward the following as my list of Marvel Studios movies (best to worst):
2. Captain America
3. The Avengers
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Iron Man 2
6. Iron Man
I put my list forward knowing full well that very few would agree with it. First, I should say that, as a comic fan and from as impartial a place as I can come from, I think all the Marvel Studios movies are generally strong, even while acknowledging that none of them are my absolute favourite superhero movie. I liked them all, have no major complaints so far, and I find the overall consistency of the movies almost astonishing; not a Green Lantern among them.
I put my list forward knowing full well that it might seem contrarian and designed to go against the grain of conventional wisdom. Thor as the best of the Marvel Studios movies? That’s not a popular sentiment. It’s rated relatively well among them, but it’s still well behind the obvious favourites (Iron Man and The Avengers).
I put my list forward knowing full well that, at some point, I would probably have to defend my position. That point, that day, just before we enter into the Dark World, is today.
When the Casket of Ancient Winters is nearly stolen by Frost Giants from its resting place in Asgard, a millenia-long peace between the Frost Giants of Jotunheim and the Asgardians gods is disturbed. In retribution, Thor, the God of Thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard, his brother Loki, Sif, and the Warriors Three all travel to Jotunheim to confront the Frost Giants, reigniting a war between kingdoms. As a result, Odin, the King of Asgard strips Thor of his godhood and exiles him to Midgard (Earth) where he meets astrophysicists Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, and Darcy Lewis whose research has led them to Asgard and beings they had thought only myth. Meanwhile, the stresses of this new war and the pain of exiling his son cause the All-Father to enter the Odinsleep, leaving Loki in charge of Asgard. Will Thor reclaim his power and rightful place on Asgard? Is Loki the benevolent circumstantial ruler he seems? Can Sif and the Warriors Three do anything of substance without Thor’s help? (The answers are yes, no and no.)
There are a lot of people who would read that synopsis — filled with fantastical characters, other worldly locales, and mythical histories — and instantly relegate Thor to the farthest-flung, most subterranean nerdcore basements alongside water-cooled PCs, microscopes, white boards, and Dungeons & Dragons. It is absolutely to the producers’ credit that they manage to humanize the characters and contemporize the mythology enough for normal people to not only accept them, but potentially become fans.
Despite its comparatively maligned place in the Marvel Studios movie universe, the fullness of history shows that, for most of us, Thor was not merely a piece of that universe, but the second major exposure the world had to Marvel Studios’ shared mythos after the first two Iron Man movies. Technically The Incredible Hulk came second, but between the tenuous connections to Ang Lee’s Hulk from 2003, pre-existing knowledge of the Hulk in general, and the three different actors playing Bruce Banner between instalments, that’s a chapter that a lot of people forget. In other words, Thor, as a character and a movie, was the second major piece we had to see, sort, and accept on our collective road to The Avengers. And even though Chris Hemsworth’s work as Thor has been largely overshadowed by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in most people’s conscious thoughts of this movie (and Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark in the of the Marvel franchise in general), it’s a part the actor plays to perfection. Hemsworth’s Thor is confident, powerful in carriage and physicality, and genuinely charming. He looks like Thor and acts like Thor in a very men-want-to-be-him-women-want-to-be-with-him way, and I’m 100% certain that if I were a heterosexual female, I would fall for him. As a heterosexual male (which is the second place my thoughts ran to), I’m pondering following his lead and working farewell hand kisses into more of my female encounters. Somehow I don’t think mine would go as smoothly.
With an introductory style ripped directly from Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, we’re introduced to the Realm Eternal by Anthony Hopkins’ Odin as he teaches young Thor and Loki (and the audience) the history of their world. On the whole, Asgard is generally well-realized with imagery that does a surprising job of legitimizing many of the comicbooks’ less plausible visuals. The film also strikes the right balance between Asgard and Earth, myth and reality, never staying long enough in either setting for boredom to creep in, and the producers fully commit to confronting the absurd majesty with which these characters carry themselves. Moments like, “You dare threaten me, Thor, with so puny a weapon?” just before he gets tased, “You are no match for the mighty…!” before being drugged; all scenes that draw genuine laughs.
Speaking of Earth, a lot of people seem to hate Kat Dennings’ Darcy. She’s at times vapid, always sarcastic, and doesn’t care about anything until things get interesting, but for my part, as a heterosexual male, I did fall for her, but I have a thing for dark-haired, sarcastic girls (who look like Kat Dennings). Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig plays an important part as a sort of paternal figure for Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and, besides that, there’s just something about Stellan Skarsgård that’s just sort of warm and inviting that makes me like him in any movie. As for the major female lead, Jane Foster is a Natalie-Portman-looking woman, which gets her a pass in close to 100% of the world, but she didn’t really do much for me. She plays a determined scientist without seeming particularly smart, spunky or hardheaded. While she doesn’t fail the role, she doesn’t do a lot more than inhabit it.
As I see it, there are two main weaknesses in Thor, though neither are substantial enough to seriously affect the overall experience. First, the film suffers merely from having to render unreal concepts like Frost Giants and the Rainbow Bridge in real life, and while the effects work is strong, it isn’t on the same level as the Lord of the Rings and isn’t strong enough to overcome all feelings of incredulity. Second, background characters are underdeveloped. Sif and the Warriors Three — Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg — manage to play an important part in terms of plot, but none are explored beyond the surface, and eventually all are relegated to ineffective cannon fodder as we wait for Thor to regain his power. Meanwhile, the most notable character development absence is Rene Russo’s Frigga. As the Asgardian All-Mother, Frigga’s role is reduced entirely to matronly background affairs like reassuring the audience that Thor and Loki must also have had a mother growing up and being present during scenes where you’d think she would be. While Frigga’s lack of presence is merely notable in Thor, it becomes a genuine detriment in The Dark World (more on that film next week).
With that out of the way, I’ll tell you why Thor is the best of the Marvel movies.
Thor is the story of a family. Odin, the father who wants to pass on the crown; Thor, the obvious hero whose nobility nearly matches his arrogance; and Loki, the mischievous son who would do well if he could get over his own nature. For me, the strongest, most resonant parts of Thor are when you can see the love, anger, and feeling between these three.
As the most interesting character in all of the Marvel movies, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a lot to work through during the course of Thor (and throughout the Avengers and The Dark World). At the very least, he’s arrogant and self-serving, but he never comes off as outright evil, and at this point, he isn’t the full-fledged villain he’s supposed to become. You can tell he’s struggling with his own selfish nature even as he discovers his true origin. You can see his mixed feelings when he first convinces Thor to travel to Jotunheim. During the final confrontation of the film, as the tears well up in his eyes, you can almost feel the pain Loki felt while growing up under the oppressive shadow of a brother who outshone him and a people who distrusted him. Loki is someone for whom heroism never came naturally, and he had to manufacture his own circumstances to ever come near what he felt his father wanted. And that’s a meaningful story, even if you’re one of those who feel its execution was lacking.
Anthony Hopkins’ Odin, for all his bravado as the All-Father King, is a dad who knows that he’s failed his children, who aches for them to be the best that he’s seen in them, and who grows ever more weary as the centuries pass. He wants nothing more than to pass on the crown, but he has no worthy heirs, and the force with which Hopkins delivers his indictments and denials to the two (and the grand proclamations he makes to Asgard) is that of a true god (though his opening monologue isn’t as hauntingly beautiful or deeply affecting as Cate Blanchet’s Galadriel in LotR).
As previously discussed, Hemsworth’s Thor is every bit the arrogant god he is meant to be at the film’s beginning. When Odin calls him “a vain, greedy cruel boy”, Thor responds with genuine anger, calling him “an old man and a fool!” When Odin tells Loki of his true origins, you can sense the genuine regret he feels in the way he raised his adoptive son. When Thor and Odin witness Loki’s descent into the lower realms and his assumed death, you genuinely feel that they would give anything to just have their brother and son back despite everything he’s done (and will do).
I honestly feel like there’s more feeling in Thor than any of the other Marvel movies. I felt genuine rage, genuine jealousy, genuine mistrust, and genuine love as I watched the story of this fractured family, and that’s why I loved it. Tony Stark may be a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist, but he’s obviously guarded, only occasionally displaying the traits that the people closest to him (Pepper and Rhodey [and maybe Happy]) love him for. Captain America is an impossibly perfect representation of what humanity hopes to be, who must always be on guard in this future world unlike the one he’d imagined. Bruce Banner is nothing but self-denial. But Thor… Thor is all feeling, all impulse, his greatest triumphs lying in his greatest expressions of self. Despite all the pomp and circumstance, the mythology and deity, Thor isn’t substantially more than the story of a prince, his family, his friends, and the girl he loves. And it’s the Marvel superhero story that I most relate to.
Thor final score: 9
On the Edge
-Yes, I intentionally overused the word genuine.
-It’s weird how often I ponder how I would react if I were a heterosexual female.
-Is that Once Upon a Time’s Josh Dallas as Fandral? And is that not him in The Dark World?
-Hogun the Grimm, aka “Jackie Chan”, aka the only Oriental person in all the Nine Realms.
-Considering the direction of Jane’s research and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s stated objectives in The Avengers, it’s kind of odd that she’s managed to stay so completely separate from them in all the following Marvel instalments.
-“Hooble telescope”? It’s spelt with two b’s (Hubble), you jackass. Of course it’s not a long ‘u’ sound!
-Why did it take Jane and Thor so long to drive 50 miles to the Mjolnir site? That’s, like, an hour’s drive, they start out in the middle of the day, and it’s dark when they get there?
-Next week: Thor: The Dark World review