“One of Stark’s?” a wary SHIELD agent asks the now-familiar Agent Coulson (Gregg Clark) as they eye a towering armored figure looming over them in the New Mexico desert, looking ready to commence some serious property damage.
“I don’t know,” Coulson sighs. “Guy never tells me anything.”
It’s not another Iron Man sequel, although the filmmakers are following as closely as possible in the footsteps of Marvel’s armored poster boy, and want you to connect them as closely as possible as Thor, Iron Man and their fellow Marvel heroes converge toward the upcoming Avengers ensemble film.
Already in Iron Man 2 we saw Coulson out in the desert discover an object of immense power at the bottom of a crater: Thor’s mystic battle hammer Mjolnir. Oh, and Captain America’s mighty shield was also glimpsed in Iron Man 2, foreshadowing the next Avenger movie. (Don’t blink during Thor or you’ll miss Jeremy Renner’s cameo as the archer Hawkeye.)
Iron Man’s secret power source was Robert Downey Jr’s hyperkinetic star turn as Tony Stark. Thor likewise leans heavily on the breezy charm and low-key charisma of its lumbering star, Chris Hemsworth, who brings more to the party than the requisite bulging muscles, towering height and blond good looks to impersonate the Norse god of thunder.
Iron Man was essentially a redemption story about a self-centered warmonger whose comeuppance leads to a new sense of conscience and social responsibility. Thor has that plotline ready-made in the long-established premise of Thor’s father Odin exiling him to Midgard (Earth) for his arrogance.
The producers have even attempted to one-up the Iron Man franchise in a couple of ways. Hiring director Kenneth Branagh, a filmmaker celebrated for the vitality and freshness of his Shakespearean adaptations, was a bold move. The film’s recreation of Asgard, visualized by production designer Bo Welch (Men in Black), is the best thing in the film, putting to shame the Olympus of last year’s Clash of the Titans. Iron Man was fun but a little paltry, and Thor isn’t that, at least visually.
It starts pretty promisingly, and it stays pretty promising throughout, and at some point you realize it’s never actually going to deliver on that promise. There’s never a moment where it goes really wrong — it just never really gets started.
Here is the big problem, though not the only problem: Stripped by Odin (Anthony Hopkins at his laziest) of his godlike powers and his hammer Mjolnir, Thor is exiled to Earth to learn a lesson in humility — but the needed lesson never arrives. In fact, nothing much happens on Earth at all. The real action is all on Asgard; on Earth, the movie pretty much grinds to a halt.
Oh, Thor gets knocked down or knocked out three or four times, mostly to comic effect. He spends a lot of time hanging around with a pretty astrophysicist named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her associates, one of whom is amusingly played by Scandanavian actor Stellan Skarsgård (Angels & Demons), who says he grew up with stories of the Norse gods. In what’s supposed to be the central action set piece, Thor implausibly fights his way through SHIELD security at that site where Mjolnir has been discovered.
The catch is that no one so far has been able to budge the hammer, because Odin has placed a spell on it to the effect that only one worthy of it can wield it. Since nothing has happened to make Thor worthier than when he arrived, it’s no surprise to us (and no spoiler) that he can’t budge it either. That’s as close to a moment of comeuppance as the movie can muster — and that’s about all that happens until the transition to the third act, when that big armored thing in the desert arrives courtesy of Thor’s treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) back on Asgard.
Does Thor ultimately prove himself worthy? If a single heroic gesture is all that’s needed, sure. What’s lacking is any real sense of challenge, of growth. There’s never a moment in which Thor is forced to face up to the fact that he is on the wrong path, that he needs to become more than what he is.
Here is what the film doesn’t realize: Thor needed to have his arrogance and brashness lead to some real cost. How much of a cost? Consider that early on, in a skirmish on the world of Asgard’s great enemies, the Frost Giants, Thor’s waywardness already led to the serious wounding of one of his Asgardian companions — and that wasn’t enough. Perhaps Thor needed to be responsible for someone’s death. Like Tony in the terrorist camp, like the powerless Clark Kent at the same point in Superman II wailing “Father!” in the darkened Fortress of Solitude, Thor needed to come to the end of himself. Nothing remotely like that happens.
As Jane Foster, Portman is livelier than as Amidala, but no more developed or interesting as a character, and the token romance with Thor is completely uninvolving. Not since Prince Caspian has a third-act parting kiss had less emotional weight (and there’s a lot more kiss here to not care about).
Thor, too, is essentially a likable cardboard cutout. Aside from Skarsgård’s wariness and a single scene in which Thor cheerfully explains to Jane about the relationship of magic and science on Asgard and how all the worlds are related, the movie has no interest in what it would mean to be a centuries-old being out of Norse mythology. (The film explains that the Asgardians are powerful beings from another dimension, or something, who were taken for gods by the ancient Norsemen when they visited Earth over a millennium ago. Inexplicably, as Peter Chattaway points out, Thor and his companions seem unaware of the extent of Loki’s duplicity, though the Norse myths spelled it out long ago.)
Only one of the Asgardians really seems to embody a mythic milieu. Ironically, it’s Idris Elba as the Asgardian watchman Heimdall — a controversial casting choice, since Elba is black, while his character is a god not only ordinarily pictured in the image of his Norse worshipers, but one characterized in mythology as “the whitest of the gods.”
Colm Feore sneers effectively under layers of Frost Giant makeup as the evil being Laufey, and among Thor’s companions Ray Stevenson hams it up enjoyably as a somewhat Gimli-like Volstagg. “Don’t mistake my appetite for apathy!” he roars when his loyalty to Thor is questioned. I’m afraid it may be the best line in the film.
Is Loki a villain or an antihero? Either way, the fan favorite is basically the Marvel Universe’s answer to Catwoman, but he can’t carry the movie if he isn’t the main antagonist.
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First, thank you for this site and all your work. It’s a pleasure to read your stuff. However, I disagree that Thor is lacking in moral lessons. [Spoilers follow.]
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