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Review: Thor

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[This review was posted last week following the film's limited release. It is being reposted to coincide with the film's nationwide release.]

First, a disclaimer: I've never so much as read a page of the Thor comic book. That's important, because my impression is that this latest entry in Marvel's pre-Avengers canon may offer a different experience to those with knowledge of the source material from those experiencing it for the first time. This is a denser, more fantastical world than has been put on-screen in any other modern comic book adaptation, so anyone who knows the characters and worlds beforehand may find it easier to accept many of the outlandish elements on show.

What will surely not be a matter for debate is that, on an objective level, Thor is a mess. It never manages to find a tone that balances the inherent ridiculousness of the fantasy with the need for the drama to be taken with a modicum of seriousness. There's broad humour-a-plenty and while it is no Batman & Robin (although if you're not cracking Mr. Freeze puns by the time the 'Frost Giants' show up, you're a stronger man than I), at times its silliness doesn't feel worlds away from the frivolous tone of Batman Forever.

To its credit, at least it breaks out of the Marvel movie formula that made the likes of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk into little more than reskinned versions of the same picture. The limited plot does again require the lead character to regain his power and defeat an enemy impuning on his territory, but the thrust of the drama is an Asgardian coup d'etat which feels relatively fresh.

The sections in Asgard are the film's strongest, because there's no need to make excuses for the characters' incongruity as when placed in Earthbound realism. While it's still enormously over-the-top, at least the costumes and heightened speech patterns are a more comfortable fit with their spectacular surroundings. It's still not easy to take seriously a world that has rainbow bridges, a palace shaped like a giant organ (stop laughing, I'm talking about the keyboard instrument) and an intergalactic bathysphere-shaped transporter leading to a world inhabited by huge malevolent ice-men, but at least it's a take-it-or-leave-it situation and having that stability allows us to buy into the power struggle as a dramatic concept.

It helps that director Kenneth Branagh is able to draw strong performances from his cast. Chris Hemsworth credibly pulls off Thor's transition from battle-hungry and naïve prince to more sobre Asgardian ruler-in-waiting, while Anthony Hopkins unleashes his full hammy fury as his father King Odin and Tom Hiddleston is appropriately slimy as the Iago-esque Loki. The clashes between these characters mostly consist of shouting matches, but when dealing with divine quarrels in a fantasy world this big, booming voices and vivid emoting supplants subtlety every time. What's unfortunate is that though the actors do strong work delivering their lines, the plot itself is undermined by the flimsiness of Loki's plan (he seems to assume that everyone will accept what happens without question or discussion) and the fact that it all hinges on one key plot development which happens completely out of the blue and with no prior justification or cause. Far from the devious trickster, Loki seems to be making most of his plan up as he goes along. His cleverest trick was being the villain in a movie where the writers don't feel the need to justify their more challenging plot points.

If the time spent in Asgard is flawed but at least credible enough, the move to Earth is significantly more problematic. For one thing, everything takes place in or around a single desert town, which makes the action feel very contained and small-scale. The movie only really produces any sort of high stakes at the end, but even then aims them in a direction the audience isn't given much reason to care about. A bigger problem still is dealing with how out of place Thor and his kind look in a realist setting. This works in a comic book, because you're already making an imaginative leap to interpret a drawing as a reality. On film, the epic speech patterns and warrior dress cannot be reconciled with what is presented as real life, so the writers resort to the worst kind of wink-wink gags and silly humour, even when it doesn't make sense. If Thor is aware enough to know what a pet shop is, would he really go in and ask for a horse? Even though he has lost his powers upon arriving on Earth, does he really need to be tasered/tranquilised/hit by a car (twice) to make the point?

Even the human characters aren't written with significantly greater care: Stellan Skarsgard's Dr. Selvig is little beyond a skeptical voice, intern Darcy (a cute Kate Dennings, channelling Velma) is so pointless there's a joke about the one time she makes a worthwhile contribution, between moaning about her iPod and dossing around in Uggs. Natalie Portman's Jane plays startled love interest 101, with few actual contributions outside the hurried romance to justify her screentime. Agent Coulson also appears as the face of SHIELD, but thankfully lessons have been learnt from the Iron Man 2 debacle and the only major Avengers foreshadowing comes in a useless Hawkeye cameo, a Tony Stark reference (for a robot destroyer that could probably be deactivated by shouting 'Klaatu, Barada, Nikto') and the post-credits sequence.

While Branagh gets the most out of his actors, his directing is as messy as ever. He has an inexplicable love of skewed camera angles and zooming, sometimes combining the two for extra directing points, which is distracting and intrusive (even moreso in the poorly retrofitted 3D, which makes backgrounds look very flat indeed). The action scenes are better, with a clearer sense of geography and fewer silly flourishes, though given how Second Unit Director Vic Armstrong, veteran of the Bond films, is given a top credit, I'm inclined to think that Branagh was quietly shuffled to one side whenever the pace got moving. Even the editing assembles shots in a way that feels inexplicably clunkier than it should. For all his talent in getting the actors to take the material seriously and bringing a touch of his Shakespearian background to the drama, his understanding of the Bard vastly outstrips his understanding of cinema's visual language.

My worry for The Avengers is that despite having an ambitious plan and working with interesting people, Marvel have yet to produce a film in their build-up that can be described with greater praise than 'decent'. The original Iron Man is their best effort to date, but its formulaic plotting - or should that be plodding - is only disguised by the inspiration of Robert Downey Jr's Stark. Thor is both their most ambitious and most misguided effort to date, its underdeveloped plot leaving the biggest conflicts to the wild shifts in tone and Branagh's struggles with his camera. The excellent cast at least raises hopes that they will find better luck under Joss Whedon's guidance, but by the fourth step in Marvel's masterplan, things are still falling short of divine.

SECOND OPINIONS

Alex Katz: 81 - Great: Is it the runaway success that was Iron Man? No. Did it take the terrestrial-scale of the Marvel movie universe and blow it all the way out? Hell yeah. That's Thor's biggest accomplishment, that sense of scope. While a larger portion of the film takes place on our realm of Midgard, Thor creates a massive cosmic realm that Marvel would be mad not to exploit. Thor's greatest suffering, however, lies in the supporting cast. Thor is great, the Warriors Three are entertaining, Tom Hiddleston is fantastic as Loki, but all of the earthbound-cast are as flat as the world they inhabit, in comparison to the shining splendor of Asgard. Also, I know it's his style, and that's just lovely, but someone needs to tell Kenneth Branagh that there are other angles other than dutch angles. I feel like I developed a crick in my neck watching all the shots he canted for no reason.


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Thor reviewed by Xander Markham

5

MEDIOCRE

An exercise in apathy, neither solid nor liquid. Not exactly bad, but not very good either. Just a bit "meh," really.
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Xander Markham
Xander MarkhamAssociate Editor   gamer profile

Living just outside London, I represent Flixist’s entire UK branch. My film obsession manifested itself during a childhood spent watching Bond movies, Italian Westerns and all things samurai. I... more + disclosures


 



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