Sunday, May 8, 2011

Julian Perez At the Movies: Thor

It's weird to say, but Thor is a smaller personal story than you'd expect. Compared to how "big" Iron Man 2 was, for instance, it had relatively fewer battles and special effects scenes and worked at a smaller scale than one would expect for someone like Mighty Thor. I was surprised at how short and tight the movie was.

The Thor movie is a lot like the first Iron Man in that it is about a guy who changes from the start of the movie to the end because he gets put through the wringer and realizes he made mistakes. Thor starts off as a hero with a lot of flaws: he's a bolsterous guy with a big personality but he likes to fight way too much, which is a problem for a guy who might be King, because a wise king shouldn't look for trouble.

He's proud and easily offended and haughty, and like a lot of proud people he gets revenge for insults a wise person might just ignore. At the end of the movie, Thor shows how he's changed because he actually fights to save some former enemies because he figures over the top retaliation isn't right!

The Science Fiction Elements

One dirty little secret about Mighty Thor that even comic book fans don't get at times is that Mighty Thor was never, ever entirely Tolkien or Gaiman esque mythic fantasy, but was kept off-balance and interesting because it had unusual and incongruous science fiction and a cosmic element to it that felt more science fiction than fantasy. Thor was never "Lord of the Rings," it was something weirder and cooler than that because it had alien invasions, giant unstoppable robots, and science fiction villains like Ego the Living Planet, Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, and the High Evolutionary and his Dr. Moreau beastman city.

It was almost Joseph Campbell mindblowing, with moments like a guy on a horse galloping through space. Jack Kirby always drew shining Asgard less as a giant Viking town than as yet another secret society future city, just like the Inhumans' Attilan.

Though Thor started out as based on Ancient Pagan stories, it was always something altogether different and it says something that the most interesting characters even in Thor's world of Asgard were totally without precedent in folklore: Beta Ray Bill – an alien with the power of Thor, the Enchantress and the Executioner, the Warriors Three, and so on. Even when something was taken from folklore, it was juxstaposed with either modern New York (like that Walt Simonson story where Thor chased the indestructible dragon Fafnir through the subway system and then fought him on the Empire State Building) or outer space (like that one where Thor, the Lady Sif and Beta Ray Bill fought Surtur the Fire-Giant, but he was leading an invasion of an alien planet).

After Stan Lee and Jolly Jack left Might Thor, super-literate English lit major Roy Thomas tried slipping in some classic references to pagan stories, like how Mighty Thor actually had a chariot pulled by goats – a detail most other writers "forgot" about mostly because it looked pretty stupid. The more folkloric a character is in Thor, the more likely they are to be dull in the comics. Balder the Brave, who in Pagan belief was a sort of Jesus-figure who died and came back to life, had no real personality in the comics apart from being a loyal friend.

All that brings me to this movie. They went in exactly the right direction with Thor, which astounded me: I figured they'd "play it safe" and do Thor like "Lord of the Rings" or "Narnia." Here, they made Thor even more science fiction than before: the other dimensions are now planets (apparently the Frost Giants now have their own planet), and the Rainbow Bridge of Bifrost is now a wormhole gadget that looks like the Asgardians borrowed it from Doctor Who.

Loki is described as a "wizard," but that must mean something different to Asgardians than to us because his "magic" is mostly tricks like the hologram gadget from "Total Recall."

In the comics, though Thor often battled science fiction menaces, Thor was unambiguously exactly what he said he was: an immortal deity. Fighting him was more like taking on a force of nature than a person. Here, he's more like a superpowerful alien mistaken for a god by primitive humans.

Make no mistake: the science fiction elements were a theme of Mighty Thor that this movie just made more explicit than usual, a case of a movie "getting it." They pushed that angle front and center in the trailers, which is weird. I think it might have been to say, "I know he's based on paganism, but look! It's really science fiction! So, please, please, please don't skip out on our movie, people from the South!"

The Bad Guys: Loki and the Destroyer

The villain of the movie – Loki - is fascinating because he's so totally different from any other bad guy in superhero movies.

All the major twists and turns of the movie are due to him, which is why, despite the fact he's so great it's hard to talk about him without spoilers. Just when you think you've figured out his motivation, there's another level to his scheme in operation; you don't even really "get" the character until one last line he gives that explains everything.

In the end Loki comes off as strangely tragic because he wasn't evil so much as someone that went wrong somewhere. Loki is sympathetic because his motive is he has something to prove to everyone, despite the fact people accept and like him; he's insecure and sees distrust and hate where there just isn't any.

The costume was great, too: there was one shot that was just a shadow of Loki on a wall; with that curved horn helmet of his, Loki was immediately recognizable just by silhouette.

Loki must be Norwegian for liar, because that's exactly what he does, and everyone believes him. In fact, he's so good at lying and pulling strings, so subtle, that the first scene he manipulates other people it's possible to not even realize he did it. Loki wins fights by sneaking and cheating and playing on other people's emotions. In one scene he looks like he's about to fall to his death and asks his brother Thor to save his life. Surprise! It was a hologram trick that lets Loki stab Thor.

Loki lying can be more crushing and destroying than any proton beam: one of the worst, crushing scenes in the movie was one where Loki goes to Thor and tells him their mother doesn't want Thor to ever come back to Asgard.

The Destroyer was just about perfect in this movie. He was huge and unstoppable and totally silent and intimidating and reminded me of Gort, the robot from "The Day the Earth Stood Still." I saw someone at the premiere with a 7-11 Destroyer cup, which makes perfect sense: opening night of Thor is the only place in the world you can possibly be comfortable drinking out of a plastic robot in public. I totally expect that in the future, statues of the Destroyer will be sold at science fiction conventions next to busts of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Comedy

One thing the trailers probably didn't tell you about Mighty Thor: it's funny. Just as funny as Iron Man, in fact, which is really a relief because if it didn't have a sense of humor it'd be insufferable. Thor bonds with a scientist because the pair of them drink heavily (and competitively!), and the pair come back stumbling drunk. The human characters help Thor become a decent person because he sincerely wants to help Jane Foster, as Thor knows she's right.

I was super-nervous about Kenneth Brannaugh because I thought it might be the Ang Lee "Hulk" all over again: another case of a "highbrow" director who makes a bad movie because he looks down on the material. This didn't happen here at all, and I'm delighted. Still, Brannaugh is a classy guy and he brought a lot of polish: notice that in all of his scenes all the actors are doing something instead of just staring blankly, and because of his direction he made some jokes work that should be unfunny on paper.

Nobody that really appreciates or understands Shakespeare could possibly be a snob. As genius as the guy was, Shakespeare wrote his plays like the better Hollywood blockbusters; there was plenty of stuff for the literate but his target audience was the lowest common denominator so there was always plenty of attention-getting sex, violence and functions comedy (farts and midgets). If Shakespeare lived today he'd be perfectly at home doing surprisingly high-quality stuff in the studio system.

The Casting

Kenneth Brannaugh is a color-blind casting guy; in "As You Like It" he made Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington brothers.

A lot of people wondered about the Asian Hogun the Grim, which bugs me because that critique is actually downright comics-illiterate; even in the comics he was not from Asgard but was a bitter outcast from a country to the South, a sort of Mongol type pan-Asian place with genies and flying carpets. Hogun was the first of the Warriors Three to get a solo story because he was so popular: he had a lot of cool mystique as a quiet, antisocial guy who thought his life was cheap.

If I have a critique of that movie it's that the minor characters went underdeveloped. Surely some cute character bit, even if it was one line, could have been given to Volstagg (who seemed curiously thin in this movie), Fandral the Dashing was just there, as was someone as cool as Hogun.

Idris Elba did just fine. He got the best costume in the entire movie, bronze-gold space armor that looks like something Darth Vader would wear if he was a good guy. He has a great growly voice and accent, and together with oddball hazel-gold contacts, he let his voice and the costume do all the work. He doesn't look Asgardian but he sounds like it. I guess if you want an explanation for his un-Asgardian looks, Heimdall might have been a "naturalized citizen" to Asgard, originally from someplace else, like Hogun the Grim.


Eduardo M. said...

I liked Thor alot. About the only person I didnt like was Darcy the intern. And its not that I hated her, I just didnt see why she was there. Nothing she said or did had any point other than to be cute. I felt like reaching into the screen and saying "Who gives a flying (censored) about your iPod!!" and whacking her over the head.

On another note, what did you think of the Hawkeye cameo? And did you see the scene after the end credits?

Julian Perez said...

Agree with you about that intern character. Why was she there?

For some reason, I had a feeling that older Norwegian scientist guy would be given a lot more to do. I suspected at one point he might actually get Thor's hammer in order to hand it off to him...or fight against monsters with him Viking-style...or something.

As it is, Thor's hammer flies back to him through the Power of Love.

The Hawkeye cameo? Well, maybe they have a plan with that, I don't know. Maybe the Avengers movie shows him becoming the proud, rebellious guy we know.

But here, he got exactly one line: "Shall I take the shot, sir?" (Or something like that).

It was just one line but it rubbed me the wrong way because it was just the most un-Hawkeye line imaginable.

1) Hawkeye calling someone "sir,"

2) Hawkeye asking permission to fight someone or run into a fight;

3) Hawkeye following orders.

Does that sound like Clint Barton to you?

I wish they'd give him something to do, like they did with the Black Widow in Iron Man 2, make him a part of the story.

Though like I said, Ken Brannaugh was a great director; I loved the tracking shot where Hawkeye runs into some crazy armory and ignores the guns and grabs a composite bow.

As for the scene at the end...

I practically laughed at Loki's mild sunburn. It's right up there in non-debilitating injuries or disfigurements along with the recent Phantom of the Opera.

I guess Loki is going to be the bad guy for Avengers, eh? He was so cool in this movie I honestly can't wait.

By the way, I saw this movie Thursday night with Brian Sippin and company, and this is the first time I've ever been in a movie where nobody left during the credits (except in Los Angeles - in LA everybody stays for the credits because everybody knows somebody).

The last-minute bit has become something we expect. Whoever came up with this deserves some Nobel genius prize. Now all everybody talks about is how pumped they are for Captain America and the Avengers. Everybody leaves on a high note.

Doc Savage said...

Brannaugh? Who's that and does he know Kenneth Branagh?

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