Monday, June 18, 2012

No More Thor Puns

Critical consensus be damned: Thor may have been an even more unnecessary addition to the superhero film glut than its 2011 summer rival Captain America, but to my mind it's the more outright entertaining of the two. At least Thor didn't repeatedly try to lull me to slumber with its endless Nazi Hydra raid montage sequences and blurry "vintage" palette overlays, to say nothing of half-hearted patriotic propaganda and stupefyingly bland protagonist.
Not that Thor is altogether any more interesting a character than fellow cardboard cutout Captain America, but at least the God of Thunder has a flashier weapon (and consequently more dazzling fight sequences) and a kickass younger brother to upstage him the entire film. Which is a good place to start, since just about any substantial advantage Thor as a film can claim over its rival is due to a single screen-stealing performance by Tom Hiddleston as the trickster god and sometime villain Loki (who of course has since taken even more prominent center stage in The Avengers, albeit with some disappointing character decay). Of all the A- and B-listers visibly struggling to deliver a script one might generously call "stilted," only Hiddleston succeeds, hitting exactly the right notes of grandiosity – this is a film about rainbow-surfing gods and a grade-school approximations of Shakespearean English, after all – and genuine pathos, ending up as the most effectively sympathetic super villain to my memory since Alfred Molina's turn as Doctor Octopus (because, let's face it, to call Thomas Church's Sandman a "villain" in the theatric sense is more than a little cynical). Anthony Hopkins is less successful as an inappropriately low-key Odin; something tells me the role would have been better served by the larger-than-life likes of BRIAN BLESSED(!) than the naturalistic Hopkins, but such speculation is pointless by now.
Chris Hemsworth's Thor is even less deserving of mention than Chris Evans's Cap, munching incoherently over the hamfest of a script and alternating a goofy grin with a sanguine scowl as his exclusive expressions of personality. Which, to be fair, is just about all that one could ask of a Thor, particularly within the confines of this screenplay. Is it evident yet that I have not a shred of affection for this character? Of Natalie Portman I shall say nothing but thank the gods her agent salvaged her summer with the Black Swan booking, or between Thor, Your Highness and No Strings Attached, 2011 might have been the death of her already flagging career.

Visually speaking, Thor delivers mightily on its $150 million budget. Valhalla is a jaw-dropping piece of computer-generated construction, an image of a celestial city as tangible as it is otherworldly in its oceanic clouds and floating castles. It's a shame the screenplay and Kenneth Branagh's disinterested direction fail so completely to take advantage of this, denigrating one of the most impressive CG sets in history to perfunctory scene-establishment use and wholly failing to give the slightest impression that this beautiful world is actually lived in. And despite the early promise of invasion and a siege of mythic proportions, the film's action sequences make little use of Valhalla itself except [minor spoiler alert] for one brief but admittedly magnifient duel over aforementioned rainbow bridge.
The bulk of the film, unfortunately, takes place in a (figuratively) god-forsaken border town of New Mexico, and whatever real life beauty that setting possesses is lost on Branagh and his hapless camera crew, who probably couldn't frame an interesting shot if their lives depended on it (seeing as their paychecks certainly didn't). The earthling ensemble dwelling in these parts is every bit as insipid as Thor's Asgardian coterie is irksome, stumbling through the motions to aid Thor on his quest back to godhood with contrived plot compulsion as opposed to actual character impetus.

And on that note, in accordance with reviewing tradition I should probably get around to summarizing the film's plot, such as it is. In a nutshell: Thor, a spoiled young turd of a god-prince, is about to be crowned king of Asgard when the ceremony is interrupted by the infiltration of a few hostile Frost Giants, of whom allfather Odin's creatively titled golem Destroyer makes short, hot work. Thor is pissed (the more frequently displayed of his two emotions) and, against his father's orders, leads a team comprising his brother Loki and his firmly forgettable friends "The Warriors Three" (of whom there are inexplicably four, which will puzzle everyone unfamiliar with the comics and Sif's relationship to Thor) to the Frost Giant home world of Jotunheim with the intent of smashing everything that moves in retaliation for a failed theft attempt by three already-dead giants. Odin arrives in the nick of time to stop the slaughter and, on the sudden revelation that his son is a total dick, punishes Thor by separating him from his hammer Mjolnir, thus rendering him impotent (phallic symbolism is kind of inescapable with this character), and banishing him to Midgard (earth) with the stipulation that he must prove his worthiness in order to take up the hammer again and return to godhood. All this hullabaloo proves a bit much for the aging Odin, who collapses into "the Odinsleep" (see what kind of creativity we're dealing with here?) just after revealing to his neglected son Loki that he can't be king because he's actually adopted and therefore genetically unfit for the crown. Slightly miffed by this revelation, Loki steps in to manage the kingdom in his father's absence, which seems to be fine with everyone but Thor's four Warriors Three, who immediately start plotting to undermine Loki's legal authority and return Thor to Asgard in blatant disregard of Odin's last command.  Meanwhile, on earth, Nameless Female Love Interest astrophysicist Jane Foster (Portman) is chasing wormholes in the New Mexico desert and (literally) runs into Thor when he's thrown down to earth in a cosmic twister. Thor is naturally dazed and confused in his de-powered fish-out-of-water state on an alien world, and hijinks ensue for a while until the plot kicks back in. He then marches off to get his hammer and prove his worthiness to his father, an admittedly distant possibility given his personality, but not one which Loki is willing to risk. Thus, roughly two-thirds through the film, does the "central" conflict begin in earnest. 

If it has not yet become clear from this synopsis, a critical flaw of the film is the fact that Thor is kind of a huge asshole, to say nothing of a dumb one, which wouldn't be an issue per se if the plot itself did not require that he undergo a major character reformation in order to reclaim his powers and prove himself worthy of the throne of Asgard, a reformation of which there is no on-screen evidence whatsoever, neither in the muddled script nor Hemsworth's two-note acting nor Branagh's hopeless direction. A fringe benefit of this epic failure is that, thanks both to an uncharacteristically empathetic screenplay and an exceptionally nuanced performance by Hiddleston, Loki is left to fill the dramatic gaps as a misguided young intellect striving in equal parts for the good of his adoptive kingdom and for the approval of his distant father. The end result is one of the most captivating antagonists in the genre's history, which, granted, isn't saying much on its own, but the fact that a villain as historically disposable as Loki manages to become the one memorable element of as soporific a film as Thor is certainly worth talking about. Especially given the unexpected moment of ambiguous self-sacrifice in the film's final act.

That solitary commendable performance aside, Thor is pretty standard, flashy popcorn fair with limited appeal outside superhero fans and drinking game enthusiasts (take a shot for every incorrect declension of "thou" – two shots for butchered conjugations!). Branagh probably wasn't the worst choice of directors on the planet, as many have hyperbolically claimed, but he was far from the best, though Thor is at least more tolerable than any of his recent Shakespeare adaptations. And that, I suppose, is something.

Grade: C+, and that generous "plus" is 100% Hiddleston's doing.

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