Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thor: good, needs more archaic smack-talking

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

This week was my third wedding anniversary, and the first as a parent. So, what did my wife and I do? A candle-lit dinner? Baby-sitter and a little romance? A trip to the theater to see the latest Marvel superhero movie, directed by the multi-faceted Kenneth Branagh, followed by a trip through Arby's drive thru?

That's right folks, and I didn't even suggest it--the wife did. Honest. The nerdery really knows how to pick 'em. So now you will get to treat yourself to another nerd-rant-cum-movie-review, or nerdview for those pressed for time.

Expectations 'Odor': I've been a Marvel fan my entire life. I remember having recess discussions in first and second grade about how Batman was cool, but Superman was stupid and too powerful to be interesting, whereas the X-men all had to struggle just to get by, but they still had cool powers and fought villains and stuff. I grew up watching Uncanny X-menSpider-man, and Marvel Action Hour. Heck, the 90s were a great time to be a kid hooked on Saturday morning cartoons, especially if you had Cartoon Network to get your retro fix, too. As I got older, my appreciation for superheroes became slanted towards the underdog and patriotic types--Captain America foremost, but I'd include the misfit contestants of Who Wants to be a Superhero? too. I've loved Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk, and in my mind each of the new crop of Marvel movies brings me one step closer to watching Steve Rogers bash Nazi skulls in with his shield.

You'll note I haven't mentioned Thor yet. As a fan of Marvel comics, my appreciation of Thor has never really strayed beyond his membership in the Avengers. This might seem a bit incongruous when you consider that I like reading mythology and ancient folklore, and Norse mythology is some of my favorite in the genre. But for me, I didn't really connect with Thor enough--as a superhero, he's close to Superman's status of being too powerful to be interesting, and I felt certain the changes to the original myths would be too frustrating for a literary fan of the eddas like myself. But Thor was going to be part of the progression to Avengers, and so I decided I would dutifully see it when it arrived in theaters.

Then I saw that Kenneth Branagh would be directing the film, and I pretty much lost my mind. I've loved his directorial adaptations of Shakespeare's plays and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and I felt certain that he'd instill a good mix of high drama and comedy, and get the feeling of stylized language among the Aesir portrayed properly. The action and special effects would be awesome of course, but I was curious going in to see how well integrated they would be, since his other movies haven't contained nearly so much of either element.

But I was enthused when I went into the theater, expecting a good mix of drama and action movie about an over-entitled god becoming a reliable and consistent superhero.

Appreciation 'Beef': I was so right, but I was ignorant of one important fact that would've increased and maybe directed my expectations for the film: J. Michael Straczynski helped to write the story. As the proverbial head from which the fully armored and ready-to-battle Babylon 5 sprung, I could've expected an epic story that keyed in on the responsibilities of leadership and power. Adding to that Straczynski's powerful history writing for Marvel comics, especially the Thor series, you can be guaranteed this will be a solid script that doesn't unnecessarily dilute the characters. And so it is.

"Then I saw that Kenneth Branagh would be directing the film, and I pretty much lost my mind."

Thor's script is well-written and considered. More than most movies in this genre, Thor has the biggest hurdle to jump for its first installment. The initiating story for every superhero film has to be tempered by an origin story, which just about goes without saying, but it also needs to establish a sense of normalcy for the world. We need to get a sense of how unusual it is for a flying gold and red tin man to go around zapping bad guys, or we need to get a sense of what the metropolitan city is like before the animal-themed vigilante shows up. In Thor, the problem is we need to get two status quos at the film's start: Asgard and its connected cosmology, and Earth. In order to make this manageable, the audience gets a front-loaded introduction to Asgard. It might come off as awkward to some, as you get a large number of huge visuals as Anthony Hopkins as All-father Odin narrates that Asgard is a transcendent realm and had previously beat the frost giants of Jotunheim in a bloody war that he seeks to prevent. It's a minor hiccup in the first act of a movie, but the action and beautiful effects that are coupled with it help to address it. Throughout the second act of the movie, then, we get a solid and character-based sense of what the status quo is on Earth--or at least in New Mexico--and all of that comes off extremely well with a good amount of mystery coupled with the earthling women's affected reactions to the god in their midst.

The casting and acting in Thor are both superb. Each of the Marvel movies, from Iron Man and the successive films from their small studio, have had increasingly large star-studded casts, and Thor continues the tradition. With Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgard, and more in scattered bit roles, Thor has a selection of stars in early, middle, and mature phases of their careers. Anthony Hopkins does a particularly great job of portraying the benevolent but fierce father figure of Odin, and in particular one of his key lines in the introduction is delivered with enough gravity that most people wouldn't stop to recognize it as a purely Straczynski line: "A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it." It's a great little proverb that Straczynski injects into just about everything he writes, and it's marvelously effective when spoken with a pained timbre by a one-eyed Odin played by Hopkins.

The rest of the cast is great, too. Hiddleston plays the ignored but enthusiastic brother well, and his own conflicted emotions fall into the believable range of father-son rage that is just south of Commodus in Gladiator. Watching Loki plot, but not knowing to what end and being driven by assumptions based on the comics and myth made for a fun bit of tension--you don't know what he has in mind, but you can see in Hiddleston's truly mischievous acting that he is enjoying every obstacle that falls before his brother Thor.

I'd really be remiss if I didn't mention Colm Feore, who plays the frost giants' King Laufey. He casts a great antithesis to Anthony Hopkins. Like his Aesir counterpart, Laufey is trying to strike a balance between the desire for security by power and the desire for peace in general. In the first act, he shows a good deal more restraint than the protagonist, giving Thor a chance to take an insult on the nose and walk away without fighting. That sort of reasonable power-monger is rare in cinema and difficult to portray, but Colm Feore does it well even through obscuring makeup. Much like Ron Perlman, I almost wish they hadn't obscured his face so audiences would recognize the quality acting as his and not a prosthetic's.

The directing is fantastic, and shows in the integration of the setting into the story's themes. The setting of the movie covers three very different locations: New Mexico, where Thor and his hammer land under exile; Asgard, home of the gods; Jotunheim, home of the frost giants. Asgard is colorful and vibrant--the buildings are gleaming gold and silver, surrounded by lush gardens and beautiful mountains cast at tropical angles--which makes that realm feel like the actively supported haven for the Asgardians that it is: powerful, beautiful, and enduring. New Mexico features a color palette that is only slightly washed out, which helps to convey the pale beauty and fragility that we understand the gods attribute to earth. Jotunheim, on the other hand, seems to have some geographic and structural similarity to Asgard--large, sweeping vertical structures and angular mountains and canyons--but with a completely blue-grey icy palette. This makes the allusion that the frost giants aren't just bogeymen, but that they had a culture that was in some way comparable to Asgard before the war, helping to sell Odin's references to the desolation of war. Also, Jotunheim seems to be on a fragile plate of land, which hints that as an obliterated post-war society, they are in a delicate state in which an easily provoked war could well annihilate them despite their individual strengths.

The portrayal of these three places is distinct and important. New Mexico at the climax of the movie serves as a microcosm of the potential consequences of Thor's rash choices, and his recognition of his own culpability is what makes him worthy of his power once more. Seeing the supernatural force tear through the tiny town in the middle of the desert--evoking a showdown from an old western--helps to solidify this sentiment, and strikes a chord that Thor and his Mjollnir are the only defense for the innocent people caught in the middle-of-nowhere town. It's a neat little tie-in that next to the massive, epic, and fanciful realms of Asgard and Jotunheim we have a one-horse town of two thousand serving as the representation of earth. That, and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster--who capably plays being intelligent, curious, beautiful, both weak and strong in her own way--encapsulates the finer things of earth for Thor.

In addition to crafting the setting portrayals to fit the themes of the movie, Branagh's direction also helps to make the personal moments in the movie feel as epic as some of the action. Watching Odin's heartache as a father and ruler take its toll on him is so effecting that I thought it was a deliberate attack for a moment, and seeing the earthlings react to Thor's resumption of his rightful power is thrillingly portrayed as an emotionally exhilarating moment for them, which translates easily to the audience.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I wasn't expecting to be thrilled by Thor, but I was. I certainly would've liked the Asgardians' language to be made even more archaic--but what stylized language there is extends to the limits of being universally understandable. Anything more and I suppose some audience members would've gawked and scratched their heads until something blew up. But I would've enjoyed it immensely, and I frankly was just a little disappointed to have the language's richness be watered down. As such, my next article will feature more of the stylized language I was hoping to get: my gift to you.

Thor's action is fun and really well-plotted, but, even though I liked it, it feels a little inverted to many audience members. The first fight is awesome, wall-to-wall special effects and glorious super-powered combat. The second major action scene is completely un-powered, man-to-man beating, and the final fights are special effects-driven but much more subdued in terms of struggle and choreography than the first fight. If you're a little jaded with the formula of action movies, then this should be a breath of fresh air. The final fight is less a question of who will win--which is kind of moot in most super-powered movies anyways--but more a question of how much will be lost both personally and cosmically in the process. I loved it and felt it helped mirror an important and unique aspect of Thor relative to other genre movies: the title character is equally powerful at the beginning of the movie as at the end, but at the end of the movie he is a better person and better equipped to use his power properly.

The humor of the movie was also spot on for my taste. There are a few culture jokes, such as a mortal Thor charging into a pet store and urgently demanding a horse, a few jokes at the expense of the several over-confident characters, and so on. You won't be roaring with laughter, but if you're like me, you'll snigger about some of it on the way home as you reminisce about the experience.

" my mind each of the new crop of Marvel movies brings me one step closer to watching Steve Rogers bash Nazi skulls in with his shield."

And then there's the importance to the series of Marvel movies. This is huge for Marvel-nerds like myself. I loved getting a taste of Jeremy Renner charging in as Clint Barton(frakkin' Hawkeye! Woot!), or getting a feel for Hiddleston's interpretation of Loki as the grand schemer. Clark Gregg returns as Agent Coulson, and is as funny with his deadpan humor as ever. He is perfect as the straight g-man who jokes but never laughs, smirks but never smiles, and is always there when the slag goes down but never really throws down himself.

And make no mistake: this film can well be called Shakespearean. Not because it's a well-formed movie, with deep characters, or a character-driven plot. It has those elements to some degree, but those elements don't make it Shakespearean. Shakespeare's works are really about using people in obscure positions of power, privilege, and authority to represent much more mundane themes that relate to the common man. Romeo and Juliet are two spoiled brats of wealthy houses with personal servants, but their love is emblematic of the risks of heady infatuation and young lust. Macbeth is about a man who kills his way to kingship and then pays the price for it, but it's also about a man who greedily grabs for whatever is before him and then is crippled by guilt over what he's become. Hamlet isn't just about a prince avenging his father, it's also about the uncertainty of one's relationship with family and friends, the doubt of executing justice, and the tendency to personally hesitate to avenge wrong done to someone else. Thor, in turn, is about a god cast down to earth while the heavens circle the drain, but at its heart its about being worthy of the power and trust your parents give you, and about exercising your own authority responsibly when your friends and family rely on you.

Amongst my personal nitpicks with the movie: smack-talk and mythological accuracy. Thor loves to talk trash, and it's part of his identity as being a generally arrogant deity, but also a part of ancient Scandinavian and Germanic culture. In pre-Christian times, those cultures' heroes thrived on bragging about their exploits and abilities, as fame was considered the best wealth to have, and Thor is wealthy indeed. Even in Marvel's iteration of Thor, he does enjoy the trash-talk. Of course, since the movie is concerned with showing Thor mature into a less arrogant, more humble individual, the smack talk starts out at a moderate level and diminishes. It's a choice that serves the plot well, but I really wanted more lines paralleling, "You dare threaten me, Thor, with so puny a weapon?" For more(albeit slightly more foul-mouthed, but very funny) dissertation on Thor's smack-talking prowess, check out the ancient blog of Dave Campbell, here.

Mythological accuracy is definitely not a legitimate bone to pick with the movie, since it strives for accuracy with Marvel's interpretation of its pantheon, not the Norse myths that serve as the original source. But I hold a few details from the myths so close to my heart that noticing their change made me cringe a little. An example: Odin has one eye, and in the movie it is clearly depicted as a war wound from the war with the frost giants. In the mythology, though, Odin gave up his eye as a necessary sacrifice for his wisdom, and it was left at the source of wisdom as a sign that everyone had to pay the price for wisdom--there are no shortcuts for it. Obviously, the myth's rationale for one eye is not very conducive to super-heroes, so I can't begrudge Marvel or Branagh for the change.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Who will enjoy this movie? Comic-book fans, certainly. There are tons of tie-ins to the developing Avengers plot, and the after-credits scene(you know to wait for the credits' ending, right?) got me jonesing for more Marvel goodness when Captain America hits theaters this summer. Even if you're not waiting with bated breath for Captain America and the Avengers movies, there's a good deal of comic book fun to be had in this film. There's a lot of humor injected throughout, and the visuals are bigger and more beautiful than anything that currently comes to mind.

Who else? If you like diverse ensemble movies, Thor will scratch that itch. Even though its named Thor, there's lots of room for the rest of the cast to shine, and Hopkins, Hiddleston, Portman, Skarsgard, and Dennings all have their moments. And, though I'm embarrassed to say it, the ladies who go to movies like The Fellowship of the Ring and giggle over Legolas being so hunky(you know who you are; you almost ruined the second and fifth times I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters) will enjoy the beefcake moments in Thor. There's a soft, under-played romance in Thor that never devolves into a cheap and steamy romp that I find more appreciable than the comparable connection in Iron Man 2, and so there's that, too.

"...Natalie Portman as Jane Foster... encapsulates the finer things of earth for Thor."

If you find that special effects movies distract you, or you expect the final fight of a movie to be more tense than the first--and will be incredibly disappointed if the climax is more emotionally and morally pitched than action-packed--you might not enjoy it. If you can't stand seeing myth be twisted to be more cinema-friendly(there might be one or two of you), you might not appreciate the Marvel brand of Norse mythology.

But if you're ready for fun, approach the film as an exploration of three worlds and one god-man who walks between the three of them, kicking butt everywhere he goes, then get thee to a theatre!

No comments:

Post a Comment