There are two things keeping Thor from being a terrible movie. One is Chris Hemsworth. The other is Tom Hiddleston. While there are others who do good work in the film (Idris Elba in particular is a delightful badass), it’s the star power of these two actors, playing Thor and Loki, that edges Thor into ‘mediocre’ territory.
Thor was never going to be an easy character to adapt in the modern climate, and I have to acknowledge that Marvel took the right tack by embracing the cosmic, silly elements of the comic book mythos. In fact, much of the film takes place in Asgard, which is… kind of a problem. See, because so much time is spent in Asgard the entire earthbound portion of the story gets shortchanged (plus it gets really ruined by shoehorning SHIELD into it all), and so the pivotal moments of Thor’s character arc are sort of sketched in the way movies do these days, where the movie just says ‘Look, we all know Thor is going to learn a lesson, so let’s just assume he did and move on.’
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s possible you have no idea what Thor is about, so maybe I should tell you. Short story version: the gods of Norse myth are real, and they’re actually extradimensional superbeings. They used to be at war with Frost Giants, but found peace a thousand years ago. Odin rules them all, and he has two sons, Thor and Loki, who are both in line for the throne. When Thor, who is impetuous and violent, is tricked by Loki into starting a war with the Frost Giants, Odin banishes him to Earth to learn humility. On Earth he meets Jane Foster and friends, and maybe - just maybe! - they can help him learn that humility.
Thor ends up being really schizophrenic. While scenes on Asgard work as a story, they generally look cheap and terrible and silly. And while the scenes on Earth work as fun character asides, they’re painfully shortchanged on story. I worried that the ‘fish out of water’ stuff would overwhelm the film, but it’s handled well. It’s just that the love story between Thor and Jane Foster doesn’t exist on any meaningful level, and Thor’s lessons in humility have no heft.
That leaves Loki as the sole character to have a story arc. Hiddleston is really great as Loki, and he plays the god of mischief’s change from pain in the ass to villain well (even if the concept annoyed me. Norse mythology pretty conclusively paints Loki as at least a horrible dick, but usually as an actual villain. Yet no one in Asgard is in on this). It’s the most interesting arc in the film because it’s actually drawn; Loki is almost sympathetic in his machinations.
Hemsworth is all charm and charisma as Thor, and I can’t wait to see him in Marvel’s The Avengers. The kid’s a star, but I wish the movie gave him a chance to act. Mostly he poses and smiles and is enjoyable to be around - all the prerequisites for a star - but that’s about it. Comparing him here and in Star Trek (another film that gets by largely on the charisma of the leads, but which manages to spin that charisma into something much, much more enjoyable than Thor does) I get the impression that he has chops. I’d like to see them some day.
Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, the character we know is Thor’s love interest because that’s her entire role in the movie. It’s an embarrassing part for a woman who just won an Oscar; Foster has no depth, nothing interesting going on… and worst of all, the romance between her and Thor exists only in the minds of the screenwriters. This is possibly the worst romance I have seen in a major film in years, which is pretty sad considering the fact that Portman and Hemsworth seem to have considerable chemistry. In the end I completely believed they would like to make out, but never that they were interested in each other beyond that.
There are other good actors in the mix - Sir Anthony Hopkins, once again collecting a paycheck, Idris Elba stealing the show, Stellan Skarsgaard being game and Kat Dennings being surpisingly human and funny - but in the end they’re servicing a script that’s simply not finished cooking. Actors get good moments, but these moments don’t add up to anything.
It’s possible that the script could have been saved by simply removing SHIELD from it altogether. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has said that he likes to imagine that Thor works as a standalone story. Well, I like to imagine I have a 12 inch dick. The inclusion of SHIELD is clumsy, amateur and distracting. They show up to take custody of Thor’s hammer, but the only story purpose they have is to give Thor some guys to fight in act two. Otherwise they eat up screentime so that we know this movie is connected to Iron Man. What’s worse is that Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner, is forced into the film like a fat woman into a dress three sizes too small. He shows up in obvious insert shots and does absolutely nothing at all. Well, nothing except wink at the audience about the upcoming Marvel’s The Avengers film.
The more I think about it the more I realize that it’s certainly SHIELD that sinks the film. The time spent futzing around their base could have been spent building the Thor/Jane relationship, or perhaps allow Thor to do something more interesting than get captured for the second time in 20 minutes. What began as a cute freckle at the end of Iron Man has metastasized into the tumor which threatens to choke the life from Thor.
It’s worth noting that Thor might represent a personal milestone for me. It could be the film where I finally, once and for all, have reached my limit for shitty, cartoonish CGI. A battle between Thor and his buds (The Warriors Three, played mostly for comic relief) and the Frost Giants begins with some stuntmen but degenerates into people running around in front of a green screen while a digital camera swoops around in impossible maneuvers. If the camera were attached to a flying vehicle of some sort the Gs it pulled would make the camera operator pass out.
I’m so sick of this. While I continue to be amazed by how CGI is used in subtle, artistic ways - quiet face replacements, gentle changes in backgrounds - it seems as though blockbuster action CGI remains stuck firmly in the mid-2000s. There’s a chase with a frost giant dog thing that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Star Wars prequel. If the FX work is too expensive to do well, directors should figure out how to shoot this stuff in a way that works. A big help would be to shoot live action elements like you would shoot a live action sequence; nothing makes an FX sequence look phonier than long, swooping takes. It isn’t just the job of the FX house to create something that looks real, it’s the job of the director and the editor to figure out how to integrate that effect into the film in a realistic way. Nobody told Kenneth Branagh this.
Nobody told him that Dutch angles suck, either. Every third shot in the film is a Dutch angle. The old Batman TV show used them more sparingly. If a scene in Thor isn’t filled with distractingly awful CGI backgrounds it’s shot with a distractingly awful Dutch angle. This is not a film that needed more handicaps.
Thor strives for mediocrity. There’s some fun to be had with the actors, but the script and the FX are useless. The talent on hand and the budget of the film should add up to something better than this, better than a film whose pleasures are fleeting and few. I’m afraid that the lesson Marvel learned from Iron Man is that a charismatic lead with make up for any number of flaws, and that’s only true to an extent. But as great as Hemsworth and Hiddleston are, they cannot overcome the film’s flaws. All they can do is drag the film up from awful to fairly tolerable.