Marvel’s been rolling the dice quite a bit lately. First in introducing characters to one of their more obscure heroes (Iron Man), then in beginning to weave disparate movie franchises together into a single coherent and shared narrative, and now in putting their extremely loose interpretation of Norse myth on the big screen. The law of averages says that sooner or later, their dice are going to come up bad and the whole project’s going to suffer for it. Thor, however, is not their deadly dice roll. Either Marvel’s just having really good luck, or their freaking dice are loaded.
In the Marvel Universe, Asgard and its inhabitants did and still do exist. They are the pinnacle of the Nine Realms connected by the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and in the past those worlds have come into conflict, most notably Asgard with Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants. When a few of those giants break into the treasure vault of the Asgardian king Odin, his headstrong and short-sighted son Thor takes the fight right back to Jotunheim. With war suddenly on the horizon and his rule defied, Odin strips Thor of his weapon and powers, banishing him to Midgard, or as we know it, Earth. He’s discovered by an astro-physicist who witnessed the Bifrost (to her, it’s an Einstein-Rosen bridge) and is curious of his origins, while Thor only wants one thing: to get his hammer back.
The plot of the movie really isn’t all that complex. Sure, there has to be some mild suspension of disbelief when you see heroes of Norse legend riding to battle on horseback across a bridge of rainbows, but the movie allows for this disbelief. Thor upon reaching Earth acts like a crazy person, apparently suffering from delusions, and is treated accordingly. While every word he says is true, to us it sounds impossible. Yet Jane (the astro-physicist) knows that we have achieved through science what many would have considered impossible just a few decades ago, and her mind is open to the possibilities. Or maybe she’s just smitten with the guy.
The film is adeptly well-cast and extremely well-directed. Chris Hemsworth completely owns his role, delivering his lines with such earnestness and gravitas that he actually does stand toe to toe with a heavyweight like Sir Anthony Hopkins. Tom Hiddleston makes for a fantastic Loki, here the little brother of Thor filled with ambition and schemes within schemes. Natalie Portman is a refreshingly simple character, smart and straightforward in her beliefs while being nerdy and introverted enough that it’s clear why she’s swept off of her feet by this towering, sincere and charming Asgardian who’s literally been dropped into her lap. All of them are under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, who might be best known for his interpretations of Shakespeare but pulls off this depiction of ancient gods doing battle with incredible monsters like it’s no big deal.
While the Arthurian and almost fairy-tale like aspects of the plot play like out in a simple way, almost child-like in their straightforwardness, there are bits here and there that show that Marvel is growing up. The integration of things like SHIELD, other Marvel characters and bits from elsewhere in the shared universe are far more subtle than they were in Iron Man 2, a couple of moments being so fast you’ll miss them if you blink. A lot has also been said on the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall, and I had to sit back and smile whenever he was on screen because he steals every scene he’s in (take that, haters), as does Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.
It’s not a movie without flaws and I can’t say it’s really for everybody. It’s clearly aimed at a universal audience given its kid-friendly simple plot and grown-up sensibilities in execution, but the interpretation of Norse myths and their integration into what was until now and entirely realistic (if somewhat hypersciency) universe might be too much for some to swallow. I felt like Sif and the Warriors Three could have used a bit more exploration or at least screen-time, as much as I enjoyed their presence. There will be people who split hairs over the relationships between the Asgardians and how things transitioned from the comic books or the sheer improbability of the scientific explanation of the goings-on, and there really isn’t anything people can do about that. In fact, Thor‘s response to such things is, apparently, a shrug of some very broad and heroic shoulders.
This is not Shakespeare or a production of the Der Ring des Nibelungen, it’s cosmic fantasy done with a broad brush in bright, glittering colors. It owes more to the aesthetics and spirit of Flash Gordon and Stargate than it does anything more ‘adult’ or ‘serious’, and its sincerity and simplicity make it almost endearing. I won’t say it’s the best comic book movie ever, but it’s certainly better than most, and fits neatly into the picture Marvel is assembling of The Avengers.
Stuff I Liked: Great stuff with SHIELD. Stellan Skarsgaard as the skeptic and Jane’s father figure. The brilliant visuals of Asgard and its juxtaposition with both Jotunheim and Earth. Sif and the Warriors Three – more Ray Stevenson, please! (Yes, that’s the Punisher as Volstagg the Voluminous)
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some aspects of the plot and setting – the Odinsleep, for example – go almost entirely unexplained. I guess that’s to be expected in a story this simplistic, but I felt like parts of the story or some helpful bits of knowledge were missing.
Stuff I Loved: Just about everything Thor does when he first arrives on Earth, and Kat Dennings’ reactions to him. The reversal of the girl being nerdy and the guy being hot instead of the other way around. Thor being smart, charming and heroic even when he’s being a selfish douche. Loki. Odin. Little things like Sleipnir and Gungnir. The little Easter Eggs in Odin’s treasure vault.
Bottom Line: If you’re interested in Marvel’s uber-project, heroic fantasy or seeing a guy like Chris Hemsworth with his shirt off, go see Thor. There’s plenty to enjoy and a little something for everybody. If you’re on the fence about it, though, you can probably wait for the DVD. It’s visuals are big and bold but most TV screens are big enough to give you a sense of scope. Unless you have an old CRT model like I do.