Monday, May 30, 2011

Movie Review: Thor (2011)

While hunting for meteorological disturbances in the New Mexico desert, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her research partners accidentally hit a disoriented man with their jeep. An extended flashback narrated by Odin, ruler of the realm of Asgard, explains how his son, Thor, god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth), ended up confused and powerless on Earth. Thor had been enraged by a small scale incursion of Asgard by the Frost Giants, a people with whom the Asgardians had an uneasy truce. In his anger, and contrary to his father's command, Thor took his brother, Loki, and four of his friends to the world of Jotunheim to confront the king of the Frost Giants. Although Thor was holding his own with the power of the magical hammer, Mjolnir, in the end the six Asgardians found themselves outnumbered and had to be rescued by Odin. With war rekindled between Asgard and Jotunheim, Odin declared Thor to be unworthy of kingship and exiled him to Earth. Odin then placed an incantation on Mjolnir, declaring that only one who is worthy will be able to wield the hammer and the power of Thor, and cast the weapon to Earth as well.

Now dependent on the physical strength of a mortal and the kindness of Jane Foster, Thor must learn to overcome his arrogance and to earn the right to wield Mjolnir again. Foster and her friends, who are searching for proof of the existence of wormholes (the path between Asgard and Earth just happens to be one), don't know just what to make of Thor. While the things he says seem crazy, events start to indicate that he's telling the truth. In the meanwhile, Agent Coulson (the SHIELD agent from the two Iron Man movies) and his team set up a research laboratory in the crater where the hammer lies. Not only is the ancient weapon slightly radioactive, but it can't be moved from its resting place by any natural means. Back in Asgard, Odin falls into the periodic "Odinsleep", but is in such a weakened condition this time that he may not wake up from it. Loki, who we discover to be a traitor (what did you expect from the trickster god?), thus takes the throne and plans the death of his exiled brother. Eventually, the friends of the newly humbled Thor head to Earth to warn him just as Loki's plans come to a head.

What's the point of being ruler of Asgard if the
throne doesn't come with a big screen TV?

When the post-credit sequence in Iron Man showed that Marvel Entertainment intended to make an Avengers movie, I knew that Thor was inevitable. My biggest concern was that Iron Man was as realistic as a superhero movie was going to get (the existence of powered armor is a lot easier to believe than any superpower) and that the fantastic and magical elements of a movie based on the The Mighty Thor comic book series would seem completely out of place in the world of the Iron Man franchise. However, the film ties itself closely to Iron Man by involving the appropriately bland Agent Coulson and by including a brief but hilarious exchange between SHIELD agents. When the Destroyer (a magical weapon that looks like a fire-filled suit of armor) appears outside of the New Mexico town where Thor and Foster's team are, we get this from the SHIELD agents:

Agent Cale: "Is that one of Stark's?"
Agent Coulson: "I don't know. That guy never tells me anything."

Additionally, Kenneth Branagh's Thor almost seamlessly blends the fantastic and the real-world elements. The scene shifts from a small town on Earth to the realm of Asgard (which can't even be said to exist on any sort of planet) aren't nearly as jarring as I would have expected. The film also goes out of its way to explain Asgard's magic as science that is so advanced that it simply appears to be magic. Arthur C. Clarke and his famous statement on the topic (i.e., "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") is even explicitly mentioned by Foster's research assistant.

"Is that one of Stark's?"

Thor only has a few weaknesses. First, I never really believed that Jane Foster would so quickly fall in love with Thor. The character is indeed physically fit, and he has a likeable personality when he's not being arrogant, but Foster's character as established earlier in the movie doesn't strike me as one who would be smitten so easily. Second, some of the Asgardian costumes are a little over the top and border on being silly. This was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the movie itself recognizes this. When Thor's friends arrive on Earth, the two SHIELD agents on surveillance duty debate over whether or not they should call it in to base, with one of them asking if there's a renaissance fair in town. When they finally radio it in, the agent says "we've got Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood here... oh, and some Lord of the Rings looking dude headed your way." This line was particularly funny for me since I had thought that Thor's female friend looked like Xena from the very beginning of the film.

Finally, when in possession of Mjolnir, Thor seems a little too powerful. The action scenes are certainly spectacular; there's something very satisfying about seeing a superhero smash things with a supernatural hammer, and they even managed to make Thor's ability to fly by spinning his hammer not seem ridiculous. But there are no clearly defined limits to his powers (to be fair, this is a problem that's inherent in the comic book itself). By making a superhero nearly omnipotent, a writer is forced to resort to increasingly absurd ways to challenge the character. This happened with Peter Petrelli in the first two seasons of the TV show Heroes. Petrelli had the ability to acquire and retain the superpowers of any nearby "specials". By the end of the second season it became apparent that the writers themselves couldn't remember the growing roster of Petrelli's abilities when they had him struggle to remove a vault door using his psychokinetic powers rather than have him simply walk through it using a power he had acquired earlier in the season.

No, I'm still not buying it

If the writers of The Avengers aren't careful, having Thor team up with Captain American, who's merely an enhanced human, or the armor-wearing Tony Stark will make as much sense as DC Comics' Justice League lineup. What's the point of keeping around heroes with limited superpowers (e.g., Aquaman, whose primary power is communicating with marine life) or no superpowers at all (e.g., Batman) when you have characters like Superman (who can fly, has super strength, has X-ray vision, etc.) or Green Lantern (who can conjure up just about anything he can think of with his power ring)? You'd think that whenever something really dangerous popped up, heroes like Thor or Superman would finally tell their comrades that they should just go back to the safe life of fighting muggers, mob bosses, and international terrorists and leave the Cosmic Threat To All Life In The Universe to the big boys.

Mjolnir: useful for those times when you have to drive a nail into granite

These flaws notwithstanding, Thor really is a fun film. My wife (i.e., the one who keeps giving chick flicks a chance but in the end seems to prefer movies like I, Robot (2004), The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man (2008), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), etc.) really enjoyed the movie and is now looking forward to Captain America.

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