As Kevin Feige, the man behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, began to get his army of writers in line to make some sense of proceedings as a promised Avengers movie approached, it was time to look beyond Earth for inspiration. Iron Man had two movies, and what was often a second-tier hero suddenly became the center of a film franchise. The Incredible Hulk was a bit more popular, but neither movie that had been made featuring him managed to match the entertainment value of a 1970s television show, thus the green guy was on the back burner.
Disney had acquired the rights to the MCU in 2009, although they still had a number of movies to pump out to fulfill their contract with Paramount. Sony still held the rights to Spider-Man, while 21st Century Fox had the X-Men, so with a major superhero jam session looming it was important to get in some heavy hitters. It came as no surprise that, after all these years, we would get a Thor movie.
It made sense why this had never been done before, even though there were plenty of actors that could have played the part. I love '80s special effects, but an attempt at a Thor movie back then would have looked too much like Clash of the Titans. The '90s would have tried to up the camp in a cynical, ironic manner. The only memories of a live action Thor, after all, came from a guest appearance on The Incredible Hulk - not the movie, but the television show. As much as I complain about CGI, there are certain movies where, when done well and combined with practical effects, it can do its job in creating worlds that would have been impossible 30 years ago.
In reality, all they needed was some decent writing that captured both Norse mythology and the character as he is portrayed in the comics, add someone who looked believably like Thor and give him a good supporting cast. Hey, look - Kenneth Branagh's directing! Remember all the great Shakespeare adaptations he used to do?
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is due to be announced by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as the official heir to the throne of Asgard. Problem is, some Frost Giants decide to crash the party. They are dealt with easily enough, but Thor, over his father's objections, decides it's time to take his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his friends Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Fandral (Josh Dallas) to the realm of Jotunheim and give the king of the Frost Giants, Laufey (Colm Feore), the what-for. Things predictably go pear-shaped, resulting in Odin deciding that he must strip Thor of his powers and banish him to Earth for his own good.
Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her partner Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) happen to be investigating strange phenomena outside the small town of Puente Antigua, New Mexico when Thor arrives. They originally think him deranged, but soon realize that he somehow came through an Einstein-Rosen Bridge (aka, wormhole) from some other place. They aren't the only ones who know, as Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. show up to cordon off the crater where Thor's hammer, Mjölnir, happened to land, but not before seizing all of Foster's work.
Whether through careful planning or seizing an opportunity, Loki seizes the throne while Odin sleeps. Thor's friends head to Earth to rescue him, and Loki decides it's as good a time as any to get rid of competition. Of course, Thor is not going to be without his powers forever.
While Kenneth Branagh may have directed this and put some of his Shakespearean inspirations into how he presented the characters, he didn't write the film. I think it was his decision to film a good portion at an angle so that viewers end up getting a stiff neck trying to view the movie straight on. He may be a fan of the comics and have liked the story, but the movie could have been directed by almost anyone. There is nothing that sets it apart, other than some of the problems that would haunt Marvel films in the future.
Although I did like this a little better the second time through, my initial impression still stands: Chris Hemsworth makes a great Thor, even if the story presented is closer to Gilgamesh that it is to any Norse legends. He has the look, he has the arrogance and the acting chops to make one believe that he can be redeemed. Tom Hiddleston makes Loki a great, multi-faceted villain. However, this is in The Avengers and later Marvel movies, just not in this particular movie. They do elevate it and are the best parts of the film (along with Anthony Hopkins, of course), but they are given so little to do.
As good as Loki would be in The Avengers, here he is one of a long list of all-powerful, but dull and weak, villains. He states that he doesn't really want the throne of Asgard, but grabs it at the first opportunity, even if the only reason he wants it is to annoy Thor. He goes through a long and complicated plot to look good in Odin's eyes just because he feels like he doesn't get enough attention. It's one of those times where just making him a fratricide and a usurper would have been enough, and ultimately would have been more satisfying. As cunning as he is presented in future films, he just seems like he's flailing about with various petty schemes at this point.
A small part of the film is dedicated to the fish-out-of-water situation of Thor having to come to terms with his exile, but this is another tried-and-true plotline that would have been a better focus. It's thrown in for a few laughs, but, again, is handled much better in future outings. Perhaps it is because Hemsworth has chemistry with Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr., and has absolutely none with Natalie Portman.
Which brings me to the worst part of the movie. Natalie Portman's portrayal of Jane Foster is so lifeless that I don't even know why she is part of the movie. Darcy is a more likable character, and Kat Dennings could have easily played the same roll she does as well as Portman's. She's a better actor and more interesting, maybe could have believably done more, while still being a love interest and someone for Selvig to explain scientific concepts to for the benefit of the audience. There is no build-up to why Thor would fall in love with Foster, and it's as unbelievable here as it was in older movies where the heroine swoons into the hero's arms after barely spending a day with them. Knowing that they are going to make her the new Thor, after she has expressed such disdain for her part as Foster in the past, is equally confusing. There is also this lingering feeling that this type of movie is, in her opinion, below her, and that you are below her for watching it.
Finally, there are the effects. I like Laufey, probably because most of that is makeup. The Destroyer was cool but, like anything that starts getting some excitement going in this movie, wasted. The rest of the film is as I remember it: lots of pretty lights, many parts that look like video game cut scenes and a move to the rubbery, unbelievable CGI of most current films, and away from trying to make anything look realistic. The worst, though, is an actual real set: Puente Antigua itself which, despite a bunch of '50s and '60s architecture, is so clean and so out of place in its desert environs that it was obviously built for the movie. It looks like some of the cities that have been built in places like Kazakhstan where the local dictator decides the old capitol is no longer good enough and he wants to create some sort of desert oasis. You can fill it with as many actors and extras as you like, but everyone knows it's not a real, organic city in any shape or form.
I think all this is a shame because Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Hopkins (and even Idris Elba, in a too-small roll as Heimdall) give it their all in creating memorable characters. Sadly they did it in a movie that sadly feels like it was based on a bare outline of a script and is filled with a number of supporting characters that either are given little to do or didn't want to be there in the first place. Cliches and plot devices would have been desirable considering the shallow, pretty thing we got.
Which, in hindsight, kind of makes Natalie Portman fit a bit better when you look at it that way.
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman
Director: Kenneth Branagh