Thor

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings
Review: 3 stars (of five)

Thor is a fun movie with a very likable lead actor. Director Kenneth Branagh (weird, I know) isn’t afraid to let his super-hero project breathe a little, so the film doesn’t feel as fast-paced and in-your-face as other recent Marvel films (notably the Iron Man flicks). The film wobbles a bit on the screenplay level, but not in a way that interferes with its primary mission of being good, popcorn superfun.

This film really needed a guy who could embody the larger-than-life look and character of Thor. Marvel’s version of the Norse god of thunder has a bright costume, long blond hair and the face and body of, well, a god. Chris Hemsworth pulls off the job admirably. He’s a likably arrogant rogue, a somewhat spoiled being of supernatural power who looks equally convincing in his Asgardian costume as he does in mortal clothes.

The rest of the cast is pretty good. Natalie Portman isn’t given much to do, and she does it well. Tom Hiddleston is our emerging villain as Thor’s brother, Loki, and though there is arguable weakness in how the character is written, his performance is strong. In general, the film fills out mortal and immortal worlds quite well, though not always remarkably. Major fan points for working in some of the best Asgardian characters (The Warriors Three, warrior goddess Sif) from the Thor comics, preserving their looks and personalities and making them work in the film.

The storyline divides its time between Asgard and other supernatural realms and the bright, open spaces of New Mexico. The realization of Asgard and its inhabitants is pretty damned good. The original Thor comics were drawn by Jack Kirby, and probably the next best artist on the series was Walt Simonson. Both of them brought a crazy energy to Thor’s adventures, mixing vast science fiction machines and concepts with the idea of Viking immortals. You can’t just put those energetic images on the screen, but Branagh’s team does a great job of creating a world with as much energy, as much awe, and the hybrid of high science and high fantasy. The best example is Bifrost, the rainbow bridge by which Asgardians can travel the nine worlds (including ours). In the comics, the rainbow bridge is … a rainbow. Here, it’s a crystal bridge shot through with subtle flashes of color, and it operates by the kind of insane, oversized and underexplained gizmo that Jack Kirby used to invent three times an hour. It’s perfect.

Wait, You Want Story Logic With Your Superheroes?

The story itself has problems. It’s a variation on the basic Thor story: His father Odin banishes him to Earth to learn some humility, and while he’s powerless and exiled, his mischief-loving brother Loki engineers a crisis that may destroy Asgard. That gives Hemsworth something to struggle against, but there are many loose ends in danger of unraveling, which suggest either too many writers (five credited!) in the scripting process, or a lack of the right ones.

For instance, Loki’s motivations are unclear, though I can piece together a reasonable explanation for his evolution from troublemaker to full-on villain. If he’s the god of mischief, though, why do none of his companions for, lo, the last thousand years or so, have the least hesitation in trusting him? Do they not remember the time he spent a whole century short-sheeting their beds? And if the whole film hangs on Thor’s character arc, where exactly does he learn something new and truly demonstrate it? I can muster a half-assed argument for that one, too, but it’d be nice if the filmmakers had marshaled a fully assed one themselves.

Also, major demerits for abandoning a big plot device. Much of the backstory and current Asgardian mischief focuses on a small chest, referred to only as “the casket,” that had belonged to the Asgardian’s chief rivals, the frost giants. It glows with energy, is the prize of a great war, and may threaten Asgard if ever lost. Fans may infer that it is the Casket of Ancient Winters, which in Walt Simonson’s excellent run of comics unleashed the three-year winter meant to herald Ragnarok, the death of the gods (and, collaterally, us). Yet nothing is ever done with it. You might say, “Classic Maguffin, get over it,” but I’ll see your Hitchcock and raise you a Chekhov, citing the playwright’s famous notion that if you introduce a gun in the first act, someone had better fire it in the third.

It’s an overall problem I had with the film, and still wrestle with, a sort of storytelling spectrum. Let’s say that there are two kinds of bad movies, in terms of story: The one that makes no sense because it doesn’t give you enough information, either in terms of character motivation or plot events; and the one that spoon-feeds you everything, as though you’re too stupid to chew your popcorn without adult supervision. The perfect movie falls right in the middle—everything you need is there, but sometimes you have to put it together yourself to share actively in the unfolding story. Thor definitely leans toward the “not enough information,” and while I’m inclined to favor that as a more intelligent, subtle approach, I think the film really drops the ball in getting us to walk logically through the story.

This may be why the New Mexico portions drag a bit. Thor is supposed to be learning humility through humanity, and perhaps falling for Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. The writers just go through the motions pretty blandly on both points, and in the end, when Thor vows to find his way back to Jane, it’s a little out of left field. I choose to read the scene as the guy saying he’d really like a second date, rather than as a statement of full-blown love, but frankly, the writers didn’t give us anything that merits more than a handshake and a “Thanks for all your help, diminutive mortal woman.” (Nonetheless, a lot of boyfriends are gonna look pretty inadequate after their girlfriends have watched Hemsworth & Portman.)

Suck? Not-Suck?

Final verdict: Good, light entertainment, with some interesting visuals, a good cast, and a director who understands that pacing is about more than “Faster! Louder!” It’s not as frenetic or “edgy” as Iron Man, but it does the same trick of winning you over with a good lead actor. You can work out most of the flaws in your head and still feel like you had a good time. I’d like to see another Thor movie. Maybe with that casket opening up a bit of Ragnarok on us.

But next: Bring on The Avengers!

Bonus Stab at Controversy

Because I don’t have better sense than to discuss race on the Internet, I’ll offer a quick thought on the one real controversy (at least among fans; does anyone else care?) in the Thor cast: Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Norse god who guards Bifrost.

In the comics, Heimdall is white, and it’s a safe bet that the freakin’ Vikings did not invent a multiracial pantheon. Pretty much surrounded by honkies and not big on “inclusiveness,” your ancient Norsemen. So the casting of Elba, a fine actor, is seen by many as an attempt to force some diversity into the cast, either for noble motivations or in a crass attempt to attract a wider paying audience. That creates two questions: How outrageously “miscast” is Elba, and how smart a “diversity move” was this casting?

The film notes that the Asgardians existed before encountering, and being worshipped by, the Norse. Thus, while we know that the Vikings made them up (and probably made them up as a pretty white bunch), the story tells us the Asgardians came first. The weird thing is not that one or two of them are not Caucasian, but that so many of the rest are. And the Heimdall character is not such a heavy player in Thor comics that his physical casting matters much. So, no problem there, welcome aboard Mr. Elba, you did fine work in your few scenes.

Ah, but the other question … So you decide your film should have a few actors “of color,” as we say these days. Laudable. Perhaps you decide not to cast Thor or his relatives as anything but white, because the main character’s look is too well-established. Groovy. But why did you cast the black guy as, essentially, the (cool and very powerful) doorman? He gets about four scenes, only one of which includes him doing anything but talking in a kind of dead, inhuman way. You want diversity in your movie, how about also replacing Natalie Portman with Zoe Saldana or someone? Or Portman’s father-figure fellow scientist, who will clearly figure in the Avengers movie as well? Why’d he have to be a white dude? I like me some diversity, but I’d like it better if the roles felt more significant to the film.

Of course, there’s also the simple fact that Elba’s good, and that’s why they picked him, and all the rest is second-guessing and the fandom tripping over our own issues. Elba’s performance and the story’s logic should kill anyone’s right to complain about his casting.