Comics don’t stay in comics. For better or worse, most comics are produced in the hopes they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths. Extra Medium is my column about all these things and more.
I did not have high hopes for this summer.
Back in 2000 when X-Men proved what CGI, great actors, and a talented director could do for a superhero flick, every comic book fan was officially on stand-by for news of their respective favorite good guys making it to the big screen. Speculating on who would be the best Batman or the best Iron Man became as much of a geek sport as Magic: The Gathering or World of Warcraft. I had as much fun as anyone arguing about who should play Superman, whether or not there would ever be an Avengers movie, or whether the Hulk should be CG-rendered or just another guy in green paint.
There were certain franchises that I was sure either would never make it to the big screen or, if they did, would flop bigger than Ishtar. Some superheroes sport costumes so utterly goofy that it’s nearly impossible to imagine a translation to film. Either they would look ridiculous, I thought, or their costumes would demand redesigns so dramatic there would be little or no connection to the original concept.
So when I participated in online debates about which comic book heroes should or shouldn’t get movie treatment, I had a mental checklist ready of all the superheroes I felt would never be a success in a film. Out of the 4 big superhero movies coming out this summer, 3 feature heroes on my personal Don’t-Even-Bother list.
So, again, I did not have high hopes for this summer. I was sure Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger would be horrible and so, by extension, next year’s Avengers would be atrocious. Green Lantern looked like there would be no middle ground. It would either be one of the best superhero films ever made or one of the worst – probably the latter. As for X-Men: First Class, well. I just don’t care. I’m not saying it will be bad and I’m not saying it will be good. Everything and anything to do with the X-Men franchise is, to me, the comic book answer to the catchy new pop tune you love the first time you hear it, but by the end of the first week of its release it’s been overplayed to the point that you want to stab the next person you hear humming it.
Because of my outlook on this summer’s funnybook flicks and the subject matter of Extra Medium, I assumed the launch of the column would be depressing. Nothing but fanboy bitching. I honestly did not think I would be writing a single positive movie review this summer.
I saw Thor the night after its release with my friend Gene. On the way to the mall, we joked about the relatively low bar we both had set for the film. Because of traffic complicated by a local festival, I was later than I wanted picking Gene up and I had my doubts about getting there on time. The multiplex was offering around a dozen times for Thor 3-D, but only 4 screenings of Thor without the dumb glasses (we didn’t want the dumb glasses). “I don’t want to speed and kill ourselves getting there,” I told Gene. “Well if we do die,” Gene joked, “I’ve lived a full life.” I laughed and said, “Oh, no. We are not dying on our way to Thor. Premiere of The Dark Knight? Maybe. Not Thor.”
There were just too many things working against Thor for it to not suck. Kenneth Branagh is a director I feel lukewarm about at best, and he’s not exactly a Spielberg-level veteran of summer blockbusters. His job wasn’t an easy one. He had to present us with a superhero whose costume didn’t seem like it could translate well to live-action (it isn’t too goofy, perhaps, but the winged helmet kind of nudges it over the line). He had to introduce the vast mythology of the Marvel-ized Asgard and its colorful characters like Heimdall (Idris Elba), Sif (Jaimie Alexander), and the Warriors Three. He had to build a world that mixed elements of fantasy with those of science fiction, place that world next to the real one, and somehow make us believe they could co-exist. He had to humanize a superhero who is not just godlike but actually a god, and he had to do it without the usual benefit of a secret identity. Not to mention he had to do all this while working within the confines of Marvel’s expanding film continuity.
And on a personal note, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention that Branagh, the cast, and crew had a much more difficult job in making ME like Thor because, for reasons that you may justifiably find mind-jarringly stupid, I kind of wanted Thor to suck. It isn’t that I don’t like the guy, but Thor has an ongoing rivalry with another superhero, and that superhero commands the dominating percentage of my superhero loyalty. Suffice to say I never yelled “HULK SMASH PUNY LONGHAIR,” in the theater, but not because I didn’t think of it.
It is because of this loyalty that, once the movie was over and Gene and I were waiting for the now customary Marvel “secret ending,” I fired up my Blackberry and tweeted:
“Thor was…good. God DAMN it.”
Against all the odds that I can count, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor proved me wrong. It is by no means a perfect movie but it was big, fun, explosive, surprisingly funny and romantic, and paid tribute to the comic in ways both clever and revealing in regards to next year’s Avengers.
On the eve of Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) ascendance to the throne of Asgard, frost giants somehow breach the mystic realm’s defenses in search of a powerful object. Though the giants fail, the Asgardians are enraged and none are more angered than Thor. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) commands his son to stay his hand, but the impetuous thunder god ignores his father and sneaks into Jotunheim – realm of the frost giants – with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the woman warrior Sif, and the Warriors Three at his side. Odin eventually learns of Thor’s acts and rescues Thor and his cohorts, but not before the thunder god’s transgression renews war between Asgard and Jotunheim. Seeking both to punish the unrepentant Thor and teach him the patience he needs to lead Asgard, Odin reclaims the mystical hammer Mjolnir from Thor, exiles him from Asgard, and sends Mjolnir after him. The hammer waits in a crater not far from where Thor materialized in the desert, ready to be reclaimed by a worthy hand.
Thor’s first contact on Earth (or as he knows it, Midgard) is with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team – Erik (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy (Kat Dennings) who are researching the disturbances the Bifröst – Asgard’s mystical gateway to Earth and other worlds – are causing in the New Mexico desert. No one seems particularly convinced of Thor’s identity, though he hardly seems to care. Once he learns that Mjolnir is in the desert, he makes a beeline for the crater and fights through a cadre of S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiers – led by the familiar Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 – only to learn he cannot lift Mjolnir from its spot because he is not worthy of its power.
In the meantime, Odin falls into the Odinsleep (a kind of deep hibernation/coma he apparently just occasionally stumbles upon) and Loki takes the reins of Asgard. Fueled by ambition, jealousy toward Thor, and resentment upon fresh revelations regarding his birth, Loki has nothing but death and destruction on his mind. He forbids any use of the Bifröst other than his own. He also appears before Thor and lies to him, telling him Odin is dead and that he refuses to end Thor’s exile because Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) forbids it. It isn’t long before Sif and the Warriors Three suspect Loki’s treachery and travel to Earth to find Thor. Once Loki learns of their plans, he sends the deadly automaton The Destroyer after them. A de-powered Thor must find a way to prove himself worthy of his godhood, stop The Destroyer from living up to his namesake, and eventually must confront Loki and put an end to his apocalyptic designs.
Hemsworth is a wonderful surprise. He’s a great choice for the proud warrior Thor and he rendered him very likable. It’s kind of jarring how much I enjoy his portrayal of the thunder god. When I think of Thor, I think of someone larger-than-life, always bellowing out commands and proclamations and oaths with thees and thous. Hemsworth is funny and at times even tender as Thor. I can’t help but wonder whether hardcore fans of the comic book hero found their favorite thunder god more enjoyable because of this or less, but I’ve never enjoyed the character more.
Hiddleston is surprisingly sympathetic as Loki, so much so that I wondered for a bit whether or not the story would reveal him to be perhaps more heroic than the Loki of the comic. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Hiddleston is much more of a physical threat to the hero than the mastermind I’m used to in the funnybooks, and that makes sense. An actor trying to ape the Loki of the comics would likely come off like a bad copy of the Grinch who stole Christmas.
I thought Branagh’s Shakespeare experience served him well when it came to handling Loki. Especially in the beginning of the film, before Thor is exiled, there is a very Othello/Iago feel to the Thor/Loki dynamic.
I probably worried more about Portman than any of the other principle actors in the film, particularly considering her infamously phoned-in performances in the last geek-centric epic she worked. Whatever it was about George Lucas’s prequels that turned her to wood, Thor apparently didn’t suffer from it. Portman is believable as the passionate but socially awkward Jane Foster. Foster is retooled (she was a nurse in the comics) as a physicist researching disturbances she believes to be wormholes manifesting in the New Mexico desert. It’s Foster and her team who find Thor (and smack him upside the head with their car) after Odin exiles him.
The Jane/Thor romance was one of the surprisingly entertaining things about Thor. Hemsworth and Portman enjoy wonderful chemistry and I wouldn’t be surprised if the star-crossed Jane/Thor love affair becomes as much of a memorable and familiar romance to a new generation of superhero fans as the Lois and Clark coupling was to earlier generations.
Anthony Hopkins made a good Odin, though when he argued with Thor I kept waiting for him to stop, get disturbingly calm, and whisper, “a thunder god tried to test me once…”
I should also say, particularly considering all the nonsense talk about his skin color, that Idris Elba kicks ass as Heimdall. I’d even suggest the fact that he’s the only dark-skinned Norse god in the film makes perfect sense. Because of his role as the guardian of the Bifröst, Heimdall is portrayed as a breed apart from the rest of the Norse gods, almost as if in some ways he enjoys a power and authority beyond even Odin.
I haven’t read a ton of Thor (the comic), so there may have been many Thor-specific references I missed, but there’s definitely plenty to keep Marvel geeks like me occupied. Branagh found a clever way to pay tribute to Thor’s on-again/off-again alter ego Donald Blake. Most of the past and upcoming Avengers related movies are referenced (particularly Iron Man, to the point where the lack of a Robert Downey, Jr. cameo actually surprised me), and I’d say Thor boasts my favorite Stan Lee cameo to date.
Thor also features a brief appearance by a superhero I’m fairly certain we’ll be seeing more of in Joss Whedon’s Avengers. I won’t say who but here’s a hint: after the movie I joked to Gene that it would’ve been great if Brian Michael Bendis walked up from behind him and shot him in the head. I’ll say no more.
There were some missing folks here and there. No Enchantress or Balder or Lorelei as far as I could tell. Though it’s likely any or all of them could have been part of the background and I just didn’t notice. Regardless of a few absent names and faces, the creative team did an admirable job representing Thor’s larger world.
My complaints are few. The portrayals of Sif and the Warriors Three are not bad but not particularly memorable either. Perhaps my biggest complaints with the film have to do with Ray Stevenson as Volstagg. First, I have the same complaint I had about Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg in Zack Synder’s Watchmen. Namely, that fat people don’t get a lot of superhero representatives and it’s mean to take away the few we do have. They give Volstagg something that looks like it might be a gut, but nothing approaching the comic book Volstagg’s grand girth. He looks more like he’s just barely pregnant. Second, they turn Volstagg into a worrying old woman. Whenever Sif and the other Warriors consider doing something against the rules, Volstagg is the first to advise caution. And that is NOT the Volstagg I know, regardless of his waistline. The Volstagg I know might not be as impetuous and rash as Thor, but he certainly always seemed as excited as any of the Asgardians at the prospect of battle.
I wasn’t crazy about the physical portrayal of Jotunheim’s frost giants. There was something about them that made me feel like their make-up and wardrobe would be better suited for a stage production than a film. And while this isn’t so much a complaint as an observation, I was confused about the presence of King Laufey (Colm Feore) and the absence of Ymir. I always thought Ymir was the leader of the frost giants, though I have to admit I don’t know my Norse mythology that well.
Again, the movie was not perfect. Branagh shows some of the weaknesses he’s shown in other films. There are moments when his timing seems a little off. There is an awkward, abrupt feeling, for example, to the scene when Odin collapses into the Odinsleep and earlier when he realizes frost giants are sneaking into Asgard. There are some strange inconsistencies. A scene in which Loki appears before Thor on Earth and shortly afterward attempts to claim Mjolnir fails to make sense for a number of reasons. A character is miraculously healed at the end with no explanation.
But it’s a great popcorn flick, and it doesn’t mean to be anything more. Perhaps it was just the red cape, but throughout the film I couldn’t help but be reminded of the heroic grandeur of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. I found myself thinking Thor was, in more than a few ways, what Superman and Superman II would’ve been if Jor-El and the rest of the Kryptonians were still alive. Thor still has his Jor-El, after all. He just pissed him off one too many times.
One thing I wonder about is the sequel potential for Thor. Thor is powerless for a good chunk of the movie and that goes a long way toward humanizing him. It’s easier to find him likable and to believe his romance with Jane Foster when he can’t summon monsoons and twirl that hammer around like a band leader on crack. What happens when they need to humanize him without taking away his power?
Regardless of its sequel potential or lack thereof, Thor was not only a great flick but overall it’s made me reconsider my depressing outlook on this summer’s superhero movies. I won’t lie. Put a uru hammer to my head and I’d still bet that, when all is said and done, the only good thing I’ll have to say about my respective viewings of Captain America and Green Lantern will be “I was never set on fire by terrorists while watching this film.” And my X-Apathy endures. But Thor proved me wrong and reminded me of just how wrong I can be about this stuff, and I’m hoping the rest of the summer does too.