Editor’s note: This is the first film review featured on Revel in Reading! Guest author and chief Reveller Iain Burnside recently saw Thor at The Vue cinema (part of The Oracle shopping centre in Reading). A link to show times is below the review.
The superhero movie genre has become a familiar presence at the multiplex in recent times. Over the past decade, starting with the first X-Men movie, Marvel Comics characters have amassed some three dozen feature films. Another six will be released in the next couple of years, with many more in the pipeline. Characters from other publishers, such as DC Comics and Dark Horse, are also being granted the big-screen adaptation treatment. There is clearly a winning formula to these movies – the uncertain rookie hero discovering super-powers; the nefarious villain with a world-threatening scheme; the love interest whose survival is threatened by their conflict; the ubiquitous genre tropes of secret identity, costume and catchphrase. All of which comes pre-packaged for Toys R Us shelves, fast food meal deals and a rockin’ soundtrack.
Thor does not fit into this mould.
For those who are unfamiliar with the character, Marvel began publishing his stories in 1962. The Marvel standard for their superheroes has been to take flawed, weak people and grant them phenomenal powers, such as Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America and others. Stan Lee, creator of all Marvel’s iconic properties in the ‘60s, took a different approach for Thor; ”Don’t make him human – make him a god.”
Lee, alongside legendary artist Jack Kirby’s boundless imagination, blended Norse mythology with an outlandish ‘60s sensibility during their initial run on the character in the Journey Into Mystery series. Thor did not have to learn how to use his powers; he was born with them. He did not have to earn any responsibility; he was already the god of thunder. He was not the awkward, bumbling, love-sick wallflower pining for the girl next door; he was a charismatic, confident figure who resided in the realm of Asgard. While most superhero tales involve bringing a fantastic spectacle to an ordinary world, Thor was something altogether different.
Attempting to adapt this character into a movie has therefore proven difficult. The first effort was made by Sam Raimi, who later directed the Spider-Man trilogy, in 1990. After two decades in development hell, the concept was revived by Mark Protosevich’s screenplay of ”an Old Testament god who becomes a New Testament god.” Matthew Vaughn, comic book fan and director of the upcoming X-Men: First Class, was attached to direct. He was then replaced by none other than Kenneth Branagh, renowned for his film adaptations of Shakespeare. It was evident that this movie required something out of the ordinary so far as comic book superheroes were concerned.
By this point, Marvel had grown in stature and had launched its own movie studio. The primary objective has been to take a number of B-list characters from their comic books and build towards the first-ever team-up movie, The Avengers, due to be released next summer. In the run-up to that event, Marvel have released individual movies for each of the superheroes involved in it – Iron Man, Incredible Hulk and the upcoming Captain America. All of these characters are rooted in science and a somewhat realistic Earth environment. The challenge for Branagh was not just to portray a complex mythology within the superhero genre but to do so in a way that would allow Thor to mingle with these other characters in a non-jarring manner.
First and foremost, this is a fun movie. Branagh’s greatest weapon is his leading man, Chris Hemsworth, who gives a commanding performance as Thor. It is a role that requires a very particular blend of action hero, romantic lead, sex symbol, drinking buddy and charismatic enigma, all of which Hemsworth succeeds at. A character this outlandish may not be relatable but he can certainly be made enjoyable. Special mention must also go to Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s brother, Loki. The brothers’ attempt to prove themselves to their father, Odin, played by a lackadaisical Anthony Hopkins, provides the conflict of this story. Thor is a legendary warrior on Asgard who must prove his emotional maturity while on Earth. Loki, on the other hand, discovers an uncomfortable truth about himself that shatters his life-long feelings of inadequacy in comparison to Thor. Odin, in very different ways, grants his sons the opportunity to create their own identities. Thor must learn humility as a man if he wants to remain a god. Loki must be strong enough to define himself without comparison to others.
This is the sort of heady character drama that Branagh has built his career around. It is hindered, however, by an uneven and at times plain lazy script. There are at least two major character development points towards the climax of the film that feel unearned and unclear in their execution. The film compensates for this by embracing the bombastic, ludicrous nature of the set-up with unapologetic glee. Asgard is a wonderfully rendered realm, all galactic skies and rainbow bridges. The ‘stranger in a strange land’ scenes of the Asgardians on Earth let us laugh with the characters rather than at them. Also, Marvel appear to have learned a crucial lesson from the underwhelming Iron Man 2 by not dominating the film with set-up for The Avengers. Scenes involving the SHIELD agents who have provided the link between their movies to date are allowed to compliment Thor’s story in a natural manner. (As always, you will want to stay and check out the obligatory post-credits scene to keep on track of things for the Avengers.)
All in all, then, this movie triumphs. Although not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, it is an imaginative, engaging and entertaining summer blockbuster. Marvel’s bold Avengers experiment has faced perhaps its biggest challenge in terms of internal logic and emerged unscathed. With Hiddleston’s Loki set to play a major role in The Avengers team-up, things are looking good for next summer’s popcorn fare. The prospect of Hemsworth trying to chew his fare share of the scenery against Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is also an enticing prospect. Just be sure you don’t miss out on this exciting installment.
Click here for a list of Thor film showings at The Vue cinema, near The Oracle in Reading. And if you’re looking for other fun summer activities, why not try a bit of zorbing at Reading Central Pool, or perhaps a chilled out drink at The Harvester in Prospect Park?