I should start by confessing that Thor has always been my least favorite of the major Avengers. (No one cares about Ant-Man enough for him to be anyone’s least favorite.) The idea that a Norse god would deign to fight alongside superheroes for the fate of a planet that no longer cares about him has always struck me as ridiculous. Don’t bother to tell me Thor’s motivations have been explained. I know they have. I just don’t really care. And even if I did, it’s not possible for you to defend his classic costume in any way I would find credible. Captain America’s wings looked like models of understatement next to Thor’s.
So my expectations for Thor were low. As a result, I ended up walking out of the theater feeling blown away. Having had some time to gain a bit of perspective, I am no longer prepared to declare it the single most enjoyable night I ever had at the movies. But it’s still the best surprise I ever received from a film, and that’s saying quite a lot. Given the chance to change the backstory and the look of the Thor mythology, director Kenneth Branagh and his team of writers made a set of remarkable improvements in the updated background details while telling a fairly safe straight origin story. Thor could have been the most idiotic of the five prequel films. Instead, it’s solid. That’s certainly more than I think we had a right to expect.
The three biggest and most important changes:
First, Asgard (the traditional home of the Norse gods) is a place of science, not magic. Oh, it still looks like a dwelling place for the gods, complete with flowing robes and golden place settings. In fact, Asgard’s overall design is the aesthetic high point of the film…there’s not a single detail that looks anything less than dignified and powerful and glorious. The scenes in Asgard feel like magic, and their vistas are a true joy for the audience to behold. Yet we get tantalizing hints early on that it’s Arthur C. Clarke’s brand of magic working here, which is to say, very advanced science. In fact, Clarke is specifically referenced in the film for making just that point. A few things seem all too mechanical to simply be the result of some great wizard. This casts some doubt on whether Thor truly is a divinity – or, if you’d rather take the alternate perspective, opens up the possibility that one day humans could become like unto Asgardians. Either way, Asgard as presented here makes it far easier to accept the character of Thor.
Second, and I really can’t tell you how happy I was to see this, Thor is Thor. He is not a Norse god trapped in the body of Donald Blake, MD. The story behind that secret identity, perhaps the most ill-conceived of any major DC or Marvel character, has been jettisoned. The only thing remaining of Thor’s “alter ego” Blake are a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references which left me delighted. It would seem wrong not to mention Blake, I suppose, but it would seem just as wrong to keep him. The balance struck here gives us the best of both worlds. Moreover, it gives us a Thor who is certain of his origins, his natural powers, and his status as a superior being – even after he’s lost all of that. Thor uses its title character’s haughty demeanor to set him up for several cruel yet funny jokes in a row, including being hit by a car (twice) and injected in a most undignified place for a god. It also allows him to speak as an Asgardian would, which is great for a few laughs at how out of place he is while not actually undercutting his heroic qualities.
Third, since Thor isn’t a doctor, there’s no need for Jane Foster to be a nurse to place them together. And indeed she isn’t; here, she’s an astrophysicist working on climate phenomena. This gives her a logical reason to run into Thor – literally – at the beginning of the story. It also makes her inherently unable to rule out the idea that this mental case might be telling the truth about who he is and where he comes from. The possibility of travel between worlds via wormhole is a concept with a legitimate pedigree in theoretical physics, and so Foster is in a better position than anyone else to understand how Thor could have gotten to Earth. Moreover, and most crucially for the romance subplot that we all knew was coming, her ability to grasp some of Thor’s depiction of how the universe works places them on as equal a level as ever they could be placed. She is literally the best match for him on Earth.
None of these choices would have meant anything, though, if they had been wasted by a poor script. They’re not wasted. This is not to praise Thor’s writing, which is (if anything) determinedly average. We spend time in Asgard, setting up the characters of Thor and Loki. Thor starts a conflict with the Frost Giants, and is exiled to Earth as a result. He stumbles around as a fish out of water. Then he discovers his hammer Mjolnir has been cast down to Earth with him, and goes on a mission to retrieve it. He fails (of course, because if he retrieved it the movie would be over) and is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. And so on. The movie moves between conflicts and plot points at a good pace, never allowing itself to get bogged down but also never allowing itself to break free of its dictated constraints. I am sure that the complaints about Thor boil down largely to this lack of ambition. There is a place in the film world, though, for well-executed yet unambitious formula. Thor mostly follows Iron Man’s variant of the three-act structure, only the joists are a bit more obvious here. But so what? Does every movie have to break new ground? Isn’t it enough to entertain?
Where Thor really elevates itself, at times, is in the performance of its cast. It makes excellent use of a couple old pros in Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin and Stellen Skarsgard as Foster’s mentor Erik Selvig to anchor the proceedings. Both men come across very well as father figures, and Hopkins in particular breathes majesty as the king of Asgard. There are also a couple of very underappreciated toilers here if you squint through the makeup; Idris Elba commands the screen as Asgard’s gatekeeper Heimdall every time we see him (and for the record, I see no reason why a Norse god couldn’t have dark skin), and Colm Feore exudes menace as Laufey, the king of the Frost Giants. They bring more to their roles than they were given to work with. And Tom Hiddleston is fantastic as Loki, Thor’s (adopted) brother and the villain of the piece. His character was clearly being set up for future installments just as Thor’s was, and though that occasionally makes this seem less like Thor than like Thor and Loki, a lot of that effect is simply because Hiddleston grabs hold of everything the script gives him and makes it engaging.
The movie ultimately would rise or fall on the performance of the actor hired to play Thor, though. And the casting director made the right choice in picking the unknown (to American audiences) Chris Hemsworth for Thor, instead of following the lead of the other Avengers movies and going with a recognizable name. This is the role that will make Hemsworth a name. He owns Thor, giving us everything from boyish charm to brash confidence to low-key sadness. He handles himself as well in the action sequences as he does in the quieter moments. Most importantly, he takes full advantage of Thor’s lines as his primary tool in constructing a characterization that is uniquely god-like: entitled and proud, but also chivalrous and honorable…and thoroughly ignorant of many things in the mortal universe. You might think the jokes based on Thor’s provincial Asgardian attitude toward life would get old. They don’t.
Still, I have to single out one person for special praise…Natalie Portman as Jane Foster. This is a role that could easily have sunk into simply being “the girlfriend,” especially when considering how underwritten the part is. Alternatively, hiring an actress who couldn’t project intelligence would have made Foster’s technobabble sound silly. (Well, sillier, if you must.) Portman is able to overcome both these problems and give us a character who shines in her own right, while not taking focus away from the title character whose story we came to see. It’s because of her that Foster appears attracted to Thor on multiple levels at the same time, not simply because he has rippling muscles. And her admiration and adoration of Odin’s son reflects on, and enhances, Hemsworth’s own worthy performance. She even knows how to play lines so they don’t come off as ridiculously contrived – her light-hearted and self-aware underplay of “Oh…my…God” as Thor finally reveals his true nature, which could easily have come off as an unintentional laugh line if played straight, is still my favorite moment in the movie.
Is there some stuff here that’s less than perfect? Of course. But I’ll only mention one thing. I have no idea why Kat Dennings’s character of Darcy was needed. She’s self-obsessed and slow. The writers thought this would be funny, but it’s not. I am seriously considering offering a steak dinner to the next Hollywood writer who takes a “comic-relief” character like Darcy and kills him or her before film’s end, in a satisfying and bloody way. This isn’t meant as a reflection on Dennings, of course. I’m sure she’s a lovely person. But I am not Asgardian, and I have too finite an amount of time in my life to have precious seconds ripped away from it by such frustrations.
There’s just so much here that works visually, though, that Thor overcomes even its minor problems and its pedestrian plot. It’s hard to complain when the set designers and the CGI artists are treating you to visual feasts like the halls of Asgard, or interesting sets like the S.H.I.E.L.D. base around Thor’s hammer. And when you get actors who can move through those locations with conviction, and a director who guides the overall feel of the movie to deliver the impression that everything truly is as real as it looks, all that’s left for the audience to do is sit back and soak up the movie with a big, dopey grin.
Have I said enough to justify my praise of Thor? Probably not. I know many people regard it as the weakest of the five Avengers prequels, and it’s not as though that point of view can’t be justified as well as mine – perhaps even better. Describing Thor’s script as average, as I did earlier, would be doing it a kindness from the perspective of those who hate obvious formula. This is the story of how a vain and greedy boy becomes a responsible man by gaining awareness of his duty, with the sole difference being that the boy starts as a god and hence is more dangerous to himself and his loved ones before he is reformed. The best acting and the best directing in the world can’t disguise that. Indeed, re-reading my own comments, at times it sounds as though I’m skirting perilously close to saying “I can’t explain why I like it, I just do…and at least we only see that stupid winged helmet in an opening scene, and even there at least they made it look cool.”
So let me throw out one more consideration in this film’s favor, all the more fitting when you consider that its subjects are gods: it makes excellent use of paradox.
Now I have to explain what I mean by that, don’t I?
Every religion with which I am familiar has one or more seeming paradoxes at its core. Here’s one well-known example: how can the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost all be the same being yet all be treated as distinct? Either they are three separate entities, or one entity with three separate names; there are no other possibilities. Yet as anyone well-versed in Christian theology will tell you, Christianity holds both those views to be wrong. The Father is not the Son, and neither of them is the Holy Ghost. Yet they are all God.
Is this a paradox? “Yes” and “no” answers are both possible, depending on your views about faith and religion. There are many who point to these seeming contradictions as proofs that religious doctrines are false – they can’t even be reconciled with themselves. There are also many who take exactly the opposite stance – we are dealing with a deeper truth that only seems paradoxical from our flawed human standpoint. Whether you believe that we are looking at an actual contradiction or merely an improperly understood truth, though, explaining your views on religion will almost inevitably mean that you have to deal with these paradoxes, and either reject or embrace them.
Unless you’re a god, that is. Wouldn’t a god merely accept these paradoxes as self-evident, since they live with them every day? And that is what truly delights me about Thor, the more I think about it – it shows gods with exactly that attitude. How can Odin be asleep, yet still see and hear everything around him? How can Heimdall be all-seeing, yet somehow have missed Loki’s acts of treachery? The movie neither rejects these scenarios as self-evidently contradictory, nor attempts to explain them away by saying that Odin isn’t really asleep or that the scope of Heimdall’s vision is merely vast instead of complete. Heimdall must have had his vision blocked, he says…and then he continues sparring with Loki without ever following the chain of reasoning to its logical conclusion: that if his vision can be blocked, then he can’t see everything. In this world, it is possible for an all-seeing Norse god to not see something without either half of that statement being false. The audience members, like the gods themselves, must accept that and move on.
Nowhere is this attitude toward paradox more evident than in the events that surround the three central gods. It is possible for Odin to strip Thor of his powers and exile him from Asgard forever…while giving him the means to win his way back, restored to his former glory. It is possible for Loki to betray the trust of his father by causing his elder brother to be exiled and treating with the enemy…from the express motive of proving himself worthy of his father’s trust, a true son of Asgard. And, of course, it is possible for Thor to be made worthy of his old life only through his death – sacrificing himself to win the safety and freedom of his friends. I don’t know whether these layers to the script were intentional or not. It doesn’t really matter, though, because they’re there. Their presence enriches the experience of Thor in subtle yet important ways. You can reject them, or you can reason about them…but perhaps it’s best simply to accept them.
What else would you expect from a movie about a god?