Oh, Thor. What can I say? This latest superhero movie is such a mediocrity that I can’t work up much energy for an opinion—and I’m the sort of person who has an opinion on everything. It’s genial and mildly amusing, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously—it’s pleasant enough—but ultimately, it’s underwhelming. As comic-book heroes go, Thor is more two-dimensional than most, and not a particularly interesting two dimensions at that. The cast is probably above average, but the special effects, the story, and the pacing are only OK. I suppose Thor might be worth watching on TV if it turns up on cable on rainy day, but beyond that … whatever.
The original Marvel Comics idea to bring a mythical god into the comic-book pantheon is intriguing. Some traditional superheroes function as de facto demigods (Superman would be the most obvious example), so making a superhero out of the Norse god Thor isn’t much of a conceptual leap. In practice, however, it’s bizarre. Norse mythology is complex and dark—with an strikingly violent, grim vision of the end of the world in Ragnarok—so to make the transition into the relatively upbeat Marvel universe, the whole thing has to be simplified and white-washed to the point that one wonders why they bothered with the mythical hook at all.*
In any case, this Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is bellicose and arrogant in an adolescent sort of way but basically a well-meaning, big-hearted lunkhead. Banished to Earth by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), for an unauthorized military strike against the Frost Giants, Thor must cope with the loss of his powers, embodied in the hammer Mjolnir. Meeting beautiful astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) makes exile more bearable, but when Thor learns that his younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), may have betrayed Asgard, the home of the gods, his need to regain his powers and return home becomes pressing.
Hemsworth has an old-fashioned, Saturday-matinee-movie-star glow, making Thor more charismatic and charming than the doofus has any right to be. He certainly outshines Portman, whom I’ve begun to find wearying, but he shares a great scene with the always excellent Stellan Skarsgard, who plays Jane Foster’s mentor, and he and Hiddleston almost manage to bring genuine poignancy to the festering fraternal relationship between Thor and Loki. Given the material, I consider that an accomplishment.
In fact, Loki is probably my favorite character. He’s not likeable, but he’s the only one who doesn’t present and take everything at face value, the only one with layers and masks, the only one would doesn’t feel entirely cartoonish, and I appreciate him for that—especially since it reveals a trace of the Norse source material. The mythical Loki is a trickster figure, a clever shape-shifter with no respect for authority, but unlike other cultures’ playful, good-hearted tricksters (Anansi, Reynard, the Coyote), Loki has a vicious, ugly malevolent streak, which leads to his bringing about the end of the world at Ragnarok.
The Loki of Thor never achieves that dangerous mythical blend of alluring and repulsive—he’s too pathetic for that—but Hiddelston does find the dark, bruised shades in the character. I’m not quite sure he fits into this winsome popcorn movie, but at least he never bored me, which is more than I can say for some of the other characters.
And honestly, as a popcorn movie, Thor isn’t about characters anyway. It’s about big set pieces and flashy special effects, and on that front, it’s mostly OK, I guess. Sort of. The scenes in Asgard are goofy-looking, a cheesy mishmash of medieval and sci-fi elements. Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects worlds, would fit all too well into some kind of “My Little Pony Goes to Outer Space” TV special, and the bulky, plasticky armor Thor and his buddies wear makes them look like walking, talking action figures. Fortunately, on Earth, the CGI is less ostentatious, the costumes less prone to provoking eye rolls, and the action scenes more engagingly physical. Thor’s one-man assault on a S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost to retrieve Mjolnir is actually pretty cool.
But really, what’s the point of it all? Thor is such a ridiculous, one-note character, and placing him in the same universe as Iron Man, who exists (however problematically) in the “real” world, infects the rest of that universe with his ridiculousness. Ridiculousness can be fun, of course—Thor certainly seems to be enjoying its own ridiculousness—but it gets dull fast and it’s eminently forgettable.
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*To my mind, this is what makes the execrable “controversy” over director Kenneth Branagh’s multiracial casting of the gods of Asgard so stupid. Anyone who knows anything about Norse mythology has to know that it bears little resemblance to the comic book mythology, so there’s absolutely no reason for the Asgard of Thor to look like medieval Norway. Besides, Idris Elba, who bore the brunt of the racist fan-boy nonsense, is absolutely bad-ass as Heimdall, the sentry of Asgard, and that is what the role requires, not blond hair and white skin. Please.