Sunday, May 8, 2011

A God We Can Relate To -- Reflections on "Thor" (2011)

"To kick ass or not to kick ass? That is the question!"
As a kid, I was obsessed with comic books. Spider-Man, Daredevil, Batman, Hulk, Captain America, The X-Men were my idols. I would pin my favorite covers up on my bedroom walls like posters and was paid my weekly allowance in comic books instead of cash. Somehow, my dad knew I'd turn that five bucks a week into a couple new issues and a Big Gulp. I pretty much read every title I could.

Except Thor.
I had a couple issues in my collection, but it was mostly tie-in issues. Those are the comics that feature characters from other titles, or serve as connective tissue to larger story arcs across titles. So, when Daredevil appeared in an issue of Thor, I bought it. When Marvel began their giant "Secret Wars" storyline, I bought the Thor issues that tied in to the story.

But by himself, I ignored Thor like leftovers.

For me, the problem with Thor has always been an obvious one: how do you make a god relatable? I know that in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics, Thor took the form of crippled doctor Don Blake, but I always thought that was silly. Why would a god allow himself to spend most of his time as a cripple? I'm sure, had I spent more time reading the series, I would have found something to make the story matter to me, but first impressions count for something.

Still, I wanted to see Kenneth Branagh's film version of Thor because I thought it was a neat idea to take one of our best Shakespearean directors and get him to make a comic book movie. I wasn't disappointed. Not only has Branagh made a great comic book movie, he found a way to make me relate to, and like, the god of thunder.

He made him more like us.

Basics: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the heir to the Asgardian throne, currently helmed by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). After an attempt by the enemy Frost Giants to retrieve a weapon that could make them a serious threat to Asgard, Thor is motivated to retaliate. Because of his pride, arrogance, and immaturity, Thor leads a group of his friends -- the Warriors Three, Sif, and his brother Loki (Tom Huddleston) -- into battle with the Frost Giants. This decision starts a war between the Frost Giants and Asgard that Odin had been long trying to avoid. As a punishment, Odin banishes his son to Earth to learn humility. On Earth, Thor gets involved with a physicist named Jane (Natalie Portman), and her science team, who are looking for evidence of wormholes. Thor tries to recover his magical hammer and redeem himself, but he must deal with the government agents of S.H.I.E.L.D as well as his scheming brother Loki, who has used Thor's banishment to take control of Asgard's throne.

Thor is Now Marvel's Most Relatable Character: Seriously, can anyone really relate to Tony Stark? A rich man with daddy issues who is a weapon making genius? Spider-Man? A genius geek boy with the handsome looks of Tobey Maguire, a hot girlfriend, and the powers of a spider? At this point, at least until Captain America in July, Thor is Marvel's most relatable hero. What the writers did with this script was to make Thor an impetuous child in need of a good ol' fashioned spanking. Being sent to Earth and stripped of his powers made him endearing and likable. And Hemsworth, who definitely has that "star" charisma (not to mention 'ginie-tingling abs), makes us like him despite the elevated language. In fact, it's Thor's elevated language that makes his time on Earth so fun and interesting. My favorite quote: "This mortal vessel is weak. I need sustenance!"

Was Natalie Portman Acting?: Thor went from being a solid comic book movie to an excellent one during a great exchange between Thor and Jane as she drives him to the S.H.I.E.L.D. station in the desert. At one point, Portman blushes when Hemsworth smiles at her. I swear that was not acting. Portman was turned on by the Nordic god. It revealed the great chemistry between them, which paid off greatly at the end of the film as the story tried to sell us on their love story. A beautiful moment -- and few actresses look as lovely and comely as Natalie Portman when she blushes.

Kenneth Branagh Re-defines Himself: For a long time, poor Kenneth Branagh has gotten the reputation of being stuffy and erudite. Yet, he directed one of my favorite thrillers in 1991's Dead Again, and one of the most lively and least stuffy versions of Hamlet (1996). Here, with Thor, he shows that he can direct excellent action sequences -- the fight between Thor's team and the Frost Giants is absolutely thrilling -- as well as handle the tonal balance between the aristocratic Asgardian scenes and the humorous, tense scenes on Earth. If anything, this is a truly Shakespearean effort on his part, as Shakespeare was also well regarded for how he was able to handle the tone of scenes between the upper and lower classes. All that work on films like Henry V and Midsummer Night's Dream prepared him to make more commercial movies like this. Hopefully the world will look at Mr. Branagh a little differently from here out. He has re-defined himself with Thor as much as Jon Favreau did with Iron Man.

Watching Thor really made my inner geek squeal with delight. Watching him sling the mighty hammer Mjolinir about his head was profound. It made me wish I had given the god of thunder a better shake in my younger years. Not a big deal, though. This movie more than makes up for all the comics I didn't read.

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