Friday, May 13, 2011
ARGH, THAT AWFUL ASGARD!
("and above we see that the true influence on lost Norse architecture actually arose from the makers of pipe organs..."
I’m writing this review two weeks after the profitable opening of Marvel Studios' adaptation of the THOR comic book. As with Iron Man, Thor is one of those perennial features which, outside the bubble of comics-fandom, hasn’t been a name with which to conjure. But the cinematic THOR propels the character to a new level of widespread recognition, as did the first IRON MAN film, by tapping into the pre-summer blockbuster anticipation. To be sure, this isn’t the sole reason that THOR THE MOVIE is doing well, for it does present an attractive if mixed-bag package. But good points aside, the thunder-god film doesn’t earn its new fame quite as honestly as did the armored avenger.
In my reviews I generally try to explore whatever literary myth underlies a given work. THOR, however, is a “movie of many parts,” in which the different aspects, good and bad, mitigate against the film’s having any sound structure. Thus, I’m reduced to the old bullet-point approach. Readers who already saw and enjoyed the film--which seems the dominant response--may prefer just to stick with the good points.
The actors, without a doubt, are THOR’s greatest asset. Chris Hemsworth makes a fine Thor for the slimmed-down, post-Schwarzenegger generation of heroes. The romance between his “god-brought-down-to-earth” and lady scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is easily the strongest element of the movie. Despite pedestrian dialogue Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba put across the gravitas of powerful gods, and Tom Hiddleston puts emotional depth into villainous Loki--too often portrayed as a road-company Shakespearean schemer, even by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-- though the script makes his motivations murky at best. In contrast to the “serious” gods, the film does an admirable job translating Thor’s buddy-deities, who all have good presence even when they’re not given much to do. Non-fans will probably be puzzled to hear the three guy-warriors--Hogun, Fandral and Volstaag--refer to themselves as “the Warriors Three” even though they’re never seen apart from their unofficial fourth member, tough warrior-woman Sif. In the comic Sif became Thor’s inamorata after Lee and Kirby phased out their version of Jane Foster, but naturally this film allows for no romantic sparks between Sif and the thunder-god.
The costumes are excellent, even if the filmmakers ditch Thor’s iconic helmet for most of the film, probably because it would have been a hassle to deal with in fight-scenes. Loki and Heimdall are particular standouts.
Of the three big fight-scenes, two of them-- Thor and his buddies battling a stunning version of The Destroyer, and Thor versus Loki--are very good. Only the opening salvo, in which Thor and his allies fight a gang of CGI frost-giants, disappoints, as it follows the current trend toward hyperkinetic fast-cuts that (intentionally?) make the action hard to follow.
Finally, two of the strongest plot-elements are derived from the Lee-Kirby comic. Loki’s villainy in the film stems from the insecurity of learning that he’s an adoptive son, which plot-point riffs on a TALES OF ASGARD story in which Odin adopts the son of a slain enemy. And though Odin’s reason for exiling Thor to Earth is very different from the one given by the comic book in the seminal THOR #159, the purpose is still that of imparting humility to an arrogant warrior-god.
However, mentioning the matter of war-gods brings me to the first item of the BAD STUFF.
I don’t expect the cinematic THOR to be a perfect translation of the comic book, any more than the comic accurately adapted the complexities of Norse mythology. Yet no matter how freeform the Lee-Kirby comic book was, the creators always understood the elemental appeal of the Thor myth: the pageantry and sacral violence of a warrior ethic. Movie-THOR clumsily rewrites this key value into a nancy-boy renunciation of the glories of violence. I have only contempt for critics who analyze films as if they were direct allegories of current events. Yet, when Odin dresses down Thor for hauling ass on the frost-giants, I heard in the tedious dialogue some scriptwriter’s fantasy of George H.W. Bush reaming out Dubya for his martial misadventures.
The film pretty much craps on the “high-fantasy” aspects of the Thor comic. The Asgard of Lee and Kirby is a pop-culture mélange where magical menaces are often repelled by weapons that look like Tolkienized versions of howitzers. But even with intrusions of SF-imagery, Lee and Kirby’s Asgard is an endless vista of wonders, and thus fits Tolkien’s chief criterion for a good secondary world: “enchantment.” The Asgard of Kenneth Branagh and his writers is a dreary SF-rationalization of mythology. True, when “science fantasy” does its semi-rational versions of archaic on mythology, such stories have their own aesthetic and can’t be judged on the same terms as pure fantasies. But THOR’s visualizations of the only two otherworldly realms of the film--Asgard and Jotunheim--are so bland, so devoid of wonder or even functional design, that I found myself waxing nostalgic for 1987’s MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.
I said earlier that the character of Loki takes on greater solidity thanks to the film’s adaptation of the “adopted evil son” motif from the comic book. However, in the comics-story the adoption takes place because Odin has slain Loki’s natural father Laufey. But the film bollixes up this plot-thread. In the film’s past, Odin finds baby Loki and believes at the time that the kid's parents are dead. But by present time both he and the audience know that Laufey is quite alive, as he’s the film’s secondary villain. One never knows at what point Odin makes this discovery, but once the audience learns it, Odin’s action of keeping Loki ignorant of his heritage begins to look less like beneficence and more like child-stealing. Loki’s “adoption” also parallels the Agardians’ theft of a mysterious “casket” from their frosty foes, which is some sort of power-source that the Jotuns want back, but this plot-device only exists to set up initial hostilities and fades out of the narrative quickly. At the eleventh hour of the film, in order to give viewers an FX-heavy finale, Loki suddenly unleashes a world-sundering menace that the film never sets up properly. Given how much effort the writers lavish on building the Thor-Jane relationship, it would have been nice if one didn’t get the feeling that they thought they could jerk the other characters around like so many chess-pieces.
Finally, I understand that the rationalization of the Thor-cosmos is an expedient way to get around whatever narrative difficulties the filmmakers had with making the Asgardians “real gods.” Aside from heading off protests from repressive religious forces, the SF-motif emanicipates (word-play intentional) the plot from the idea that these gods must be exclusively Caucasian Nordics. Thus Asgard can be multicultural, with a black Heimdall and an Asian Hogun. (In fairness, Jack Kirby did impart a vague Mongolian design to his Hogun). Yet this nod to multi-culti creates a logical problem. If the Asgardians are extradimensional aliens who enjoyed some independent existence before Earthpeople started worshipping them as gods, why have they become subsumed by Nordic culture? Prose science fantasies usually hypothesize that some advanced culture, whose representatives came to Earth sporting such names as “Apollo” or “Osiris,” come to Earth and that Earthmen copy both their mythology and their archaic culture from the alien gods. But THOR doesn’t veer into that Von Daniken-esque territory, though that may have been the intention. There’s just one scene of archaic Earth-times, in which invading frost-giants attack Earth and the gods come to humanity’s rescue. The implication I got from the scene was that the Scandinavians bestowed Nordic names on the aliens. If my memory’s accurate, then why do the multi-culti aliens keep exclusively Nordic names, instead of having a host of mythological identities? Did no one but the Scandinavians encounter these alien gods?
It’s clear to me that the original comics-idea—that the Nordic gods, whatever their origins, simply existed in some fairy-tale world—is less difficult to put across both logically and aesthetically. I’m aware that the cinematic THOR is also compromised by a grand scheme that will unite Thor and other Marvel heroes in a live-action AVENGERS movie, but I don’t think Asgard had to be purged of all of its wonderment just so that Thor wouldn’t (theoretically) outshine his more mundane colleagues. I didn’t expect Branagh’s alien gods to speak King James English, but a little grandeur in the language department would have gone a long way, as against Thor talking like a well-spoken yuppie with an extreme-sports jones.
I don’t know if other comics-fans yearned to see a cinematic THOR that translated the power and exoticism of the Lee-Kirby Asgard, which would have been fit to stand alongside the best magical fantasies of the cinema. Maybe most fans are just pleased that this Thor doesn’t look like a doofus, as did his previous live-action iteration in 1988’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS. But when I see such potential wasted, I’d rather watch a popcorn film—again, like the aforementioned He-Man film-- that never had any potential from the get-go.
Parting thought: the 3-D version sucks. Two dimensions are enough for this two-dimensional flick.