Ryan Britt: Watching a summer blockbuster, much less a superhero film, usually makes me brace for the inevitable formula inherent in these kinds of movies. The action will be kinetic and a little too fast and confusing. Both the heroes and villains will be extremely adept at violence in ways that are at once familiar but somehow more over-the-top and “badass” than previous films of the same ilk.
Fans often defend “bad” action movies by saying things like it’s “just a popcorn movie!” or “what did you expect?” So the question becomes, how do you make a movie that satisfies fangirls and fanboys who love action and special effects while at the same time reeling in people like me who get a headache from gratuitous action? The answer: you do what Thor did. You hold back.
Total spoilers for the movie below.
To be sure, there is plenty of action in Thor, in fact the start of the film is loaded with it. Thor himself kills a beast/creature/thing by literally propelling his body through the monster and exploding himself out of its back. Pretty gross and fairly violent, this lets us know Thor doesn’t screw around. In a contemporary sense, having a superhero who just smacks the crap about of things with a hammer feels a little psychotic. Nothing civilized and elegant about pounding to get your way.
But here’s where Branagh, Straczynski, Ashley Miller and everyone else involved with the story got it right. They take away Thor’s hammer and his powers, and then the real story gets going. In keeping with established continuity, Thor’s father Odin casts him out of Asgard because he’s too much of a jerk and needs to learn to grow up. This means Thor doesn’t have the power of Thor and despite being in good shape and sort of a stud, he’s basically mortal. Meaning, when he gets hit with Natalie Portman’s trailer, he actually falls down and passes out.
Superman II played with this, as well, having Clark lose his powers midway through the movie. If someone is invincible and all-powerful, not only are we unconcerned with what happens to them, we also have a hard time getting to know them. When Clark Kent gets his ass kicked in the diner in Superman II only to then see General Zod is taking over the planet, the audience gets really worried. Thor doesn’t present as big of an Earth-threatening plot device, but with Thor himself similarly incapacitated, we get to know him a little better as a guy, rather than as a god.
The ultimate fake-out in this movie comes about midway through when Thor goes to retrieve his hammer from the spot it’s landed. SHIELD has a whole compound set up around it now, trying to figure out why no one can pull a King Arthur on this thing. Thor cockily tells Natalie Portman that’s he’s going to waltz in there and then fly his way out. He does just that but then, when he gets to the hammer, the money shot of money shots, he can’t pull it up. The hammer won’t respond. And then Thor gets arrested. It was at this point that I really began to take heed; the tension was ratcheted up and I was even more excited to see him become Thor.
Chris Hemsworth is also pretty great in another surprising way; he plays the whole thing extremely straightforward. You totally buy that Portman and her buddy are swooning over this guy, and it’s not because he’s hot or faux-funny. Wisecracks in movies (not just superhero movies) have basically become the death of good dialogue in film. When everyone talks like Juno, it’s hard to keep the movie grounded in any kind of reliability. But conversely, if everyone is too dark and down in the dumps all the time, that too becomes one note. Personally, my main problem with Christian Bale’s Batman is his complete lack of humanity.
Hemsworth’s Thor isn’t funny, and he isn’t dark, either. He’s genuine and charming. You get the sense that he really does feel guilty about putting his friends in danger and opening up his home, the realm of Asgard, to external danger. Even at the end, he clearly feels terrible about causing Loki to plunge to his doom. Thor is basically a nice guy, but he’s not self aware about it, and doesn’t make a big deal about it. His cockiness isn’t over-played, nor is his self-doubt. Everything seems well balanced. In short, he seems like a real person. Which is a pretty ridiculous assertion considering he does end up wielding a hammer and flying around in a silly silver suit.
But I think this succeeds because the filmmakers decided to keep him in jeans and a t-shirt for a good portion of the movie. Because if Thor wears jeans and a t-shirt, then maybe any one of us could be as nice of a guy as Thor. Maybe we can be superheroes too.
Emily Asher-Perrin: Should I start by saying that I was excited for this film to come out? Perhaps I should, though I should also point out that I had been informed by many that it “looked terrible” and I should lower my expectations. I did. As it turned out, I really didn’t need to at all.
But I know what you’re really wondering about this movie, after seeing all those previews full of shouting and slow-motion cries of sorrow: can family drama, interpersonal relationships and old-fashioned romance drive a big-budget superhero flick?
The answer is yes—in case you were in suspense about that.
The advantage with Thor is different from other superhero yarns in that the plot of the original comic book series is pretty basic and not over-laden with aggravating period constraints and continuity problems that need extra attention. It has at its heart an undiluted, timeless plot that makes for great storytelling:
It’s about a boy who gets exiled from home by his father so he can learn what he needs to become a good man.
And that’s it. That’s all you really need.
Everyone has their thresholds for believability and, more importantly, every audience member has moments when they want to be able to relate to a character and moments when they don’t care. In the case of Tony Stark, none of us may know what it’s like to be an uber-genius who can have anything we want just by asking our gorgeous red-headed assistant/girlfriend. Then again, we don’t really need to relate to Iron Man; we just need to love him for the jerk that he is.
However, in the case of Thor, our hero is an impossibly gorgeous, impossibly strong, impossibly courageous near-god who receives awesome super powers by wielding a giant mallet.
Maybe it’s time to inject a little humanity into the scenario.
And humanity is what Thor has in spades. Odin’s disappointment in his son and the painful choice to banish him, Loki’s jealousy and need to be seen as his brother’s equal, Thor’s friends coming to his aid when he needs them most, and his own romance with Jane Foster (portrayed by an awkwardly adorable Natalie Portman). Every hero needs his achilles; Thor’s happens to be a cute lady. And not in that stock superhero “the people I love are always in danger” kind of way. His love for her is naive but honest, epic yet somehow beautifully commonplace.
Their relationship, though it may come rushing in on the plot awfully quick, happens to be one of the strongest points of the story for a very interesting reason; Jane is not left powerless by the end. Though Thor gets cut off from her, he never demands that she stay in her place like a good little woman and wait for him. So she starts searching the heavens because her love for him and her love for the mad work that she does are now irrevocably connected—almost as if it fate had already predetermined the whole thing. It results in a deeply satisfying ending that most superhero films are not lucky enough to have.
Combine that with the chilling sneak peak scene at the end and The Avengers can’t come soon enough. This movie has upped the stakes in a big way for the arc Marvel has going—I’ll be biting my nails off to the quick until I get to see Thor in the same room as Nick Fury, Iron Man and the Hulk.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com and felt like he was the only person in the theatre who recognized the J. Michael Straczynski cameo.
Emily Asher-Perrin would like to point out that the best poem of the Elder Edda is when Loki convinces Thor to crossdress.