May 2, 2011

[Movies] Thor (2011)

In recent years superhero movies have become quite the staple in Hollywood. I guess to some extent it does feel like a no-brainer - take a pre-established character with a rich library of stories and adventures plus an existing fan base and turn it into a movie. Ensure you have one or two big name stars with a lot of money in your special effects budget and market the thing like crazy and boon - you get a minimum risk investment in terms of a movie with a higher potential for profits. While initial forays into the comic book world weren't necessarily as successful, the turn of the century has resulted in some pretty good movies, thus further egging on Hollywood to make more and take advantage of the perceived opportunity.

Now in terms of looking at the success of various comic book companies in terms of their Hollywood ventures, one would think that DC Comics has had a somewhat better run than Marvel Comics. DC started pretty early with movies based on characters like Superman and of course the almost never ending run of Batman movies that have mostly done well at the box office. On the flip side, Marvel's initial ventures like the old Captain America movie and the aborted Fantastic Four movie didn't do quite as well. It wasn't until they finally started adapting characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men into movies that their fortunes began to turn, although there were still some inconsistencies.

But now it's clear that Marvel has a big plan in mind for its movie projects and it's definitely working steadily towards that goal. Plus the decision to draw more influence from their Ultimates line of comics with their somewhat darker and more realistic portrayal of heroes has led to much more complex stories and a lot of potential for action and this movie is definitely no exception. In fact, I'd dare say that this has definitely been one of their better ventures into the movie world and one that clearly sets the stage for future projects.

Thor is the 2011 is the action adventure superhero movie based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. The movie was directed by Kenneth Branagh with a screenplay written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne.

Out of the stories of legend come the Norse Gods, or in this case the beings that inspired those myths. Thousands of years ago the Asgardians faced off against the Frost Giants in order to save Earth and the Nine Realms. In the end they were successful and Odin All-Father(Anthony Hopkins) as King of Asgard took the source of the Frost Giants power, the Casket of Ancient Winters. Since then there has been peace in the Nine Realms and the Asgardians withdrew from Earth, leaving stories of their battles to descend into the realm of myth.

In the present day, Odin's son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has become a mighty warrior and is eager to take the throne and lead his people into greater glory. But on the day of his ascension to the Throne, a small band of Frost Giants manage to infiltrate Asgard and attempt to steal back the Casket, but are quickly defeated. In anger, Thor defies his father's orders and storms Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants, together with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Upon their return to Asgard, Odin decides to punish his son and banishes him to Earth as a mortal while his hammer Mjolnir is commanded to only yield to one who is worthy to bear the power of Thor.

On Earth, we meet the trio of scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) who are investigating the mysterious event that turns out to be Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that transports Thor to Earth. There they find Thor and end up getting entangled in his affairs while his hammer lands elsewhere. Meanwhile, the mystery of how the Frost Giants managed to get past the gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) and whether another incursion may yet happen.

The movie largely plays as a setup to the future Avengers movie project, which is both a good and a bad thing. It's great since Marvel has finally embraced the need to have the movies exist within a single ecosystem, thus taking advantage of inserting elements of the meta-plot in each movie leading up to the big project. It's also a bit of a bad thing though since you end up needing to have a ridiculously large S.H.I.E.L.D. presence in this movie instead of just focusing on the core Thor story. I suppose you can argue that it's feasible to sacrifice the latter in the name of the former, but I can foresee some people not fully appreciating this angle. I felt it took away from some of the overall emotional impact of the movie given the screen time lost to it when that could have been used to further the personal growth of the characters.

The whole Thor getting punished as a human is a classic part of his story in the comics even though the precise telling in this movie is a tad different from the original material. I'd venture enough to say that it actually worked here, even with the initially strange added element of Jane Foster, who was originally a nurse in the comic books. Turning her into a somewhat stronger and ultimately more relevant character did work to the advantage of the movie and made the potential romance still logical without requiring it to accelerate into the point of marriage in so short span a time. Believe me, we've see far too many movies that just tell us they fall in love instead of truly showing us that they do. Here we see there's some obvious attraction by they don't quite jump the gun too much.

The visual styling of the whole movie was pretty stellar. I loved how they managed to bring the classic Kirby-style Asgard onto the silver screen with a slightly modern aesthetic. Each scene was suitably epic and beautiful without going into the realm of being cheap and campy. The Rainbow Bridge turned out to be even more beautiful that I had expected given the still images of it hardly did the structure justice. And the costumes were all suitably majestic without looking ridiculous. Yes, this is how you bring Norse legends to life.

We did get to watch the movie in 3D and I'm not sure if there's any true justification to recommend that you see it in the same format. This was another case of principal photography being done in 2D while the effects were rendered in 3D, thus the overall effect is mostly added depth to certain shots but not much else. It's a fun bonus but definitely not a requirement for all you viewers.

Acting-wise, everyone did rather well to fulfill their roles. Yes, I think we can all agree that Chris Hemsworth does make for a very good-looking Thor (especially without a shirt!). But beyond the eye candy factor, he did a great job in being true to the original character including how arrogant and boisterous Thor is at the beginning of the movie. Sure, he gets all sappy here and there, but that's pretty much consistent with the original stories. You know how it is with older characters after all.

The true star of the show in terms of acting and writing definitely has to be Tom Hiddleston's portrayal of Loki, the god of Mischief. He brings an amazing quality of acting to the movie that presents him in a great light despite the fact that we all know he's somehow the villain at the heart of this story. We didn't get any corny moments where he smiles to the camera alone or when he rambles about his plans to no one in particular. Instead it's hard to figure out just exactly what he wants to do and even when his plan seems to become clear, the rug gets pulled out from under us and it turns out we're all wrong. And that's exactly how Loki is in terms of his core character - he is all about lies and mischief after all. And the way the character was handled here was just fantastic.

Definitely major kudos to the writers for inserting a lot of fun references to the comics. Just take for example finding a way to throw in Donald Blake into the story plus mentions of a Gamma Radiation scientist and Stark Industries was just too cool! Plus we had the obligatory Stan Lee cameo (which was awesome) and post-credits sequence (no spoilers!). Good job indeed.

Overall, it was clear that allowing Kenneth Branagh to handle this particular movie given his Shakespearian background was a perfect choice. He managed to marry some of the stylings of classical theater with this comic book hero, which only makes sense since they were always prone to older language and themes born out of the original myths. I first thought it strange that he'd choose to do a project like this but now I'm glad that he did and I look forward to his future ventures in the superhero arena.

Thor is definitely one of the best Marvel movies that I've ever seen and one of the best movies of the year thus far. It has something for both the original fans and newcomers to the stories of these Norse heroes and a great setup for the big Avengers movie to come. It gets 4 moments of Heimdall being totally awesome out of a possible 5.

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