When I first heard about the “Thor” movie, I had the same reaction as most folks I know. “Thor? Really?! Thor?” Couldn’t we just have another Hulk movie instead? Did the “Power Man and Iron Fist” script not turn out the way they hoped? Until I was about 16, I was an avid comic collector, and I favored Marvel titles, of which “Thor” is one. When I turned 16, I started spending my comic book money on gasoline, and it all went downhill from there, but I still have boxes and boxes filled with a few thousand comics, bagged and boarded, safe in my parents’ basement. I collected “Thor,” but I also collected “Speedball,” so my taste is suspect. In any case, the news of a “Thor” movie mostly means, to me at least, that Marvel is running out of super heroes for the big screen.
The conundrum of super hero movies is a balancing act between juvenile fantasy, which can feel silly and hokey to a mature audience, and real character pathos. At its most successful, you get heroes who are also interesting characters, besides their super abilities. Long, drawn out special effects battles and fight scenes actually take on some meaning, and the audience is engaged. See “Spiderman 2” for an example.
At its least successful, the movie acts as a simple showcase for special effects. The costumes start to feel ridiculous. The villains are stacked up and knocked down like so many dominoes. The movie feels like a money grab; a cynical attempt to trick fans and the curious alike into seeing a real-world example of a compelling fantasy story. See “Spiderman 3” for an example (or any “X-Men” movie after the first one.)
“Thor” is firmly in the second camp. There is not a single character in the movie who generates any sympathy from the audience. There is no character development, even though the crux of the plot relies on Thor developing as a person. When we meet him, Thor is plenty powerful. This isn’t about a hero developing his powers and learning to cope with his newfound strengths and responsibilities (see “Spiderman,” “Iron Man,” “Hulk,” every “X-Men,” etc.). “Thor” is supposed to be about the title character becoming a worthy heir to the throne of his kingdom. Unfortunately, this never happens in a convincing way.
Here’s the main problem. The plot is ridiculously small and narrow-minded. SPOILER ALERT: Here’s the plot of “Thor” in a nutshell. Thor’s dad gets mad at him for getting into a fight. So he sends Thor to the desert, where he meets a pretty girl and they have breakfast at a diner. Thor eats a lot, then steps outside to fight a big magical robot. When he wins, he is allowed to come home.
Also, his brother is a mean guy. We know this in part because we learn very late in the movie what we assumed all along, that he is really on the side of the bad guys (Frost giants? Seriously? Frost giants? What is this, Harry Potter? No, Harry Potter had more imagination than that). But mostly we know that Thor’s brother Loki is a bad guy because everybody else is big and muscular and wears armor and bashes people with swords and hammers, while Loki is thin and weasely and uses magic and bashes people with a big staff. Oh, also, if you know any Norse mythology (or if you remember the movie “The Mask”) you know that Loki is the god of mischief and lies.
So, the plot of “Thor” is just pathetically short-sighted. It goes nowhere, literally. When I realized that the movie was never going to leave the small diner and tiny town in the middle of the desert, I almost walked out. No Thor in New York City? No Thor in the Rockies? The Grand Canyon? Mount Rushmore? The director (the esteemed Kenneth Branagh, who does an amazing job channeling Shakespeare, but comic books not so much) could not have chosen a more boring spot. Except maybe Antarctica. Oh, wait, I forgot: that’s where the Frost giants live. On a big ice ball world. Yawn.
Nothing happens in “Thor.” At least no character development. But in the plot, a condition of Thor’s ascension is his learning humility, and demonstrating leadership characteristics. All of this is wrapped up under the label of being “worthy,” as in only someone who is “worthy” can lift the hammer of Thor. But when the time comes, the first time Thor really needs his hammer, he doesn’t even have to lift it. It comes flying back to him.
What a missed opportunity. This Excalibur moment, when Thor might have put his hands on the hammer’s handle, hoping he was finally worthy to take possession of his weapon and all of his god-like powers. The audience might have sat on the edge of our seats, with baited breath, wondering. Was he worthy enough? Had he come far enough as a person that the hammer would finally be his again? Or were there still more lessons to learn?
Nope. The dramatic moment, if you can call it that, is squandered. Thor’s character development apparently involves cooking scrambled eggs for a cute but wasted (her acting ability, that is. She’s not drunk) Natalie Portman. Wow, you didn’t make someone else prepare your breakfast. You learned not to smash a mug on the ground when you want more coffee. Way to go. My 2-year old has developed as a character more since breakfast than Thor did in the entire movie.
Also, at some point this muscular god decides that he’s really into a geeky scientist. They share no romantic moments, and in fact barely talk to each other. There is no connection at all. She makes no great sacrifice for him, and he only helps her when presented with an easy opportunity while he is also helping himself. Not only does she talk about her ex-boyfriend, she actually ends up encouraging Thor to use her ex’s name as his secret identity. This is a woman with baggage. Best to move on.
Comic book movies are in trouble. The second “Iron Man” was soulless. Both “Hulk” movies have failed to live up to a television show from the 1970’s where a body builder painted green played the title monster. I have little faith in the upcoming “Captain America” movie. But all of these titles will be rolled together into one super hero sandwich called “The Avengers.” Joss Whedon is directing, but I can’t even get excited about that, because if Kenneth Branagh and Ang Lee couldn’t breath life into super hero dullards, I wonder if anyone can.