Wednesday, May 18, 2011
A small part of me is worried that the Avengers franchise is going to spell the end of movies as we know it.
Most franchises have a natural lifespan, peaking and then fading, possibly to be reborn, revamped according to the current style. The Avengers seeks to bypass that cycle, becoming instead an unstoppable world-devouring, Voltron of a franchise constructed out of other, smaller franchises. The Avengers would be immune to flops. It would spread out until there is never a weekend without a Marvel product in theaters. The Summer movie season would last year round, and all the A-list talent will be too preoccupied fighting over the fate of humanity to make any movie budgeted under 200 million.
Another more reasonable part of me isn't nearly so alarmist. This part of me thinks that ambition is to be applauded, and Marvel's attempts to create the cinematic equivalent of the overlapping comic book universe is a fascinating concept, equal in ambition to what Peter Jackson and company pulled off with Tolkien. The difference being that Jackson's films located the heart of the material. Those stories resonated with themes of friendship, loyalty, and bravery. Kenneth Branagh's Thor, the latest entry in the Avengers franchise, resonates with nothing much. Thor, along with last Summer's Iron Man 2, feel scattershot in their attempts to touch all the bases they need to touch in order to sufficiently advance the franchise. Their stories are held back from going too far out creatively lest they stray out of their predetermined box in the series. Cheering these movies is beginning to feel like cheering a PowerPoint presentation at a meeting of Marvel stockholders.
And right away that feels way too harsh for what is honestly just a goofy Summer movie. On its own, Thor is a big, silly fantasy - often fun, never boring, but far too unexceptional to warrant strong opinions one way or the other. Writing a withering takedown of Thor is like panning a coloring book. It's hard to get too mad at something so eager to please.
Thor's main asset is Chris Hemsworth crowd-pleasing performance in the title role. He nails the fish-out-of-water comedy of a Norse god in small town New Mexico (I know, I know, he's not really a god), and acquits himself as well as the script will allow in all the palace intrigue back in his world. But therein lies the problem. If Hemsworth's performance as Thor is the film's biggest strength, then the character of Thor is the film's biggest flaw.
The main arc of the story is of Thor's progression from arrogant war monger to selfless hero, but he doesn't seem that different at the beginning than he does at the end. This is a big problem. Think about Tony Stark's transformation from egomaniacal prick into Iron Man and how much that popped and you'll see what's missing here.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's backtrack. Thor is heir to the throne of Asgard, which is either in a dimension parallel to Earth or in a distant realm. Or both. I was never quite sure. Anyway, Thor is set to inherit the throne from Daddy Odin, over his brother Loki, a character so obviously villainous I expected Branagh to give him close-ups so he could do the classic shifty eyes routine. Before Thor can take over, his recklessness destroys the fragile peace that was established with the Frost Giants triggering a war. Upon hearing this news Odin throws an absolute hissy fit, strips Thor of his power, and banishes him to Earth to learned some goddamned humility. So there.
On Earth, Thor crosses paths with a plucky astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman. She, a brilliant scientist, finds him, a deranged loon, wandering the desert, declaring himself Thor, God of Thunder and using the words "Thee" and "Thou" a lot, so naturally she falls for him.
If the arc of Thor's character doesn't exactly pop, then the romance really doesn't pop. Portman smiles and acts generally Portman-ish around him, and Thor is surprisingly gentlemanly for a god/He-Man, even kissing her hand. If they didn't kiss at the end one could be forgiven for not realizing there was a romance taking place at all so meager are the sparks. It's understandable. The characters do, after all, have so much else on their minds.
Once again, all you have to do is think back to the first Iron Man and the great banter between Pepper and Tony Stark to know what's lacking here. Don't get me wrong - there are few people I'd rather see play themselves than Natalie Portman. But when the whole crux of the story is how the love of a mortal woman teaches the big lug humility than it won't do to have her relate to him like a polite chaperone guiding a strange visitor around a foreign country.
I could continue to describe the story in more detail but let's just stop there before I get comic fans any more annoyed with me than they already are. I'll just add that once Thor causes a war there is surprisingly little discussion of it considering it's a war and all, and there is some drama over who controls a powerful glowing blue brick, but search me for why that matters. Take it up with the comic fans.
The story spirals on from there, climaxing in a finalé that falls on the wrong side of ridiculous, but much more interesting than the plot is what's happening around the fringes of the production. It's possible for movies to be entirely nonsensical and still be good if they give you a lot of other stuff to occupy your attention (See the Hellboy films)
The Frost Giants make for lousy villains, they are totally underdeveloped as a threat. For that matter, all the Asgard stuff comes across as half-baked. If they weren't going to give that world some real dramatic heft, then the filmmakers would have been wiser to tilt the screen time in favor of the far more winning Earth sequences.
As for the action, which is the main event for any Avengers movies, Thor, I'm sorry to say, has to be filed under disappointment. It comes down to the basic rules of suspense. To care about what happens there has to be something at stake. There need to be consequences if a character loses. Unfortunately, when Thor starts swinging his hammer around it's Tom and Jerry time. No consistent logic, no gravity or weight to anything. All suspense goes right out the window when the lead character has no limitations. It doesn't even matter when one of his cohorts gets stabbed through the friggin' heart. The message to the audience is clear: Don't bother getting too involved in the action. None of it will end up mattering.
Verdict: Like I said, it's tough to be too rough on a film that is so harmless. Thor is likely going to help a lot of filmgoers pass a pleasant two hours at theaters this Summer and then pass quickly from memory. As for the Avengers series, Branagh's film lays the necessary ground work. When audiences turn up for the Avengers they will know who Thor is, although the details of this particular adventure will be pretty hazy by then. 4 out of 10