“Retro” Review: Thor
The first Thor movie was part of a unique phase in the MCU: strong genre movies that happened to have spandex-clad uber-mensches in them. Kenneth Branagh gave us a delightfully melodramatic story of familial machinations, alongside a heaping helping of Chris Hemsworth’s abs.
Why is Thor, which came out in 2011, a Retro Review? Because it was part of Phase One of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and that felt like it started eons ago. It’s been such a long campaign that I’m beginning to doubt my memory. Was it Star Trek: the Motion Picture that came out the year I was born, or was it Iron Man?
Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth and his glistening abs) is the spoiled rotten, cocksure son of Odin Allfather, head God of Asgard. But you probably already knew that if you are Scandinavian. The whole “Odinson” last name kinda gave it away. Thor’s arrogance has provoked his father for the last time, and to teach him a lesson Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes Thor to the mortal realm.
While Thor is away, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddelston) sees his chance to play. The scheming other son of Odin harbors both a resentment of his brother and a lust for his father’s throne, and he enacts his scheme to check both fratricide and patricide off his honey-do list. It will be up to Thor to save the day, but first he must reform his headstrong ways so as to become worthy of again wielding his hammer Mjolnir.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Way back when, in Phase One of the MCU, the challenge was to normalize superhero movies. Other than Batman, no-one was taking superheroes seriously. Superman had returned to audience indifference, and X-men’s first class was just about to begin the homework of rebuilding after a disastrous last stand. With the success of Iron Man Marvel had great ambitions, but the trick was to ensure that their grasp was equal to their reach.
The solution was to focus on making quality genre movies first, with all the superhero shenanigans a secondary concern. The other MCU offering that year was Captain America, a solid WWII flick. You could have replaced the Cap’n with The Duke and no-one would have lost their red skulls over it. But before audiences could get to the first Avenger, they needed to get a little Shakespearean.
Much Ado About Something
The central thrust of Thor is hubris and redemption, with a side-plot of family drama. I can’t think of anyone who does those themes better than the Bard. And I can’t think of anyone who does the Bard better than Kenneth Branagh. Luckily for audiences, Marvel thought the exact same way.
Branagh crafts an enjoyably over the top affair. Hemsworth has swagger and bravado, Hiddelston is a charming trickster, and Hopkins (no stranger to Shakespeare) gets to swing between paternal stoicism and bellicose oration with gusto. The MVP of the movie goes to Hiddelston, whose Loki for the longest time has been the only villain in the MCU worth a damn. Maybe that’s why they turned right around and made him the central baddie in the first Avenger movie.
Formatting the story to something easily recognizable also saves what could have been a ponderous plot. Origin stories are tricky, often overstuffed with backstory and character introductions. By having the act structure of classic dramas, Branagh helps make the long voyage to this new world feel more like a quick raid across the river. It also took the onus of being the driver of the pacing off of the action sequences. Which is nice, because the action in Thor is fairly average.
My only real gripe with Thor is what has become a habitual waste of Natalie Portman. When she hit the scene in The Professional, everyone was over the moon about what this prodigy could accomplish. Then she grew up to be stunningly gorgeous, and Hollywood decided to just make her the arm-candy for male actors. If you hated what Lucas did with her in the Star Wars prequels, you’re in for more of that thin gruel in Thor. The Jane Foster/Thor love story felt trite and tacked on, and I enjoyed Jane’s banter with her co-workers more than I did her time spent with the Odinson.
She’s pretty much been written out of the MCU nowadays, which is a crime. Jane Foster is a great Thor character, especially now that she is wielding Mjolnir as the new Thor in the comics. As much as I like Chris Hemsworth’s evolution from chiseled frat-boy to lovable lunkhead, I’d pay good money to see Portman get a crack as the God of Thunder.
Much Better than Mead-iocre
The first Thor went a long way towards making me care about a character I previously couldn’t care less about. While Thor: The Dark World was a set-back (in my opinion; Neil disagrees), it seems that Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth understand what aspects of the character resonate with fans, and are dialing it up to 11 in Ragnarok.
If you’re looking to scratch the itch or get to know the Thunder-God ahead of Thor: Ragnarok, I’d heartily recommend his first outing.