Thor, the latest blockbuster from Paramount and Marvel Studios, is the result of what happens when too many people have too much riding on a franchise opportunity: they spend so much time making sure it isn’t bad that they neglect to make it any good. Designed to stroke all of the right brain centers and convince the viewer that they are watching something captivating and fun, it’s a lot like the “signature recipe” in Taco Bell’s meat filling that has just the right amount of fat, sugar and salt to convince your brain that what you are eating is good food.
The main ingredient in this recipe is the Marvel Comics character, Thor. As imagined by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby in the early 60s, Marvel’s Thor is a god-like but not quite immortal being from the realm of Asgard. He also happens to be the son of King Odin and their resident badass with a hammer. To teach his arrogant son a lesson, Odin strips Thor of his powers and places his amnesic spirit into a human medical student named Donald Blake. Years go by before Blake stumbles across Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, transforming him back into his true self.
Now, in order to bring the recipe up to date, Hollywood adds a heaping spoonful of additives courtesy of (at least) five screenwriters and countless test audiences. In their version, Thor is once again in need of a lesson in humility from daddy, who this time sends him hurtling to Earth with memories and ego intact. With Thor out of the picture, his treacherous stepbrother Loki usurps the throne of Asgard and attempts to betray the kingdom to an age-old enemy, the Frost Giants, a nod to Mr. Lee but possibly the tackiest set of villains in recent comic-movie history. Eventually–spoiler alert!–Thor makes some new friends, learns his lesson and returns to defend his kingdom. If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it is essentially a reworking of The Lion King, itself a reworking of “Hamlet.”
Taking a cue from the successful Iron Man movies, Hollywood then blends in one actor/director, this time in the form of Kenneth Branagh, the man who brought “Hamlet” to the big screen in all of its four-hour glory. If you think that makes him uniquely qualified to take on the tale of Thor, you wouldn’t be alone; clearly some people at Marvel thought the same thing. You would also be wrong, because whatever mastery of storytelling Mr. Branagh may once have had has now been completely subsumed beneath the rigors of Hollywood mega-spectacle. This means that if the time has come for a set piece, out comes a battle with the Frost Giants. If this is that part of the movie where the hero kisses the girl, then guess what’s going to happen. The problem is that while the pieces are all there, Branagh makes little effort to turn them into a cohesive whole, with many beats arriving unearned or making no sense at all. Surely, no one will notice that Thor and his new lady-friend have only had a few adolescent flirtations before laying their lives on the line for each other. Just toss it in. It’s what the people want.
Finally a few actors get sprinkled on top. Chris Hemsworth as Thor, looking stiff in his new hairpiece and 30 pounds of muscle, takes on the unenviable task of personifying someone with little personality. He bellows, drinks and fights with the bravado of any self-respecting Norse god, all while plodding through perfunctory dialogue in a standard issue, pseudo-British dialect, just in case there was any doubt that he comes from a land of monsters and kings. Meanwhile, one might think that the casting of the gifted Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, intrepid astrophysicist, would produce a character of intellect and moxie. Instead, with mentor (Stellan Skarsgård) and sidekick (Kat Dennings) in tow, Jane behaves more like a wide-eyed high school junior out to win the science fair. Anthony Hopkins lends his usual gravitas to old king Odin, but his screen time is so minimal that he has little hope of saving the whole affair. And while vacillating from treachery to redemption and back again, Tom Hiddleston tries desperately to turn Loki into a sympathetic villain. What Branagh, or anyone else for that matter, ought to have pointed out to him is that Marvel villains should be either sinister (see Iron Man) or charming (see Iron Man 2); try to make them too sympathetic and they will simply come off as pathetic. (Extra credit: if anyone can explain Loki’s true motives in this movie, please comment below. Seriously. Please.)
This concoction is then stewed in its own juices for exactly 115 minutes, and the meal might still be palatable if one crucial element were not so undercooked:
What no one involved in the making of Thor seems to understand is that superhero origin stories are defined by characters–whether they are born great, achieve greatness or have it thrust upon them–who learn to use their powers for protecting the innocent. A hero can go off on a mercenary quest and still be compelling, but a superhero takes responsibility for the protection of a locality and the people who live there, be it Gotham City, the United States or planet Earth. In fact, the relationship between a superhero and the public is just another kind of love story: both must learn that they are not whole without the other. And this relationship is not always an easy one. Just ask Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne or Charles Xavier, to name only a few.
Thor fails because it fails to make this love story plausible. Mr. Branagh and company ask the viewer to believe that after a few days tooling around the New Mexico desert with a pretty scientist, Thor suddenly sees the value of human life and decides to be protector of our “realm.” An audience has to identify with the group being protected and believe that their champion cares what happens to them. Merely knowing that his girlfriend lives on this planet too doesn’t count. Sorry. The people of Earth don’t just jump into the sack with any old muscle-bound hunk. He’s going to have to spend some time getting to know them before anyone becomes the protector of anyone’s “realm.” Frankly, Earth could do a lot better, and he’s not exactly the only game in town.
Good for: people who collect cups with Natalie Portman’s face on them.
Bad for: anyone looking for a substantial superhero movie.