“Thor” seems to be enjoying a sort of hotness, seemingly embraced by the geek community at large, which is notoriously harsh to those who mishandle beloved properties. A Facebook friend of mine recently announced, “Thor was actually pretty good. Don’t act like you’re all above it.”
I’m not above it. I swear. I am, however, confident in saying that while this is a very fun movie, it is not a very good movie.
It’s not that I can’t enjoy a good popcorn film. I’ve been pretty clear that I can support the poppiest of popcorn movies without being snobbish about it. The kink in my craw comes when I actually start to get my expectations up. When I get an inkling that something might be uncommonly good – either thanks to a distinctive trailer, good nerd-of-mouth buzz, or a perfectly paired actor or director – that’s when I want a story to rise to the occasion. Come on nerd culture: We can expect our media to be a cut above.
So it was with “Thor.” I never cared about the character (as a comics superhero, at least), and had written off this movie the instant I heard it was greenlit. But then Kenneth Branagh took the director spot — that is, Kenneth “Once more unto the breach” Branagh — and I thought, “Oh. I see. Marvel wants this movie to be good, not just some slam-bang cash-in. They have expectations.“
Certain of my expectations were met by this movie: When a god of thunder hits things with his big, fat hammer, there should be big, fat explodey on the screen. On this, Branagh delivers. The boomboom scenes look pretty; very pretty indeed. My favorite scene is one that rests lightly (relative to the rest of the movie) on computer graphics: A cannon-faced automaton is destroying a little Arizona town, while a cast of Asgardian heroes has a dickens of a time containing it. It’s got all the visual surprises and dead-sexy ultraviolence a superhero movie should have.
But in this story of Norse gods, the devil is in the details, and the details of character development must have been left on the editing room floor. The whole point of this “origin story” for Thor is that the cocky god-thug must learn humility and a genuine affection for the human race before he can truly be a hero. After what appears to be a single day in the Arizona desert, he ends his vacation on Earth with an inexplicable, unconvincing commitment to heroism and humans. Natalie Portman plants a kiss on Thor as he departs our world, and in no way do you believe that these two share a meaningful relationship beyond lusty desire (hers) and bemused curiosity (his). After all, Thor’s had centuries to snog hearty Asgardian dames like the lovely and talented Sif (Jaimie Alexander) … so after 24 hours with a slightly scattered, flustered and, uh, breakable Earth girl, he’s got real Capital-L Love and a hankering for humanity?
That’s not change we can believe in.
What I’d have whispered in Branagh’s ear as he sat down with his storyboards: Thor needs to have an ironclad reason to don his Team Earth shirt, and it needs to come from Natalie Portman directly. She needs to wow him with some behavior or act that is distinctly human. This happens all the time in science fiction, where supposedly superior beings encounter Earthlings and find something quaint and endearing about us, causing them to find us endlessly fascinating. Think of, say, Q from Star Trek (an omnipotent being who couldn’t stop the comparatively prosaic compulsion to stick his nose in Capt. Picard’s business), and Dr. Who (who at tense moments often interjects his enthusiasm for human spirit, gumption, adventurosity and the like).
So in the middle third of this movie, we needed to see Thor try to solve a problem in his Asgardian way, and Natalie Portman needed to show him – with the confidence of a woman worthy of a god – a better way. She needed to to appeal to his head and heart, not just to his other godly bits.
She could use her smarts. She is an astro-meteoro-cosmo-something-or-other scientist, after all, though most of the movie she acts like a headless chicken with a schoolgirl crush. Perhaps she could solve a problem with forethought, caution and wit, which would be the exact opposite of Thor’s quite literal smash-mouth solution to problems.
She could use her heart. Since Thor has been cast out for cruelty, she could model some behavior that proves to this superior being that he’s actually inferior in ways he’s yet to learn. Perhaps she exhibits forgiveness of someone (maybe Thor himself), giving the god a peek into how mere mortals must solve conflict without using hammers. Thor’s strained relationship with his brother Loki is central to this movie. So have him learn the power of forgiveness from an Earthling!
She could use her muscles. Though by muscles, I really mean bravery. This thin little woman could find herself in a perilous situation where she must show godlike courage without godlike power to back it up. This demonstrates to Thor the audacity and pluck that even we frail mortals can muster when our hearts are at stake. It’s one thing for an impervious deity to smash through an enemy’s skull, but what does it take for a human to do the same for the sake of another?
One of the most convincing “change of heart” moments I’ve ever seen on film comes from “Ice Age.” Yes, the 2002 cartoon from 20th Century Fox. It’s a brilliant movie all around, and if anyone wants to give me grief about it, I’ll see you outside by the bike racks after school. One reason this movie is so solid: One of the main buddies in this buddy flick is a deadly sabertooth who is secretly plotting to lead his companions into the maw of a sabertooth pack ambush. Hello, that’s an unusual theme for a “kid” movie! Over the course of the story, this cat must be given a cause to betray his pack and side with the heroes, and the moment comes, convincingly, at the end of the second act. The woolly mammoth nearly dies saving the cat from a lava-filled death trap, and the cat asks, “Why did you risk your life for me?” The mammoth replies, “It’s what you do in a herd.” When the cat realizes this new herd cares more for him than his original pack, he has a believable, rewarding, satisfying change of heart.
Thor needed to have a good reason to believe his new herd of Earthlings are worth getting hammered over. I don’t believe he did, and now I have to relegate another high-potential geek movie into the “popcorn flick” category, rather than hailing it as truly one of the immortals.