Thor (Blu-ray)

“Whoever wields this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

Generally believed to have originated in Norse mythology, the historical origins of Thor, the god of thunder, are sketchy at best or contradictory at worst. Not just the Vikings, but several cultures claim to have originated the character in their myths and folklore. Norse or not, the basics of Thor’s tales have survived throughout the centuries—magic hammer, son of Odin, fights with trolls, and so on.

Jump forward a millennia or so to the 1960s, where Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest of the Marvel Comics bullpen were riding high off successes like Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and The Amazing Spider-Man. The story goes that Stan the man sought to top himself by creating not just a super hero, but a super god. Mining the old-timey mythology, Stan saw a lot of action and drama potential in Thor, and the big guy has been a Marvel icon ever since.

Jump forward a few decades, with Marvel Studios releasing a series of blockbusters leading up to the much-hyped The Avengers. As a prominent Avenger, of course Thor is included in the lineup, but the fantasy/mythological aspects of the character would seem to contradict the high-tech sci-fi thrills of the Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk flicks. Merging two worlds was the challenge facing the studio and director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V).

In the otherworldly kingdom of Asgard, a couple of evil frost giants sneak into the palace to steal a powerful magical artifact. They fail, but Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Star Trek), son of king of the gods Odin (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs), sees this as an opportunity for personal glory. Thor and his friends attack against the giants’ world, but doing so threatens to undue a fragile truce between Asgard and the giants. To punish Thor for his brash arrogance, Odin removes Thor’s godlike powers and banishes him to Earth. Forced to live as a mere mortal, Thor befriends Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta), a scientist. Thor longs to recover his weapon, a powerful hammer, now embedded on Earth, waiting for him to prove himself worthy of it. Back in Asgard, Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Wallander) plots to usurp the throne, after Odin collapses and falls into a coma. As the frost giants prepare to march on Asgard and the unstoppable Asgardian Destroyer runs amok on Earth, can Thor regain his powers in time to save both worlds?

The difficulty—and, fans might argue, the excitement—of Thor is mixing the far-out fantasy adventure heroics of Asgard with relatively more down to Earth theatrics of the modern world. If Asgard is portrayed as mythical fantasy kingdom, complete with gleaming metal spires and massive gold-walled chambers, then Earth keeps up its half of the story with the natural beauty of the New Mexico desert, as Branagh enjoys framing the characters against the vastness of the landscape and the, as he calls it, “big sky.”

Thor begins with a brief prologue on Earth, out in the New Mexico desert in the midst of a storm. After we’ve been conveniently introduced to the plot’s Earthbound half, we’re whisked off to Asgard, for a short history lesson about Asgard’s conflict with the frost giants. This leads us straight into Thor’s not-thought-out attack on the giants’ world. Some might wonder why the filmmakers have their most elaborate special effects set piece in the movie’s first few minutes, but it’s important because the over-the-top action at the beginning establishes who the Asgardians are and why we should be so in awe of them. It also establishes Thor as truly mighty, and why his hammer is such a big deal. This is all done so the audience can better understand these characters and their world, and it’s accomplished by means of bashing frost giants in the head.

Hemsworth has to walk a fine line during the first third of the movie. Thor’s arc is that he starts out as a self-centered jerk, and learns compassion and humility throughout his adventures. As the story begins, if he’s too much of a jerk, the audience will hate him, but if he’s not enough of a jerk, then the audience will not buy his being banished. The creators decide to have Thor’s jerkiness come from his impulsiveness. We see him acting first without thinking. This threatens to destroy the fragile truce between Asgard and the frost giants, or so Odin believes. That same impulsiveness sticks with Thor after his arrival on Earth, as he brutally punches and shoves his way through hospital security and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. It’s after his attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. that Thor gets a metaphorical wake up call, and he starts changing his ways.

Many have argued that Natalie Portman is the movie’s weak link, and I can understand where they are coming from. We’ve all heard stories about how Portman allegedly spent months hanging out with real ballerinas to prepare for her role in Black Swan, but I seriously doubt she spent months hanging out with real scientists in preparation for Thor. Upon repeat viewings, though, it struck me that Jane has a lot in common with Thor. Whereas Thor has his impulsiveness, Jane has her drive for success that leads her to act without thinking. We first meet her when she’s speeding through the desert at night during a storm, recklessly abandoning safety for herself and her friends to get her results—not unlike how Thor leapt into battle against the giants. At first, Jane sees Thor only as a means to an end. His odd behavior doesn’t faze her, as she’s more concerned about what his existence means to her research. Once S.H.I.E.L.D. enters the picture, Jane also gets a metaphorical wake up call, and starts to view Thor as more than a lab experiment, but someone to care about.

In this version of the story, Loki is played less as the devilish mischief-maker, and played up more for the whole jealousy/sibling rivalry thing. At first, he’s merely frustrated about living in Thor’s shadow. Then, after Loki learns some hard truths about himself, overthrowing both Thor and Odin becomes his purpose. He fights for the throne of Asgard, and then, once he believes he’s reached that goal, he has to fight to maintain it. He manipulates and sneaks his way into power, but never fully achieves that power, and his growing frustration is palpable. The secondary villain in the story is Laufey (Colm Feore, Storm of the Century), king of the frost giants. He doesn’t have nearly as much development as the other characters, but Feore easily manages to sell the character’s icy evil. The Destroyer, a giant metal monster, is the movie’s third main baddie, a relentless killing machine, and the creators do a great job selling it as an unstoppable force to threaten our heroes during the big finale.

The supporting characters perform their roles excellently. Anthony Hopkins can play this type of role in his sleep, and the moment when he casts Thor from Asgard is his best scene in the film. Comic book fans are already closely familiar with Thor’s buddies the Warriors Three, and seeing their live action counterparts in the movie is a real thrill. The swashbuckling Fandral (Josh Dallas), the grim Hogun (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer) and the ribald Volstagg (Ray Stevenson, Rome) all inhabit their characters nicely. Also along for the ride is Lady Sif (Jaime Alexander, Kyle XY), an Asgardian warrior, who gets a lot of cool “tough girl” moments. Sif’s boytoy Baldur the Brave is notably absent, however. On Earth, Stellan Skarsgard (Arn: The Knight Templar), an actual Norseman in this movie about Norse myths, plays a father figure and fellow scientist to Jane. He and Thor have a great “drinking buddy” scene in the middle of the movie that goes a long way in making Thor a more likable, relatable character. Comic relief duties go to the skeleton-crushingly sexy Kat Dennings (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist), who delivers several winning deadpan one-liners. Finally, special mention must go to Clark Gregg, reprising his role as Agent Coulson from the previous Marvel movies. Not only does he have the stuffed-shirt bureaucrat shtick down to a science, but he gets to show some genuine dramatic intensity with the “Who are you?” he speech he delivers to Thor. It’s his best scene yet in any of these movies and shows that he’s more than just a pencil-pusher.

That brings us to Heimdall (Idris Elba, The Wire). He both is and isn’t a major character in the comics. Any time the comic stories take place in Asgard, we almost always get at least one panel of Heimdall standing there with a caption telling readers how he guards Asgard’s rainbow bridge. As Asgard’s gatekeeper, and with several plot points having to do with the magical bridge, Heimdall plays a significant role in the movie, but one that might have viewers scratching their heads. He is at times portrayed as someone incredibly powerful, and other scenes have him defeated easily. He swears his loyalty to the king at times, but then acts in his own interests at other times. A big part of the confusion around the character is how Elba plays him, in a detached, almost robotic manner. He’s definitely the most “alien” character in the movie, so much so that he feels out of place, like he’s not from the same Asgard as folks like the Warriors Three. I believe a lot the strangeness in the performance isn’t from Elba, but what’s been done to him in post-production, where his voice was altered to sound otherworldly. One of deleted scenes shows Elba acting with his actual voice, and that sounded not just more natural, but more emotional and, dare I say, human. I wanted to watch the whole movie with Elba using his own voice instead of the altered version, which just distances this important character from the audience.

There are few comic book readers who will look at this movie and snivel, “That’s not how it happened in the comics.” Like Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie, the makers of Thor have not attempted a slavish recreation of the comics, but have instead come up with a way to introduce the character to movie audiences in such a way to make the crazy far-out concepts from the comics understandable and even relatable for ordinary folks. I say they succeeded. Thor covers a lot of ground, from the thunder god’s fall from grace, to his fondness for us lowly mortals, to his struggle to save Asgard. More important, though, the movie takes a thoughtful look at just who this big blonde dude is and what makes him tick. Once you’ve got that nailed down, all the hammer-swingin’ action takes care of itself.

The picture and audio are stellar, as expected for a major Hollywood blockbuster. The frost giant scenes bathe the screen in blues and greys, with the exceptions of Thor’s cape and Laufey’s eyes are bright red, making a nice contrast. It’s the more colorful, brightly lit desert scenes, though, where the visual clarity really shines, as you can make out all kinds of small yet vivid details. The sound excels as well, making the most of the Patrick Doyle’s heroic score and the big action. One of the best sound moments, though, comes when Loki creates an illusion, making it look as if there are several of him at once. The duplicates all laugh, and the laughter comes from every speaker in such a way that it fills the entire room, for an eerie unsettling effect.

It’s been argued that the movie plays better for those already familiar with these characters and their world(s). That’s a valid criticism. For fans, it’s a lot of fun to see the Warriors Three palling around with Thor. For non-fans, these beloved characters will just be “those three guys.” When a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent jumps into action with a bow and arrow, fans will quake with geeky delight at who he is, while non-fans will just think he’s some random dude. The movie also tosses around a lot of words and phrases that will please fans but will be confusing for newcomers, such as “bifrost,” “Jotunheim,” “Mjolnir,” and, I suppose, “S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Numerous story points have to do with certain folks able to get in and out of Asgard without the otherwise all-seeing Heimdall knowing about it. The problem is, we never get an explanation as to how this is possible. Plot hole, or sequel fodder?

This is a three-disc set, with no shortage of bonuses:

Commentary with director Kenneth Branagh. Branagh seemingly doesn’t take a breath throughout the length of the movie, going over the thought processes and decisions behind each scene. He seems a little too in love with his own movie sometimes, but there’s plenty of good information here.

Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant. This short film, starring Gregg as Agent Coulson, fills in a few gaps regarding plot points that have happened in between Marvel movies.

Featurettes. There are seven in total, covering production design, directing, acting, costumes, the hammer prop, and more. They conclude with some short interview snippets with Stan Lee and writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay and has a cameo.

The Road to The Avengers. This teaser contains short clips from the recent Marvel movies and even shorter clips of The Avengers cast at ComiCon. No actual footage from the movie.

Eleven Deleted Scenes. Mostly featuring the Warriors Three, and some more of Thor learning about life in small town New Mexico. Can be watched with or without commentary from the director.

• Disc Two: 3-D version of the movie. According to the back of the package, in order to watch Thor in 3-D at home, you need a full 3-D HD TV (sold separately), compatible 3-D glasses (sold separately), a Blu-ray 3-D player (sold separately), and an HDMI high-speed cable (sold separately). It also cautions 3-D TV owners to consult manufacturers for “health and safety information.” What, like holodeck safety protocols?

• Disc Three: DVD version and digital copy of the movie. Just as it says, the movie on DVD and the option to upload a digital copy. None of the Blu-ray’s bonus features are on the DVD.

“Let them tremble when the clarion call sounds! The revelation of our very existence will strike like the mightiest thunderclap! Out victories shall be the stuff of legend! Our triumphs shall echo throughout the nine worlds—’tis endeavors such as these where the warrior ideals of god and man intersect to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. On this day, we have declared war…and we shall avenge the evils perpetrated by those who would oppose us. We shall…avenge them all!”—Thor, Avengers: The Origin #5

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Verdict

By the might of Mjolnir, not guilty!

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