Sunday, May 8, 2011

Thor Review: Kirbylicious and Simonsontastic

What a fantastic Mother's Day; lovely service at church, brunch with my sister and her beau and Nanny and Poppy at the Nisku Inn, and on our way back from Leduc, we stopped in to see Kenneth Branagh's Thor in its opening weekend.

We saw it at South Edmonton Common, and since we were short on time, we bought our tickets online, opting for the UltraAVX cinema so we could select our seats.  It is a premium service, so you do pay a bit of a premium price, but not having to be there 45 minutes ahead of time to avoid sitting in the first 7 rows was certainly worth it today.

The UltraAVX auditorium has better sightlines, more legroom, a larger screen, an allegedly superior sound system, and indisputably better seats; high backed rocker units that wouldn't look out of place in a sports car.  Is it worth the $2 extra you'll pay?  I guess it depends on what movie you see; if it's Thor, I say, verily, it is coin well spent.

Comic book movies share one critical element with their source material: you can make a perfectly reasonable bit of entertainment having two gaudily clad characters beating the living shit out of each other, or you can use that same kinetic and colourful conflict to explore deeper themes, like justice, or vengeance, or families.

I was on board immediately with Marvel Studios choosing Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor.  His Shakespearean experience, both as an actor and director, would give him the necessary handholds to bring heavy thematic elements into place, and his love of cinema (especially film noir and suspense) would give him the chops to build the tension, appreciate the action and even leaven it with just the right amount of humour.

The biggest theme at play in Thor is that of family, and of a father's love for his son, but there are also tones of war and peace, and what it means to be a just and wise ruler.  I was a bit concerned when Sir Anthony Hopkins was cast as Thor's father, Odin, feeling he was just a bit aged and frail to be playing a robust viking-style Allfather, but I have never been happier to be so wrong.  He brings so much oomph, so much chutzpah, to the role, that he is instantly credible as both a warrior and moral authority over his sons, Thor and Loki.

And speaking of casting, please believe me when I say that Chris Hemsworth's casting as Thor is at least as good that of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony 'Iron Man' Stark.  With his big muscles and classic diction, Thor is all too easy a character to spoof, which is why I never picked up an issue until rumours of the astonishing things Walt Simonson was doing reached my ears in the mid-80s.

Simonson got rid of a lot of the almost 200 issues of backstory, having an alien character temporarily assume the mantle of Thor and smashing the old logo in his very first cover, and not only brought Thor back to his roots as a modern re-telling of the Norse eddas and sagas, but also as a cosmic superhero within the established Marvel universe.  He brought depth and vulnerability to a caricature more similar to a renn-faire version of the Hulk than a demi-god Avenger.  Hemsworth does much the same with his portrayal of the Odinson and wow, does he ever look and sound the part.  I could hear his lines turning to wood on the lips of a lot of other good actors, and I don't think he missed a beat in Thor's journey from arrogance to humility, one of my favourite character arcs in any medium.

I could say similar things about Natalie Portman as Jane Foster or Tom Hiddleston as Loki, but as good as the acting is, my favourite thing in this movie is the art direction.  All of the scenes in Asgard, home of the Norse deities, show that despite how far the bar has been moved in terms of fantasy landscapes by the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are a few places left to move it even farther.  The architecture, the armour, the halls, the costumes, the starscapes, the props; they all look like they could have fallen right off the pages drawn by Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson at their peak.  Thor's take on the Bifrost bridge is absolutely spectacular, and Idris Elba does a great job as its guardian, Heimdall, despite a number of irrational idiots who felt he was the wrong colour.

There will probably be those who feel the movie could have used more action, especially since Thor's mighty uru hammer, Mjolnir, spends most of the film stuck in the ground where no one can lift it, like a blunt version of the sword in the stone, but I was satisfied.  I got that itch scratched in the initial battle in Jotunheim, land of the frost giants, where you get to see the hammer swung, thrown, returned to his hand, and most importantly, whirled.  I had not idea how important that last one was to me until I saw him do it, spinning Mjolnir by its strap so fast that it cant be seen, like the blades of a helicopter, but it is a signature of the character in just about every iteration of the comics, and pretty much every artist.

I hope DC is sitting up and taking notes, because Marvel has done a better job with Thor, a second tier character, than they have done with most of their A-listers, including Superman.  As an added bonus, I don't have to wait for a sequel to see Thor again; a message appears in the credits that is reminiscent of the old James Bond films, promising that "Thor will return in The Avengers", along with Iron Man and Captain America.  If they can keep blending action and theme the way they have with the first two X-Men and Spider-Man movies, as well as this one, we are going to be in for a real treat next summer when Joss Whedon unveils his first superhero movie.

In the meantime, please go and see Thor.  It has action, humour, and pathos, it looks brilliant (especially in 3D) and despite dealing with big themes like The Dark Knight, it's a move both my 9 and 12 year old appreciated.  It also has a hunky guy walking around with no shirt for a couple of scenes, if that's your thing, or if you need to sell it to someone whose thing that may be.

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