MCU Retrospective, Part 4 — “Thor”
In this weekly series, Film Yap writer Andrew Carr revisits each installment of the decade-long Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once a week, Andrew will review one film in the series, in the order in which they were originally released. Additionally, after each viewing he will reevaluate his previously held opinion of the film, giving each one a new score out of 5 Yaps. All 18 films (plus “Avengers: Infinity War,” upon release) will be compiled into one definitive ranking. Each entry in the “MCU Retrospective” series will include a short review of the given film for the week, as well as a historical recap about the film’s initial conception and release.
A new entry in the “MCU Retrospective” series will be posted every Sunday from now until the weekend prior to the release of “Avengers: Infinity War” on May 5.
Click here to see last week’s entry in the series: Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, & Iron Man 2.
After establishing success with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, then returning to Iron Man for a sequel, Marvel knew it was time to move forward with new characters in order to begin laying the groundwork for The Avengers, which, at this point, seemed like a certainty, given that it was originally slated for a July 2011 release.
But what character do you start with after Iron Man and Hulk? The abundant references to “the situation in New Mexico” in Iron Man 2—as well as the film’s after-credits scene featuring a mysterious hammer embedded in a crater—suggested that Thor would be the next character the MCU would tackle. With Thor would come a unique set of challenges that Marvel Studios had not faced in their previous three films. See, Iron Man and Hulk were both humans—earthlings, at that. Thor, on the other hand, is a figure of Norse mythology; the “God of Thunder.” Marvel hadn’t tried anything supernatural/other-dimensional/divine yet, and they would need to find a way to bring a demigod into the world inhabited by tech-mogul Tony Stark and nuclear physicist Bruce Banner. Additionally, Marvel would need to sell audiences on Asgard, Thor’s homeworld: a mystical kingdom like something out of Lord of the Rings. Marvel’s apparent fix to that problem? Banish Thor to Earth for the majority of the film and team him up with a few earthling scientists to help the audience make the connection. Did it work? Read on to see my answer.
Thor certainly faced a few problems that previous installations in the franchise hadn’t, most of all, making a Norse demigod not only believable but also relatable. For all of Incredible Hulk’s dry character work, it was still a relatively human story, and it was easy to understand why Bruce Banner wanted the things he wanted. He made sense. He wasn’t especially interesting, but he made sense—mostly because, as vulnerable, insecure human beings, we relate to the feeling of having some aspect of ourselves that we are afraid of or dislike.
But with Thor you have a nearly invulnerable, ancient being who talks like he was written by Shakespeare and loves nothing more than raining down hellfire on his Frost Giant foes. That’s a little further off from the “human condition.” Marvel made a smart move hiring esteemed actor/director Kenneth Branagh to helm the film, given his reputation as a more classically trained actor and his experience with actual Shakespeare. And the sequences on Asgard work quite well, for the most part. The dialogue is haughty and old-world enough to distinguish the Asgardians from human beings, the set design and CGI backdrops look absolutely gorgeous (and they’ve aged surprisingly well), and the performances are at worst, functional (Jaime Alexander’s Lady Sif, and the Warriors Three), and at best, charismatic and nuanced (Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Anthony Hopkins’ Odin). Chris Hemsworth’s Thor falls somewhere in between, showing strength when the scenes are dramatic and well-directed, and occasionally floundering over the film’s smaller moments.
But it’s in the sequences on Earth where Branagh’s film falls flat. There’s some good fish-out-of-water humor as Thor tries to learn how to navigate earthling culture (and that humor doesn’t overstay its welcome, which would have been an easy mistake to make). But somewhere along the line, it feels like Branagh took his veteran hands off the wheel and let Zack Stentz’s and Ashley Miller’s uncreative screenplay take over. The Earth scenes feel more “typical family adventure,” with a lazy Natalie Portman being handed uninspired one-liners. And it really seems to be Portman—or perhaps her character Jane—who bogs down the show. She just isn’t convincing as the awkward, unassuming supergenius that she’s supposed to be. Seeing her fawn over Thor’s biceps and get lost in his eyes while he’s literally explaining to her groundbreaking new information about dimensional travel and beings with whom we share the universe feels completely out of line with her character, and Portman’s perfunctory performance rings entirely false. It’s not as bad as her job in Attack of the Clones, but it’s pretty unconvincing.
Additionally, the Earth scenes are mostly just boring. The film’s first act includes a sweeping battle between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants, and we get to see some of Thor’s coolest moves in the entire MCU. But then there’s hardly any excitement until the final fight, back on Asgard. A few of the quiet moments on Earth work well—including one in which Thor and Jane’s scientist mentor Edward Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) connect over a few beers—but most of them follow Jane and friends running around a podunk New Mexico town complaining about the government stealing their life’s work. Add to that Portman’s weak performance, and you’re given little reason to care about anything besides Thor’s journey of redemption and the goings-on back in Asgard.
This film actually soured a bit for me from my previous watch. I always saw it as “nothing special, but a solid action drama.” I felt that I liked it more than most people. But after being re-exposed to Portman’s drab Jane, and realizing how slow the New Mexico sequences are, I really felt like I had to sift through the awkward and uninteresting to find the exciting and affecting. The action is solid (with the exception of a few goofy moments), but it doesn’t come abundantly enough. The drama with Thor and his family works, but it’s obscured by that of Jane and the earthlings, which is flimsy at best. I honestly struggled to maintain interest this time around. I wouldn’t stoop to call Thor a bad film—in fact, I stand by my assertion that the MCU has yet to produce a truly “bad” one—but it’s hard to argue that it’s particularly good either. If it weren’t for how truly good the good parts are—Loki, the emotional heights of Thor’s journey, Asgard in general, and the action setpieces—it would be hard to find any reason to appreciate this film. Even still, it’s hardly a must-see when you have to wade through the mucky Natalie Portman scenes and lazy writing on Earth. I’m going to say that Thor is the first MCU film I’ve felt to truly fit the definition of “mediocre.”
The MCU Ranking!
Every week, I’ll take each entry covered for that week and place it in an ongoing ranking, which will eventually include all 19 films. As it stands, Thor is currently bringing up the rear. Below is my current ranking of the MCU, including the first four films:
1. Iron Man
2. Iron Man 2
3. The Incredible Hulk