Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Thor (2011)

I have a confession to make: I’m not a big Thor fan. I’m not saying I hate the character, and there have been periods where I picked up the comic (for example, I was really digging what Jason Aaron was laying down until the whole Female Thor thing happened, which to me was an interesting experiment that’s gone on… too… long), but overall, the character never did a whole lot for me. I’ve always liked Captain America and Iron Man more; maybe because I could relate to them better.

So when I heard about the Thor movie I was no more than mildly interested. Then I discovered Kenneth Branagh was directing the film and that really got my attention, as I’ve been a fan of Branagh going back to his film adaptation of Henry V. The man proved early on to be awesome on either side of the camera.


And then the trailer dropped…

…and I thought, this could be very, very cool.

So far the Marvel films were grounded, in that we were dealing with humans. Yeah, sometimes extraordinary humans, but they were mortal. Now we were going to see gods and monsters and giants and ohmigod is that the Destroyer?!

The Destroyer is one of Thor’s most bad-ass enemies, as a magic robot kickstarted by a soul and virtually unstoppable. Man, I thought, this fight is going to be epic! Oh, uh, and yeah, we would be getting Anthony Hopkins playing Odin and Idris Elba was in the movie, too. The only way Branagh could screw this up was to botch the whole Thor/Destroyer fight.

Onto the plot! In glorious Asgard, we meet Thor, the God of Thunder…

…who in a public ceremony is being named as his father Odin’s successor…

…until the ceremony is interrupted by Frost Giants attempting to steal the Casket of Endless Winters. Thor takes it upon himself to investigate, but it goes horribly wrong, and Odin exiles his vain and arrogant son to Earth until he can prove himself worthy. In his absence, Thor’s brother Loki, the God of Mischief…

…discovers his true heritage, and while Thor forms new friendships on Earth, Loki makes his play to take over Asgard for himself.

Back before Thor, most people likely thought of Kenneth Branagh as “That Shakespeare Guy”. If you look at his IMDb page, literally half the films he directed before Thor were Shakespeare adaptations, and then there was A Midwinter’s Tale, which was a comedy about people trying to put on a production of Hamlet. So at first glance, you’d think he might not be a good fit for a superhero film. but Thor’s is a tale that the Bard could have easily written: an arrogant youth cast out from his home until he proves his worth, a jealous half-brother with a dark secret who schemes to undo him, a common woman (“common” meaning of non-royal blood) whom the noble prince falls in love with and woos despite his father’s disapproval, and a road to redemption fraught with perilous quests. With all of these elements, it’s obvious Kenneth Branagh is the perfect guy to bring Thor to the big screen.

But the result? Well, it didn’t go over as well as some would have liked. Over the years, I’ve heard people celebrate the parts of the movie that take place off-Earth, while they slam the sequences that happen on it. Personally, I don’t get the hate for the Earth-bound stuff, in that the mortal cast of characters are every bit as strong as those in Asgard, starting with Jane Foster.

In the comic, Jane is a nurse who later becomes a medical doctor, while in the movie she’s a scientist working on… science-y stuff. Natalie Portman is solid as Thor’s romantic lead; starting with Pepper Potts and then continuing through Betsy Ross and Jane Foster, we see a commonality among the Marvel heroines in that they’re intelligent and compassionate, but are also tough when they need to be; when the male lead gets out of hand, they aren’t afraid to stand up to them, especially in Potts’ case, where she ain’t afraid to wield authority when necessary. I’m not saying Liv Tyler ripped off Gwyneth Paltrow or Portman bogarted the style of the other two actresses. I’m just saying we see that these female protagonists have similar traits, and the actors express them in different ways. I would say they’re following the original model of the modern sci-fi/action heroine:

Then we have Jane’s mentor, Doctor Selvig, played by Stellan Skarsgård.

I appreciate that Selvig is in the movie, because it adds an element of realism to the story to have him be the skeptic to counter Foster’s wild theories (which, as it turns out, all happen to be valid). Then there’s Kat Dennings as Darcy.

Being comic relief can be hard; you want to be funny enough to introduce an element of levity to a scene, but at the same time not so ridiculous that nobody can take a serious moment, well, seriously. Dennings is great comic relief, from her tasering Thor (and being rather proud of it), to her confession that she’s a political science major, to the pet name she gives Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir (“Meowmeow”). Dennings is highly entertaining.

As for the Asgardians, Anthony Hopkins delivers some great work here as Odin, the All Father, King of Asgard. He exudes tremendous presence in every scene and gives us great bombastic line deliveries counterpointed by some terrific subtlety.

Hopkins is the perfect choice to play Odin. As for Frigga, Thor’s mother, Rene Russo does a credible job.

Honestly, she isn’t given a great deal to do, but that’s understandable, as the movie’s cast is pretty crowded. The same can be said for Idris Elba as Heimdall…

…who had been a controversial choice, as he’s a black man playing a Norse god. But God damn it, it’s Idris Elba. You want to cast him as Doctor Who? Do it. James Bond? I’m all for it. Idris Elba can do no wrong. At the time, I really thought people were blowing things out of proportion in terms of casting, but fortunately people who had an issue with Elba’s appearance were ignored.

I liked the Warriors Three, played by Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, and Ray Stevenson.

They’re all fun and have their own personalities. But what I find really amazing is that Volstagg, the gregarious bearded fellow on the right, was also the Punisher.

Now that’s what I call range.

Jaimie Alexander as Sif is pretty bad-ass as well.

I really wish we could have seen her return in Thor: Ragnarok, but apparently she was tied down shooting episodes of Blindspot. Which might be for the best, considering what happened to almost everybody else in that movie not named Thor or Loki.

And speaking of Loki, what about Tom Hiddleston?

Having worked with Branagh before on the BBC mystery series Wallander, Hiddleston is a stellar actor, creating a Loki who’s both despicable and sympathetic, a man who since he was a boy has been in the shadow of who he sees as a loud-mouthed buffoon.

When he discovers that the master of lies has been lied to all his life by the one man he trusted, well, that’s just the last straw. I’m not saying Loki is justified, but I can understand some of his motivation. Maybe Frigga needed to hug him more. Or hug him less. I don’t know; I’ve never been a parent. Maybe Loki was just born bad.

Back to Earth, this is the movie where Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson really comes into his own.

Coulson gives off quiet confidence and an air of authority spiced with a touch of tired acceptance that this is the insane world he’s living in now, and all he can do is roll with it. The scene where he first meets the Destroyer is particularly great.

Sitwell: Is that one of Stark’s?
Coulson: [sighs] I don’t know, that guy never tells me anything…

SHIELD is featured prominently in this film and is put to good use. We get our first look at Jasper Sitwell, who will appear in later movies as well as on the Agents of SHIELD TV series.

Hmm, am I reading too much into this shot or is this foreshadowing Sitwell’s two-faced nature?

Then we get Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye…

…whose cameo admittedly feels a touch forced. I don’t mind it, but I’m surprised to find myself admitting that seeing Jeremy Renner in this film makes me think Scarlett Johansson’s appearance in Iron Man 2 was handled with more skill. I’m guessing Renner’s appearance in this movie was one of those conditions Branagh had to deal with, and probably one of the reasons why he decided to walk away from directing any other Marvel films. Overall, however, SHIELD was used well here, and it feels more natural than what we saw in Iron Man 2.

But the man of the hour, the man who makes Thor work, is Chris Hemsworth himself.

Chris is charismatic, heroic, and carries himself very well, both in and out of costume.

Okay, I have to address this right now: the scene above left me a little… triggered. Look at that photo; It’s obvious Hemsworth feels uncomfortable in his role, being exploited, forced to show off his perfect body for the purposes of simple titillation. I… I just can’t imagine the hell he went through as all those women (and a few gay men, I’m sure) ogled those washboard abs, perfect pectorals, and magnificently sculpted arms. I haven’t felt this triggered since I saw 300.

But seriously, Hemsworth, like Robert Downey Jr. (and lets be fair, Edward Norton as well), does a fantastic job adding legitimacy to his role. We believe these actors are heroes. The casting in these movies has been at the very least credible, and in the case of Thor, utterly top-notch.

And it’s because of this casting that I can mostly look past the film’s flaws. And yes, there are flaws. First of all, in Iron Man, Tony Stark spends three months in a cave. In Incredible Hulk, Banner is on the run for years. This passage of time lends credibility to the changes in their personalities as they grow from flawed men (okay, Banner doesn’t seem that flawed. A little stupid for experimenting on himself, maybe, but otherwise he seems okay. Ever hear of guinea pigs, Banner? Sheesh) into the heroes we love. Meanwhile, Thor goes from being a jackass frat boy god…

…to humbled lovestruck hero in, what, two days?

It’s a bit of a stretch. I think the plot could have been better served with a bit more passage of time showing Thor growing more comfortable in his life on Earth. It would have certainly helped sell the budding romance between him and Jane.

And then (sigh) there’s the fight with the Destroyer. Like I said before, this magic robot is one of Thor’s greatest enemies, and well, he goes down like a chump.

But, Tom, you might say, in the Iron Man 2 review you said you hated seeing guys in armor fighting robots! To which I say: shut up, fanboy! There’s an exception to every rule, and this is it. This fight should have been an epic slugfest of near-biblical proportions. The only explanation I can think of—and let’s be fair, because if it’s true, I can see his point of view—is that Kenneth Branagh felt the final fight between Thor and Loki should hold more weight. While Loki is never one to mix it up in a physical confrontation, making it a little out of character for him, I respect Branagh’s decision. The fact that it was probably cheaper to show the Thor/Loki fight than more Destroyer CGI goodness was probably also a contributing factor.

The Earth scenes look well grounded, from the SHIELD facility to the small town in which all the action takes place. In contrast, Asgard looks amazing…

…and while it’s hard to get a very clear image to do it justice, Jotunheim is fantastic.

Let me say I loved the fight in Jotunheim. As someone who played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons growing up, I loved Lord of the Rings, but seeing Thor and Company fight felt a lot more like a traditional dungeon crawl, complete with magic weapons and sorcerers throwing spells. Loki is the wizard, Fandrall is the bard, Sif and Hogun are fighters, Volstagg is the cleric (work with me here), and Thor is the barbarian.

“I’m worth a million experience points!”

Thor’s soundtrack was composed by Patrick Doyle, who had worked with Kenneth Branagh before on such movies as Dead Again and Much Ado About Nothing. The man’s score is brilliant, and I forgot how much I enjoyed it until I listened to it in my car this week. When you listen to his earlier work and compare it to this film, you get a feel for his range, and while the likes of Hans Zimmer grab all the glory, Doyle is an unsung hero when it comes to superhero soundtracks.

Thor was just what the Marvel franchise needed after Iron Man’s second lackluster outing. It delivered a fantastic hero and what was undoubtedly the universe’s first truly great villain in Loki. It also did a far better job of world-building than Iron Man 2, giving us a much more in-depth look at SHIELD. It’s unfortunate that Branagh walked away from the franchise, because who knows how Thor: The Dark World would have turned out had he been at the helm? But that’s for a future review.

In the comics, Thor had died earlier that decade when Asgard fell, then he got better, as comic characters usually do. He went on a quest to find the rest of the Asgardians, who now thought they were mortals. Asgard now floated above Broxton, Oklahoma, and was featured as the scene of conflict during 2010’s Seige storyline. In 2011, the God of Thunder was featured prominently in that year’s crossover events, Chaos War and Fear Itself. What’s more interesting is what was going on with Loki, with him going through a couple of new looks during that era. First, as a woman…

…and then, as a boy.

Finally, a couple words about the end credits scene. Ever since Iron Man 2, we knew it paid to stick around after the credits. We were expecting some sort of minor teaser. What we got were a collection of massive bombshells. The first was this:

Good God almighty, we thought. It’s actually going to happen! Then we got this:

The. Cosmic. Cube. Oh man, whatever the plot of The Avengers was going to be, it was going to be epic! And then…

Well, it definitely seemed studio president Kevin Feige was serious about making Loki a major player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the comics, Loki is responsible for the creation of the Avengers, and this looked like a sign of things to come. We had oh so much to chew on for the next movie.

Next up: Speaking of the Avengers, we next got to meet the “First Avenger”, and my inner fanboy squealed uncontrollably with glee.

Tag: Countdown to Infinity War

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