It doth be hammertime.
Thor is a wonderful but weird movie. Its structure is very unusual: it’s a “superhero” film where the superhero loses his powers in the first act and doesn’t regain them until the movie’s nearly over (Superman gave up his powers in Superman II, but not until later in the movie and not for nearly as long). The beginning and end are filled with brazen sci-fi/fantasy elements but most of the middle is basically an Earth-bound fish-out-of-water comedy. It starred almost total unknowns as the lead hero & villain, and was made by a director most famous for capturing Shakespearean chatter rather than big budget genre blockbusters. It’s understandable that the final product doesn’t work for everybody, but it’s really kind of miraculous the movie works at all, or even happened in the first place.
It does work for me, though. It’s my personal favorite of the first wave of “Marvel universe” movies, even if I grudgingly admit that other films are more well-rounded. But I love the character and the concept so much I can’t be so objective. More importantly for these purposes, I love the sheer gumption with which director Kenneth Branagh tackles the material: the extent to which the movie works as well as it does is mostly due to Branagh’s wholehearted commitment to the more out-there concepts of the comic book. Branagh’s Asgard is an amazingly realized version of the legendary Jack Kirby’s ideas. I could stare at it all day.
Also, there’s some fun fighting.
1) Asgardians vs Frost Giants
- Thor, prince of Asgard and god of thunder. Cocky and eager for battle. Played with gusto by Chris
- Armed with: Mjolnir, his mystical hammer. Made of supernatural uru metal (stated in the film to be “forged in the heart of a dying star”). Short, blunt and ridiculously powerful. It also has a leather strap on the end of the handle so he can swing it around even more dangerously. He can also use it control certain weather effects (notably lightning) and fly. Although he can’t completely control it remotely, it flies automatically to his hand when he mentally summons it, so it’s also very useful as a throwing weapon. It’s awesome.
- Loki, younger prince of Asgard and trickster god. Though he’s the mischievous one, here he plays the voice of reason and tries to restrain his brother. Played by Tom Hiddleston, who is one of the movie’s secret weapons (even more so in The Avengers).
- Armed with: Loki goes for magic and misdirection rather than traditional weapons. He uses the same attack repeatedly here and it’s kind of tough to tell if he’s throwing actual daggers or just magical energy bursts that are shaped like daggers.
- Sif, a ferocious warrior woman. In the comics she’s Thor’s off/on girlfriend, but that’s wisely ditched here, as is almost all of Thor’s mortal identity. Played by Jaimie Alexander.
- Armed with: two swords that attach into one long double-bladed staff, and a small shield.
- Fandral the Dashing, a blonde rogue-ish type (hint’s in the name). Played by Joshua Dallas.
- Armed with: a kind of rapier/cutlass that suits his style.
- Hogun the Grim, a no-nonsense warrior. Played by Tadanobu Asano. He’s fine in the small role, even if I miss the mustachioed Mongol look of the comic Hogun (which, okay, maybe would have looked kind of offensive on-screen).
- Armed with: a sick mace with retractable spikes.
- Volstagg the Voluminous, the most portly member of the company. Played by Ray Stevenson, who even in a fat suit is not nearly the girth as the comics’ Volstagg.
- Armed with: a double-bladed axe.
- The Frost Giants, aka the Jotun. The ancient enemies of Asgard, living on a barren world. Radically different-looking from the source material, they’re “giant” more in the “Andre” than the “Jolly Green” sense, being only about eight or nine feet tall. Blue as a Navi smurf and made of icy flesh, with creepy red eyes. Unlike Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze they avoid making cold-related puns, which was a cool bit of restraint on the writers’ part. Played by various stunt men and CGI models, but the leader, Laufey, is classically-trained actor Colm Feore.
- Armed with: Nothing, but their bodies and environment basically ARE weapons. They can form icy constructs from their limbs and a few of them make the ground itself around erupt into blunt or stabbing protrusions.
- The Jotun’s big pet monster, which looks like a cross between the Rancor from Return of the Jedi and the cave troll from Fellowship of the Ring, but it runs on four legs. Pretty scary, but unfortunately its weakness is a 100 MPH hammer through the mouth. So is mine, coincidentally.
[Note that in the comics Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg collectively form a group of friends/adventurers known as the Warriors Three (because there’s three of them, see). If I had one minor quibble with the way the movie adapted the world of Asgard it would be how Branagh sort of casually presents all four of these people as just being “Thor’s buddies,” which diminishes not just the unlikely alliance of the Warriors Three but also how special Sif is. No wonder they didn’t mix things up more by including Balder.]
The Setup: Thor’s coronation ceremony was interrupted by three frost giants sneaking into Asgard’s treasure chamber. Disobeying his father’s order not to investigate the attack, Thor grabs his brother & friends, and storms off to Jotunheim to find out how they got in. Met with cryptic half-answers from King Laufey, and slowly surrounded by dozens of the large denizens, Thor is given the brush-off. That doesn’t sit well with his brash attitude, but with Loki’s calming he seems willing to walk away peacefully, until one of the giants provokes him with a taunt that is just so wonderfully schoolyard: “Run back home, little princess.” That’s all the excuse Thor needs to do what he really came here to do.
Because when all you’ve got is a hammer….
The Fight: There’s a fun bit just after the insult but before the action begins, as Fandral sighs and Loki mutters “damn” as both correctly anticipate what’s about to happen. Branagh pulls in close for a tight shot of Mjolnir being dropped into swinging position, and the mighty Thor starts thumping chumps left & right. His first victim goes flying upside down about 20 feet in the air and slams into a wall. That’s another one of my weaknesses, too.
Beautiful chaos ensues. The remaining Asgardians all draw their weapons and go to town. Loki starts chucking glowing projectiles everywhere and using magic tricks. More & more frosties continuously join the fray, forming ice armaments and using the world itself against the heroes. Thor’s at the center of it all, laughing and gloating even as he takes the occasional beating.
The various bits of choreography are not too complicated themselves, but Branagh does an excellent job of conveying just how frantic and busy the battle is. Each individual cut focuses on a warrior or two having their respective clashes, but in most every shot you can see more of the fight happening in the background. Loki pulls a very cool “disappearing act” move that tricks a Jotun into running off a cliff, and it’s done conspicuously enough to set up a good payoff for later in the movie (and in The Avengers). We also learn that the frost giant’s skin is like dry ice, so freezing cold that it burns Volstagg immediately on contact. This reveal is spaced out just long enough before another giant tries the same thing on Loki and finds it unsuccessful –rather than burning, the touched area turns a matching blue instead– so that the puzzling result gets the audience’s attention. There’s a nice little beat where Loki and the Jotun who tried to burn him trade quiet “WTF?” looks.
The staging seems designed to give every member of the team their own little moment in the sun, in-between shots of Big Stupid Hero Thor working out his aggression, of course. Sif plays it smooth and uses her shield to deflect a bunch of icy projectiles. Hogun is seen saving a comrade from certain death. Loki has those two aforementioned beats and Volstagg gets his burn. Fandral, nearly as cocky as Thor, does his Errol Flynn routine but gets sucker-stabbed by a sudden nest of ice spikes out of the ground. He’s alive but out of action; the casualty and the ever-increasing number of foes lead Sif to declare a tactical retreat is necessary. By then Laufey has unleashed his giant pet monster to chase them across the plain.
Honey badger Thor doesn’t give a crap and stays behind while his friends flee (Volstagg carrying the wounded Fandral), gleefully smashing in yet more Jotun-face. We get not one but two instances of Thor tossing Mjolnir straight ahead and having it fly directly back like the world’s most awesome boomerang. By the time his friends are away Thor has stepped up his game, swinging his hammer so fast it’s just a circular blur– in one nice bit, he lowers it to the ground to send chunks of ice & dirt flying into his foes’ faces like shrapnel. Eventually there’s so many frost giants around Thor has no choice but to call in an enormous thunderbolt, which strikes the ground and sends a shockwave that levels everything in sight. He ramps back up and goes flying off just in time to save the friends who had been cornered by the RancorTroll, one-shotting the poor beast by flying straight through its throat.
Unfortunately there’s still an army of pissed-off Jotun in front of the heroes, with the cliff at their back (this is the most poorly planned invasion of all time). Things look bad until the rather literal deus ex machina of Odin teleporting in on Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse. Odin tries to talk Laufey down, but Laufey demands blood and war. Odin squints his one eye (yarr), and leaves with the heroes in tow.
Fantastic fight, in every meaning of the word. In addition to the pure excitement of the glorious carnage detailed above, Branagh also manages to translate this high concept fantasy world into an action setting while still not losing a distinct superhero vibe. Pretty much all the Asgardians come across amazing here, but even amongst such heavenly creatures it’s obvious that Thor is particularly special. He’s particularly arrogant, too, and if the troublesomeness of that wasn’t sold well enough in the previous dialogue scenes, it’s definitely conveyed when watching him fight. At this stage of maturity Thor is basically a cosmic dudebro, an overpowered frat boy who can’t see past his own reckless whims.
So, six Asgardians against a small army of frost giants: how does the movie try to top this? That’s the thing… it doesn’t. It’s not that the other action scenes try and fail, it’s that they don’t even try; the remaining fights are varying degrees of good for what they’re supposed to be, but aren’t in the same league in terms of scope, excitement and intensity.This movie’s action is terribly front-loaded, which is another one of its structural oddities.
Still, can’t really hold against this fight what’s going to come (or rather, not come) later. I had a very good time.
Coming Attractions: Poncho Thor vs the United States government. Advantage?