Geeks will shout at you that comic book superheroes are "modern myths," or something like that -- but I think they're mostly wrong. Superheroes are cool, yes. Exciting. Sometimes hella sexay. But are they mythic? Not particularly. Actually, as represented in the past decade's spate of brooding big-budget movies, I think superhero stories have become a lot more like therapy.
"Son, you're buggin'."
Thor, the new film by Kenneth Branagh, succeeds by straddling this misapprehension. Though ostensibly a myth -- I'm pretty sure that Marvel Studios' head honcho Stan Lee, while clearly an awesome guy, did not personally invent Norse mythology -- this telling retools the cosmology as, basically, Superman without the gay tights (though the mighty Thor does sport the cape). The result is a pure 'n' simple superhero narrative: Much like classic Supes, Thor boasts the celestial ancestral home (out is Krypton; in is Asgard), the august patriarch (out is fat Brando; in is Sir Tony Hopkins, as eye-patched Odin), the reluctant descent to the Earthly plane (out is pricey New York; in is cost-effective New Mexico), plus the cutesy extraterrestrial disorientation, the sporadic loss of superpowers, yadda-yadda. What does it all mean? It means that this film's producers are banking on geeks -- mainly fanboys -- seeking unconscious resolution for their own papa problems, for their rage issues and respective mortal coils, and even for their own awkward and distressing lusts.
"Hello, I love you."
Yes, let's go there, shall we? In this movie, Thor (played by hunky-anonymous Australian Sam Worthington... no wait, that was the Clash of the Titans remake! -- Thor is played here by Chris Hemsworth, a different hunky-anonymous Australian) screws up his own coronation in Asgard and gets flung by Odin -- superpowerless -- down to Earth's cheaper real estate. Enter Natalie Portman -- and clearly Thor would like to! Ha. But I highlight this aspect of the movie as its weakest link. Portman -- who seems like she's probably a nice person in real life because she's become one damned boring and unconvincing actress -- is promptly defined via astoundingly clunky exposition as an "astrophysicist", but throughout the film she merely mopes around, occasionally adding that glassy-empty smile thing or that twist of grimace, like she does in every movie. This barely-there performance is presented to us as adequate reason for Thor -- a pan-dimensional superbeing -- to want to get it on with her, immediately, deeply and eternally. Epic fail! The kids won't mind or even notice, but anyone over fifteen should shrug at this utterly soulless romance. Forget "Can You Read My Mind" -- it's more like "Can You Read Your Lines?"
Fortunately, that's the only major lameness in Thor. While the movie's plot is rudimentary (pride/fall/suffering/return) and -- ironically, unlike the incredibly complicated Marvel universe -- it literally requires no thought whatsoever for maximum enjoyment, nonetheless Branagh's baby delivers. The action, spectacle, amusement and especially the otherworldly design are all top-notch.
Jotunheim: It's not for everybody.
In brief summation, it's all about the realms. Thor seeks to rule the realm of Asgard (essentially the coolest Myst environment ever; makes Chris Nolan's Batman movies look like ass), thus he teleports with his multiculti godhead pals to the realm of Jotunheim (essentially Minas Tirith with a power shortage; I'd totally live there) to beat on the nasty Frost Giants (blue orc demons) and even defeats their terribly-short-lived Ice Kraken. But this unapproved campaign annoys Odin, thus uppity Thor is cast down to the realm of New Mexico where he gets tasered and hit by SUVs. Ignominy! The apparent source of his power, the mighty hammer Mjolnir (wish I owned the merch rights on replicas) sits stuck fast in a lump of deceptively powerful cement surrounded and guarded by the persnickety secret service team of S.H.I.E.L.D. So that sucks: Thor becomes powerless both in Asgard and on Earth. Meanwhile, he instantly falls in love with astrophysicist Portman and together they partake of the realm of breakfast with her team, which includes Stellan Skarsgard as the supportive older guy and an entertaining Kat Dennings as the sassy-mouthed idiot girl. All movies should have idiot girls in them -- oh, wait: They do!
Minor superheroes Supportive Older Guy and Idiot Girl.
As this is to be my penultimate movie review -- though publishers offering $1M per annum are welcome to contact me -- let me celebrate hundreds of thousands of words with just a few more. I like and recommend this Thor movie, but I can nitpick it. The product placement (convenience store, airline, personal computers, breakfast cereal) proves distracting. The 3-D looks great but the digital projection sorely lacks celluloid's warmth. The score by composer Patrick Doyle -- a Branagh regular who also has contributed fresh material to the Harry Potter series -- puzzlingly delivers routine bombast (Asgard? Routine?) but no memorable themes. The scrubby town designed by Bo Welch (Edward Scissorhands; The Cat in the Hat) made me wish the production would take a left turn at Albuquerque. Clark Gregg as the primary S.H.I.E.L.D agent (from the Iron Man movies) accidentally comes across here as a smug jerk (though he's a fine director: see Choke). And, as the eponymous Thor, Hemsworth doesn't really look Nordic or apparently godlike; he looks like a grunge cover-band guitarist who hits the gym real hard. Just sayin'.
"Your place or mine?"
The rest, though, is great fun. Sure, Tom Hiddleston could have put a bit more creep into Thor's creepy little brother, Loki, but he charmingly carries out his nemesis obligations. The metallic Destroyer (essentially a badass Gort; cleverly questioned onscreen as "one of Stark's creations" -- more like: "one of the Marvel CG team's templates") could have rocked and rolled a bit more, but it brings the boss battle that kids demand of a cinematic (or videogame) climax, plus it leads to Thor's realization that, hey, he's been kind of a jackass. Humility, man -- learn it, know it, live it. If there was one lesson I could impart to geeks (and actors), it'd be that one. Thankfully, with one foot in the mythic world and one in the pop world, Branagh & Co. hammer home the message that humility is heroism, that power is meaningless without universal reverence. Thor easily passes as rawkin' entertainment, but that it has something simple but valuable to say makes it one of the very best superhero movies.