05/09/2011 02:54 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Life's Just a Comic Book: Thor , and Hollywood's Monetization of Mediocrity

This is not a happy time to be a movie fan who no longer gets carded in bars.

Take this weekend's opening of Thor on four thousand screens -- a release which reflects the industry's increasing reliance on that forbidden joy of my childhood -- the comic book -- to justify its existence.

Now before I earn the sobriquet of "film snob" once again, let me state that I don't hate all comic book movies. I'm a fan of the first two Spiderman entries, and the first Iron Man, because beyond the whiz-bang effects, they actually had fairly good scripts and good acting. You remember those things, right?

By contrast, here's just one piece of dialogue, representing a dramatic high-point, between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins):

Odin: You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!

Thor: And you're an old man -- and a fool!

Wow -- be still my heart!

What's troubling is that these fundamentals of script and performance don't seem to count for much anymore. Many of the nation's critics, it seems, readily drank the Thor Kool-Aid.

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman cites the movie's "stirring emotional core," while Megan Lehmann from The Hollywood Reporter was even more rhapsodic, claiming that Thor "provides an introduction befitting the mighty God of Thunder."

USA Today's
Claudia Puig gushed: "It takes a director known for his Shakespearian acumen (Kenneth Branagh) to make a spectacular summer action movie filled with epic battles and familial struggles." (Really, Claudia? Well, if you say so...)

Meanwhile, The Boston Globe's Ty Burr provided the most inscrutable praise, saying it "gave mediocrity a good name."

Is that a good thing, Ty? A movie that elevates mediocrity?

It makes one think about the value and trustworthiness of some critics these days, that old suspicion of their sitting on the same bed as -- if not actually being in bed with -- the folks who make the movies. Think about it: if more people go to the movies, their jobs are more secure, right? And let's not forget that the studios do advertise -- a lot -- in the media outlets that pay these folks.

I raise this because in the subtext of many positive reviews there are telling disclaimers: e.g, the movie is less effective when it hits Earth; Hemsworth, the new star, is impressively muscle-bound but charisma-wise, no Robert Downey, Jr.; the 3-D aspect is under-utilized; Natalie Portman has too little to do; it all feels a bit by the numbers, etc. But overall, um -- even with these caveats, kids (read: and the kid in all of us) should enjoy it.

Drink the Kool-Aid. Buy the ticket. Celebrate mediocrity!

One reviewer I do respect and refer to often-and who appears to have screened a different movie entirely -- is the senior critic of The New York Times, A.O. Scott. In his scathing critique last Friday ("Have Golden Locks, Seeking Hammer"), he got at the heart of the malaise currently dominating the once-proud (or at least prouder) feature film business in Hollywood.

First, Scott speaks of Thor as being "not distinctively bad, but axiomatically bad... an example of the programmed triumph of commercial calculation over imagination."

After watching a post-film preview of The Avengers, an upcoming cinematic cavalcade of super-heroes including Thor, Iron Man, and the Incredible Hulk, he really goes for the jugular, condemning the formulaic, franchise-driven orientation of Hollywood: "...the tactic of treating the price of a ticket as an installment-plan payment has more in common with a Ponzi scheme. The purpose of putting this movie in theaters is to make sure you and all your friends go to the next one, and then the one after that."

Devastatingly, Scott goes on to complete the thought: "Nothing... is the least bit memorable, and I suspect that is not an accident. If you can't remember what you saw, then there's no harm in seeing it again. There is no reason to go to this movie, which may be another way of saying there's no reason not to... as a business plan it's probably fool-proof."

In blunt contrast to those of his colleagues riding this latest, mindless wave of movie "entertainment" with halfhearted praise that comes close to patronizing the audience it's meant to serve. A.O. Scott is willing to write the truth -- not only about Thor itself, but about the state of the industry that created it.

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