“Thor” is waking up on Monday morning with a bit of a curious hangover. While most critics seemed to give the Marvel comic adaptation a shrug of approval (including us — we gave it a B- and called it “mostly entertaining” though around the offices, most of us were split on the film, and audiences were a bit more cagey about seeing the mighty hammer up on screen. The film opened to a conservative $66 million. Yes, it was the second highest first-weekend gross this year so far, but for May, this is considered a soft summer opening if you look at the past (“Iron Man” movies and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” both did higher numbers). This could make rival studios quiver in their boots about bringing lesser-known, expensive comic films to the big screen (you can bet Warner Bros. execs are meeting today to figure how to avoid a similar opening for “Green Lantern,” again not a bad one, but not quite the numbers they want to see considering the expensive budgets).
And yes, while “Thor” is diverting enough, the film is not without its problems. Full credit to the cast who elevate a lot of bad writing and keep things engaging for most of the runtime but there are some things not even Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman could save. Here’s what we felt worked and what didn’t in Marvel’s latest comic film adaptation.
Chris Hemsworth: Unlike the other superhero movies of the summer that have placed proven talent in the lead roles — Ryan Reynolds, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Chris Evans — Marvel rolled the dice on Chris Hemsworth, a fresh face best known Down Under for his stint on the soap “Home And Away.” And the gamble paid off. Given the unenviable task of making the otherworldly Thor human, Hemsworth is effortlessly charming, displaying both the superhero bravado and Earth-world foibles of his character with ease. Even as the film is uneven, Hemsworth admirably remains a strong anchor throughout.
Embracing the absurdity: At its core, the mythology of the Thor comic is somewhat absurd and had it been played too serious, the film would’ve come right apart at the seams. So kudos to Marvel for realizing the best way to play the story is as a fish-out-of-water tale. Having Thor wander completely out of his element provides some of the best moments of humor and drama in the film. And that whimsical tone in the first half allows the heavier moments of the second half to land with some heft.
Kat Dennings: Through rehearsals, Kat Dennings — who had signed on without reading the script — found her role expanded, and thank goodness for that. Inserted as an audience surrogate more than an actual character, her easily delivered quips, observations and one-liners reassure moviegoers when they are less-than-convinced about what is happening up on the big screen that yeah, Thor is a pretty fucking weird story.
Clark Gregg: Once again, reprising his annual role as Agent Coulson, this excellent character actor seems to be coming in from a much classier movie. As a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson is both aware of how strange his job is, but also takes it on with the utmost seriousness. Gregg often outshines the more central figures of the Marvel world, which makes us ask — when is Marvel gonna give him his own movie?
The first 30 minutes: Unlike Batman, Spiderman or even Iron Man, the comic world of Thor is not in the pop cultural consciousness to any great degree. How Marvel would introduce audiences to this world without spending the whole movie constantly explaining who everyone is and how they relate to each other was a big question. And as you can see from the film’s opening twenty minutes to half hour, the studio struggled with it. Combining a lengthy flashback, clunky exposition and a sleep-inducing, forgettable voiceover, this gets the film started at an awkward, boring snail’s pace that almost derails the movie completely. It’s easily the worst part of the film and maybe the most hamfisted portion of any Marvel film to date.
The romance: Seemingly treated like an afterthought for the girlfriends in the room who might be dragged by their nerd boyfriends to the movie, the romance between Thor and Jane Foster at no moment ever feels real. Jane seems attracted to Thor’s ripped physique, while Thor seems attracted to Jane being Natalie Portman and it never develops much beyond that. When their inevitable kiss arrives it seems more like something ticked off on a checklist than the culmination of anything real. If Chris Hemsworth is the film’s secret weapon, Portman is the Achilles heel. Clearly out of her element slumming it in this tentpole flick, the actress doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself playing a variation on “exasperated” for most of the proceedings. Though, to be fair, it’s not like she was given much to work with either.
The 3D: Once again we have another movie slicked over in three dimensions to the detriment of the picture. Adding absolutely nothing, the format manages to take away from a film that needs all the grandeur it can get, only serving to make Asgard look dimmer and more absurd than it already does. And when the film shifts to Earth, the process is barely used at all to any real effect.
Ok, that was funny once: Like we said above, the fish-out-of-water elements worked well, and yes, led to some genuinely funny moments in the first half of the film. But by the later stages, the writers seemed to be wheezing for ideas. While Hemsworth and Dennings do a great job knocking those jokes out of the park, when it extends to folks like Stellan Skarsgard or the forgettable trio of Sif, Hogun and Fandral, it felt like a Saturday morning cartoon — we half expected Scooby Doo to show up.
Fight Choreography: Director Kenneth Branagh has never really directed a big action film and boy, does it show. The climatic showdown between two Norse gods — Thor and Loki — should be as epic as it sounds, but instead, Branugh shoots like a boxing match as filmed by TMZ. Shaky, shot way up close so we can’t actually see what they’re doing and utilizing fast cutting, most of the fights are just flashes of body parts. With no sense of geography or even where to put the camera, Branagh shouldn’t have been too proud or shy to ask for help.
Loki — a wimp or genocidal maniac?: It seems the writers disagreed on how ruthless Loki should be and never quite sorted it out on the page. Initially a simpering weak-willed brother who is too timid to kill anybody himself, at the end of the picture, Loki is pretty much ready to commit genocide on a mass scale. It’s an abrupt shift with little explanation and on the whole Loki is never believably a threat to the clearly physically and mentally stronger Thor (which is too bad considering Tom Hiddleston is great in the part).
Asgard, the Land of Iambic Pentameter: “Thor” vacillates between Earth and Asgard for much of the film, and unfortunately, when the picture leaves our planet, it grinds to a halt. The stuffy, stodgy faux-Shakesperian line readings of Asgard are dry as fuck (and not helped by the wooden dialogue the actors are given to work with) when not being unintentionally hilarious. And it certainly doesn’t help that everyone is doing this while standing around one of the recycled sets from “The Phantom Menace.”
Hawkeye Cameo: The extended, already spoiled but still highly anticipated cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye ultimately goes nowhere and is the worst sort of cocktease. Spending three minutes in a basket on a crane in the rain with his bow raised ready to fire, Hawkeye says about two lines of inconsequential dialogue and then doesn’t do anything. The audience we were with audibly groaned at the wasted opportunity.
The post-credits sequence: In a word, the now-standard after-credits scene was painful. Truly emphasizing the episodic nature of the Marvel world film series, the scene felt like a cable television ad for an upcoming episode of “Heroes” or “The Further Adventures of Buckaroo Avengers.” Revealing, somewhat cornily, that Loki — SHOCK! — is still alive and up to his mischievous ways, it’s not worth sitting through seven minutes of credits for. Hell, it’s barely worth being an extra on the eventual DVD.