Friday, May 06, 2011

Thor: Get up on your soap box, Blondie!

Thor! Critical response: widely assessed as "definitely good enough," except for a few particular critics, who totally couldn't get into it. The most unique film of the decade? Or of the superhero era? Or of the summer? Or of the month? Probably no, on all counts. And yet, it was worth making, and it's worth seeing -- not just because it worked as a film (it did), but also because it's a wise decision, fellow movie-watchers, to experience this critical part of the Avengers saga that's been developing over the last few years.

Now, I know that a lot of people think this film is very pedestrian, and only really functions as a long-form preview of the Avengers movie. There is some merit to this criticism, but don't take it too seriously... just because it's part of a slowly-developing mythology, and a lot of the film is hitched to this larger, half-formed "Avengers" thing, it doesn't mean it's a bad film. Or even an incomplete one. Nay; in fact, I think one of Thor's accomplishments is that it's both a significant part of a massive whole, and also a self-contained, fully-realized burst of myth-making in its own right.

The film is not ground-breaking. It hits a series of essential comic book beats... a half-hearted romance, a spiritual awakening on the part of the protagonist, an apotheosis, a return to the fray to redeem himself. Most of these are just monomythic tropes, retrofitted to the comic book genre, just as they've been retrofitted to pretty much every other action movie since the dawn of time. Then, it's also got some more precise parallels to its Avengers predecessor, Iron Man: a warlike playboy undergoes a personal struggle that leads him to a place of newfound respect and compassion; he takes on the traditional Hero role, and ultimately has to defeat some monster linked to his own past... Thor battling his brother, Tony Stark his old business partner. Yes, it's a formula, as also seen in Spiderman, Batman Begins, The Lion King, etc etc. Thor commits no crime in adopting the template.

We all know that narrative innovation is not why you're seeing this film. There are other, very good reasons to go see it. First and foremost, Thor nails a very particular tone in both the character and the setting. It's a wide-eyed adolescent idealism and naivety, something that plays as mythic/Shakespearean melodrama in Asgard, and then seems a bit clumsy when displaced into New Mexico. It's all about the fact that Helmsworth's Thor is the perfect virile man, with just a touch of boyishness, and a dash of tenderness to endear him to the female population that he's set to win over. The overserious myth undermines itself in the awkward details, Kenneth Branaugh's touches of craftsmanship. "We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud."

The character AND the setting. This is important. That "stay golden" feeling permeates the whole film, from the artificial golden Olympian walls right into the center of the family conflict, with all that courtly drama and those epic speeches and heroic posturing. We come to understand Thor because we see where he comes from. Nobody from those hallowed halls could be cynical, or jaded, or shackled in self-consciousness. This is a land where everyone is regal, and even here, Thor is the son of the king!

So it works. All by itself, as a movie, it works. It's a routine action romp with some big aluminum costumes and grand CGI sets, lots of lens flares, and the appeal of both an outrageous epic courtly drama and an endearing fish-out-of-water action comedy. The same character inhabits both worlds, so ultimately this hero-coming-of-age theme bridges the gap between them.

But it also works as part of something larger. And though you may hate that you seem to be paying for part of something unfinished... really, it's not so bad.

Did you ever watch wrestling? Before every major match, each wrestler gets an entrance sequence. He comes marching out, accompanied by a theme song, and for the bigger matches, there's often a whole stage show, a band, fireworks, a gospel choir, a massive Alice Cooper-style skeleton. For those few minutes, that wrestler basks in the glory of his own identity, merged with his surroundings, establishing his own mythical space.

Or, on a smaller scale, consider the recent character-based trailers for X-Men: First Class, providing individual bios for Banshee, Havok, Beast, and Mystique. You don't have to just jam all the major players into some grand scheme that reduces each of them to a particular role, a narrative chess piece. Without his little trailer, Banshee might always just be a cog in Professor X's wheel (pun less relevant for this film, but whatever). I think the studio owes him this little bit of promotion, a little personal space where his light can shine.

This is what the Thor movie is, in terms of the Avengers. It's an entrance, a character bio -- a platform for Thor to represent himself, where we can fully understand and invest in his character. Same as Iron Man was for Tony Stark. Same as Captain America will be for what's-his-name.

These three individual movies will allow Marvel to set up the cosmic relationship between these three elemental forces. Tony Stark, the savvy, smart-ass pragmatist, represents business and technology, the human technocracy at work in the modern world. Thor, with his wide-eyed Olympian power, will represent the mythic human spirit, man's timelessness and capacity to overcome our puny physical limitations. Captain America, the boy-scout, the nationalist, will represent patriotism, the collective historical spirit of pride and leadership and purpose. Technology - Spirit - Patriotism. And if the Hulk is in there, he will have to represent nature, the animalistic rage of the untamed world, which man finds within himself when he gives free rein to his fury.

Iron Man was already set up. Now we've got Thor, fully fleshed out and forged in his Olympian hyperreality. Next, we need Captain America, rising up from the smoke of a bygone World War. Then we'll be ready to see them get put together, directed by the Wheedster, and the fireworks can begin.

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