Bars and Tone

Posts tagged “marvel

Thor, Nicotine, and Jesus.

There’s an unfortunate expectation that “film critics” (a term that gets thrown around lightly these days[1]) are supposed to tell you what movies to go see. Knowing more about a movie could certainly help inform one’s decision, but too many rotten tomatoes reviews end with “don’t bother” or “I strongly recommend…” (which is ridiculous anyway because if I’ve gotten to the end of your review and I still haven’t made up my  own mind about the movie, what good was your review?) Anyway, I don’t have any plans for tonight, so don’t expect me to make any of yours for you.

How anyone could be on the fence about a movie like Thor is beyond me. Either you’ve been inundated with movies starring super heroes (something you probably never knew or cared much about when your awkward peers were playing with their action figures. Now it’s as if they are inescapable. Why the hell have these little kids’ toys become so popular?) for the last ten years, to the point where, even if you were on-board with the first Spider-Man movie, you’re now gasping, straining, reaching desperately for anything else to watch, OR you’ve already bought your tickets to Captain America and even if it isn’t good you’re still gonna go see The Avengers opening night.

Simply put, if you think you’re going to like Thor, you should go see it. If you think you’re not going to like Thor, don’t go see it.

I grew up with super heroes. I learned to read because my Mom got sick of reading Spider-Man comics to me, so I had to figure out how to read them myself.

So Thor and I go back a long way.

Honestly, I’ve never liked him. I easily related to Spider-Man’s fast-talking sarcastic perspective on his obstacles (that’s all super villains are really, something to be overcome), and Captain America was inspiring to me even as a snot-nosed punk rocker, but there was something about Thor’s Ye Olde English and stupid costume that I could never really get past.

That being said, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that they would be making a Thor movie (some people were, ‘cause of the stupid costume and inability to relate). Producers have been scrambling to find anything that even mildly resembles Lord of the Rings (Narnia, The Golden Compass, maybe there’s a Sword in the Stone remake we can squeeze out of this) and an “epic” tale of Norse mythology would fit that bill[2].

Plus, they’re building the canon. This is probably the aspect of the film that comic fans can get most excited about. Marvel Studios has taken the helm again with Thor (they did the Iron Man movies, and the Ed Norton Hulk movie) and have continued to build a continuity between their super hero films, mirroring the overwhelming (and continually growing) importance of continuity in Marvel’s comic books.

Continuity is the nicotine of story-telling (permit me this digression). I’ve read countless comics about characters I have either a) never heard of or b) could care less about because some aspect of the storyline of that comic intertwines with a storyline I care oh-so-very-deeply about. Example: A few years ago Marvel had the “Civil War” event storyline[3], where the Marvel super heroes were divided over  forced enlistment into the military. Families were torn apart (the Fantastic Four) brother was pitted against brother (not actually sure if that happened), Captain America finally punched Iron Man in the face! You can see why I would be excited (or not). Thing is, every super hero chose a side. And I read every one of their comics about it. It totals around One-Twenty. You know what I gained from the experience? What insight I brought to the seven-issue series that tied all those comics together? Very little. But I had to know!

Marvel Studios hopes to recreate this story addiction with the continuity of these new films, creating a new market of super hero junkies.  Every bonus “scene,” with its “revealing secrets” (ohhhhh, Thor’s hammer is gonna be in the next Thor movie? No way!) has me more and more amped up for the next movie. Really, the best parts of this movie are the promises it makes for The Avengers. My voice was among those who cheered as a mysterious, yet charismatic Clint Barton (Jeremy Rener) picked up the bow and arrow for the first time.  Our first Hawkeye high. The Marvel pushers will have us coming back for more for years, chasing that “Thor cameo” dragon.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a comic book store, talkin’ shop with my fellow nerds, and comparing titles to drugs. Kids will groan that they can’t possibly start reading another title, because then they’ll be hooked on that one too:

“I already have a huge pull list, no way am I picking up ‘Mighty’ XYandZ, I’m already reading ‘Fantastic’ XYandZ.”

“Yeah but the ‘Mighty’ stuff is going to crossover into ‘Fantastic’ next month.”

“Oh, really? Never mind, I have to have it.”

Continuity isn’t all bad though. When Stellan Skarsgård’s character Erik Selvig mentions, with an ominous tone, his former colleague’s work on gamma radiation, his concerns for his protégé and her involvement in S.H.I.E.L.D. carry more weight. We don’t have to spend thirty minutes finding out who Agent Coulson is or even explain why he cares so much about Thor’s hammer, since we all saw Iron Man I & II.  The greater promise of this technique is when the same formula pays off on bigger characters on a bigger stage. When Robert Downey Jr. appears in the first few minutes of The Avengers and no one in the theater wonders “who’s that?”; If we all buy Nick Fury as suave, smart and bad ass without painful introduction; if Thor can show up and open up a can of whoop ass without looking like an extra from Jason and the Argonauts, then the franchise experiment will have worked, and it will have been worth it to shill out for these preambles. Plus, there’s nothing that develops a super heroe’s character better then other super heroes. Once the origin has been told and the character has defined themselves against the backdrop of their family, friends and rogues, a lot of authors have trouble knowing where to send their newly birthed creations (I cite Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 2, and X-Men 3). Pitting a hero against another who sees the world differently then he or she does, but still chooses to fight for it, can help develop the eccentricities of a hero’s character, defining him or her further then a villain or polar opposite could. Using other heroes as a foil, and forcing them to all work together, can keep them from becoming too thin (i.e. “I feel responsible for everything, I feel guilty for everything, I must save the world”–Spider-Man. As opposed to “I’m not Captain America, I’m not Iron Man, I’m not the Hulk, this is what makes me, me” – Spider-Man).

With all that in mind, I think a Thor movie is a logical way to set up an Avengers film[4]. Yet, when the film was announced (like 200 years ago) I remember wondering “How the hell is that going to work? Isn’t he going to look ridiculous?”

He kind of does. But that’s okay.

The movie (I’m not sure if I can technically call it a “film” or not. No idea if the live-action stuff was shot on film, but quite a bit of the movie comes out of a computer) certainly has its faults, but for the most part hangs in there. Thor does arrive on Earth clueless and dumbfounded, but thankfully, without being too reminiscent of Brandon Fraiser’s Encino Man.  There are plenty of bad “fish-out-of-water” jokes (one can only think a Namor movie will have even more) but Thor’s grandiose demeanor is the punch line, rather then his unfamiliarity with what we find familiar (like Will Farrel in ELF or something). This film’s development of the shadowy and secretive S.H.I.E.L.D. organization (remember Iron Man I & II?) is definitely its strong point. Clark Gregg continues to steal the thunder (no pun intended) of every huge actor he’s asked to play opposite, as the tight-lipped, but awfully polite Agent Coulson (Gregg actually played the exact same character, disarming-but-direct,-aw-shucks-ma’ma-secret-agent type from 2001 to 2004 on The West Wing but I’m the only person who cares about that)[5].

There are signs of this film’s promise right out of the gate. A neat and tidy scene opens the film that introduces and endears us to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team of astrologists searching for what turns out to be way cooler then anything that actually happens in real astronomy. And then we go to Asgard. The land of boring CGI animation and poorly written Anthony Hopkins voice-over.

Asgard, the mythical home of the Norse Gods, apparently looks a lot like Oz, but yellow and in 3D! Everyone wears old costumes from the Xena: Warrior Princess TV Show and seems to have a little bit of reverb on their voice.

Asgard and the ensuing family melodrama is where the film really falls short.[6] Aside from the gaudy production design, Asgard exists in the film to develop the relationship between Thor and his father Odin (the All-Father: God to Thor’s Jesus, Muhammad to Thor’s Abraham). Thor is an angry and hot-headed youth, and he goes full-on prodigal-son on Odin’s ass. The trajectory of this plot line is so obvious there’s no need to spoil it. Furthermore, there’s never really any doubt that Thor will learn his lesson and the two will reconcile. So much so, that they skip the lesson learning part all together and skip right to the reconcilin’. Although it’s clear that Thor’s character has changed significantly by the end of the movie – it’s difficult to determine when, how or why. Was it when he couldn’t pick up his hammer? Was it when Loki told him Odin was dead? Was it when Princess Amidala[7] kissed him? Or maybe it’s when he comes back from the dead.

Reincarnation has been an over-used plot device since 32 AD. (The Ephesians told Paul it was sloppy writing but he was up against a deadline! His editor was breathing down his neck). The creators had obviously missed that “turning point” moment for the character and pulled this old gem out of the box o’ plots. It makes the end of the movie a little insulting. “Ohhhh, I get it now, it’s like he’s a god. It’s like he’s our god.” The concept of reincarnation has no business in this movie[8]. It’s at best, sloppy screenwriting/producing (there’s hardly a difference anymore, producer says write this, writer writes it) and at worst, pandering to the evangelical right (a page out of our politicians’ script), who won’t go see this movie anyway because of its “blasphemy.”

There are plenty of cynics that will tell you that the story-well has run dry, that if there ever were original stories, they have long since been told, and re-told, and re-told. Thor is more fodder for this defeatist reading of a much more complicated concept. It certainly does seem like we can’t think of anything to make a movie about that a disciple, or Shakespeare (or both), haven’t already written down. To turn a superhero into a metaphor for Jesus, to turn a superhero that is supposed to be a god into a metaphor for Jesus, is just down right uninventive.

It’s not that there are no new stories to tell, but that we all have the same essential story to tell. Redemption. Tragedy. Orgasm. Power. Catharsis. These concepts will always be present in fiction. They are essential human concerns that we can all relate to. We can’t all relate to the story of Christ. Not every strong, male character is Jesus. Not every story is about reincarnation.

I fought hard to like this movie (I’m the fanboy from earlier who already has his Captain America tickets) and I was pretty successful. I had a good time, and I will definitely see this movie again when it’s released. But the end of the movie, falling down on the sword of a well-worn climax, made it really, really difficult to grin and bear. Best of luck to you.

(Jesus probably does look a lot like Chris Hemsworth, though. There are gyms in heaven. )

[1] Especially in trailers: “ ‘This Movie Is AWESOME’ –”. When I say “film critics,” I really just mean “people who review movies in a forum where other people can read and respond to their writings.”

[2] Turns out Asgard is a lot more Coruscant then Helm’s Deep, anyway.

[3] “Event” is a comic term. The first “event,” The Secret Wars, was motivated by a toy company that owned the rights to all the marvel characters; the company wanted a story that tied all the Marvel characters together, so they could market as many of their toys as possible with the release of the comic. Now once or twice a year all of the marvel super heroes come together to fight each other or someone else over something that is supposedly going to change the way we think about comics forever. It usually doesn’t.

[4] Fans of Marvel Comics will already know what I mean by this, but for the uninitiated: the Avengers need a larger then life villain. It would be too easy for Captain America to take out Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, but if you introduce too many random super-powered villains too quickly it becomes unbelievable. Loki is the Avengers original enemy (look it up), and has continued that role in multiple modern reincarnations of their origin story, because he’s capable of manipulating and challenging the Avengers (kind of a brain versus brawn thing), and makes Thor’s place on the team seem less ridiculous. I mean, he has the power of a living God, why would he bother with Red Skulls and fat men in tights?

[5] I’m developing a little bit of a man crush on Gregg, who also wrote and directed the adaptation of Choke, and also wrote Zemeckis’ best film in recent memory, What Lies Beneath. And he was tweeting about Skrulls! 

[6] The exception being Tom Hiddelston’s scene with Anthony Hopkins. Hiddelston breaks through all the antiquated dialogue and connects with a real and understandable emotion. We believe his outrage and betrayal. We understand it. Far more then I can say about Thor’s selfish attitude or Odin’s stubbornness.

[7] Almost called her Princess Ali Babwah. From Disney’s Aladdin.

[8] Norse mythology details loads of different things that might happen to you after you die, but none of them involve being born again. That’s a different kind of mythology.