A story of a man and his hammer: My review of Thor

I’ve been looking forward to Marvel’s adaptation of their Thor character for a while now, ever since it was announced that Kenneth Branagh would be directing. I thought right off the bat that Marvel had made a wise choice, and I’m happy to see that choice was justified. I had a shaky moment or two when I actually saw the first images and trailers from the film, as to say that they looked like something a film student would do would be an insult to film students everywhere.

But now I’ve seen it. And it is wonderful.

Here’s the saga: Thor is the son of Odin. They are both part of an ancient race of extra-dimensional creatures that were once worshipped as gods (though Branagh goes out of his way to ensure that the “g” word is barely mentioned here, in deference to our hillbilly cousins to the south) on Earth. Thor is the greatest warrior of his race. He’s also a bit of a douche. And so his father strips him of his powers, and banishes him to Earth. Once there he is found, and flirted with, by Natalie Portman. Eyelashes are batted. Adventures ensue.

Things I loved: 

The script:  It’s also a tight script, and it’s one that makes Thor that rare superhero movie that has a better origin for its lead character than the actual comics ever did. The script is a combination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original Journey Into Mystery stories, J. Michael Strazynski’s recent run on Thor, and Mark Millar’s work on the character in Marvel’s Ultimates line, and to my mind should pretty much be the definitive origin for the character going forward. In addition, the dialogue really set the tone here, and walks a fine balance between simple fun, and straight camp. The script also understands that it’s not necessarily Thor and the Asgardians that people want to see, it’s Thor and the Asgardians interacting with people from Earth. It’s your classic Stranger In A Strange Land scenario. That’s what’s always worked best in the comics, and it’s a big part of why this works as well as it does.

The acting: Chris Hemsworth is a star. You might not know it yet, but he sure as hell sure does. His portrayal of Thor has all of the intensity you would expect from a great warrior, but also has a sincere humility and charm that basically makes the film. Like Robert Downey in Iron Man, it’s Hemsworth’s performance here that is going to be what allows non-superhero fans to truly enjoy this movie. Fantastic choice, and I for one can’t wait to see how he interacts with Downey and Chris Evans in The Avengers next year.

Not that this is a one person cast. While I still think the role of Jane Foster was wasted on someone as talented as Natalie Portman, she still did a fine job here. And Anthony Hopkin’s Odin really captured the idea of an old and tired god, who wants nothing more than to hand the reigns of power to his son. But it’s Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Thor’s kind of evil but not really evil but still pretty evil brother Loki that is the other real star of this show. He mixes the perfect blend of mischievousness and anarchy for the character, and I think Marvel is right to feature him as the lead villain in the Avengers next year.

The direction: Branagh was the perfect choice for this, as he’s a director that not only understands father-son drama VERY well, but also understands how important character is to whatever story you’re telling. This entire movie is crafted around character. It’s character that moves every plot point forward, and even minor characters are full realized under Branagh’s direction.

Almost everything else: This movie really captures the wonder of Asgard. This is a true land of the gods. This is also Marvel raising the bar. This is still only  done 3 movies now on their own, but it’s the first one that really moves out of the mostly light sci-fi world they’re been playing in, and pushes into full genre storytelling. And it’s effortless. Like the original 1960s Marvel Universe, you truly believe that the same world that has gamma monsters and futuristic battle suits would also have travellers from another dimension.

What I didn’t like:

I’m not sure if it was the fact that Branagh has never really done this type of movie before, or Marvel’s legendary frugality, but the CG isn’t exactly going to light anybody on fire. I’ve seen a lot worse, but rarely in a movie this good. Although this is a story and character-driven film, it’s also one with a LOT of CG, and so the poor effects are quite noticeable. The problem with movies like Avatar setting the special effects bar as high as they do, is that if you hope to hit that bar, you need to spend $300 million. Marvel did not, and so the effects aren’t great. That is a SMALL price to pay, and is a relatively tiny gripe.

In short, Thor is the perfect superhero movie. It captures a healthy mix of camp, adventure, and action. And it’s fun. So much fun in fact, that  I will pay it the highest compliment I can: I want a sequel.

Rating: A

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 47: Marvel Comics – Iron Man, Luke Cage, Longshot, Marvel Boy

Iron Man – The Five Nightmares, World’s Most Wanted Books 1 & 2, Stark Disassembled, Stark Resilient Book 1 and 2

Iron Man is the next contestant in what’s become my regular “Marvel Characters I Actually Don’t Give A Crap About” column. For those of who haven’t seen the movie, here’s Iron Man: He’s smart. He’s rich. He got shot/stabbed/punched in the heart, and invented armour to help him survive. So since the wealth and the supermodels weren’t enough, he now used that armour to turn himself into more of a pretentious douche than he already was.

My problem with Iron Man is simple. He has no motivation. He’s rich beyond belief, is one of the smartest people on earth, and could invent his way out of pretty much any problem that comes his way? So why dress up like a drunken Tinman and fight crime? It’s not something Marvel has ever answered properly, but the beauty of Matt Fractio’sn recent run on the character is that he doesn’t even try. Fraction’s Iron Man isn’t recently motivated by altruism so much as self-interest. He wants to save the world, but he doesn’t really care about the citizens of those world. He’d never admit it though. For him, it’s being able to solve problems that is his motivation. This is a refreshing take on the character, but it’s one that I doubt has much left in the bank. Fraction’s run is a decent, well-crafted thrill-ride, and Salvador Larocca has convinced me that he’s one of the preeminent pencillers in the superhero genre today. Good, modern-day take on the character.

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Iron Man – Extremis

Before Fraction’s recent run on Iron Man, Marvel hired noted comic book legend and all-around mad god Warren Ellis to attempt to spruce the character up a bit. He succeeded from a superficial standpoint with the Extremis storyline. In order to combat a new type of villain, Tony Stark injects himself with an enhancement organism called Extremis. It gives him new powers, a new lease on life, blah blah blah. Blah. This IS an entertaining story. It really is. And every panel by Adi Granov is pin-up worthy. But like most of Ellis’ mainstream superhero work, it comes across as written by someone who really hates superhero comics, as well as by someone who hasn’t read a Marvel comic in decades. Although I enjoyed the story for what it is, there isn’t a single action taken by Tony Stark here that fits into what we know of his history and character. This is a man who has literally fought gods with his bare hands, and we’re to believe that he would inject himself with a virus that could possibly kill him just because he had a tough time in a fight? And not call the rest of the Avengers?  As a stand-alone, this works. As a regular part of Marvel continuity, not so much.

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Luke Cage – Noir

I usually HATE this kind of story.  HATE it. This was Marvel’s recent attempt to capitalize on the recent interest in noir and crime comics. And so instead of creating new and interesting characters to play with, they took their old standbys, and dropped them into a James M. Cain novel. It shouldn’t have worked. Actually, it didn’t. For the most part, these were silly, forced contrivances that weren’t any better than the usual Marvel fare. Except for one. Except for Luke Cage.

I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Luke Cage was created as a response to 1970′s blaxploitation movies, which share more than a passing similarity to some of the lighter noir fare. And so Cage not only works as a 1940′s muscle-for-hire, the character thrives on it. This won’t be competing with Brubaker’s Criminal or Azzarello’s 100 Bullets any time soon, but it’s much subtler approach to this type of story than I would have given Marvel credit for in this day and age.

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Longshot – Longshot

This was a bizarre little mini-series by Anne Nocenti and Arthur Adams that snuck under Marvel’s radar in the mid 1980s. It had enough goof and charm that the character has been used intermittently ever since, most often in some X-Capacity or another. I’ve been a big fan of Nocenti’s writing in the past, so I was a little surprised to find that I found this almost unreadable. Longshot is your typical “stranger in a strange land” scenario, with the lead character being an escapee from a hell-dimension that is trying to make a go of it on Earth, and runs into a few of Marvel’s more colourful characters while doing so. While the premise seems sound, the execution is so poorly paced, with such goofy characterization, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Everything moves at a breakneck pace, with Longshot getting into scrape after scrape with almost no effort to portray him as anything more than a fun-loving, kind-hearted chaos agent. That’s fine, but it also doesn’t stand up to repeated reading. And although Arthur Adams is one of the finest superhero artists of his generation, his art alone isn’t compelling enough to get me to keep this book.

CULL

Marvel Boy – Marvel Boy

About 10 years ago, Grant Morrison had a brief tenure at Marvel which he spent trying to whole heartedly destroy the X-Men. In the middle of that, he took the time to write Marvel Boy, an interesting little mini-series about an alien soldier who has been stranded on earth. I’ve been very tough on Morrison on this blog (and will continue to be so), but I remember this series fondly. So I was a little surprised to see that it’s as guilty of the usual shoddy storytelling his comics usually offer. If you read a lot of reviews about Morrison’s work, the following observation often comes up: Great concept guy, poor storyteller. And while it’s redundant to go back to that well, it’s really the best way to describe him. I would take it a step further. He’s a brilliant concept guy. Just freakin’ brilliant. The sheer depth of characters, concepts, and realities the man comes up with on a daily basis is astounding. And Marvel Boy is no exception. Morrison throws out so many expansions on the Kree (Aforementioned alien race) Mythology, that it would take Marvel a year to fully capitalize on them. Not to mention Dr. Midas, a truly great Marvel villain in search of a truly great story. But then you get to the other side of Morrison. The side who can’t seem to tell a simple story without adding more exposition than a U. N. Resolution about the evils of exposition.  That side is in full force here. And so what starts as a taut thriller, ends up as an incomprehensible mess. I know I’m spending a lot of time talking about a series that I’m culling, but I’ve taken a lot of shots at Morrison without really explaining why.

The man seems to be incapable of telling a coherent multi-issue story. The man loses track of characters and plot lines like I lose my glasses. It’s not that bad in something like Marvel Boy, but extremely noticeable in something like Final Crisis, a story so bad it makes Marvel Boy look like Middlemarch. There are comics he’s written I enjoy (All-Star Superman, and…well…I guess just All-Star Superman then), but they are too few and too far between considering his status as the most popular comic writer alive today. And he is. People love him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why.

CULL

Next up: Moon Knight!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 34: Still. More. Avengers. Sigh…

I’m about as sick of talking about the Avengers as Charlie Sheen is of being sane. But an unanticipated result of Brian Bendis’ commercial success on Avengers was the spin-off book. Or I should say spin-off books. Lots and lots of books. I should say that although this period had a lot of spin-offs, for the most part they felt like natural, organic parts to the larger story that Marvel was telling at the time. I happen to like this period (Civil War/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign) of Marvel’s history, as I felt that it flowed together quite well, and that everything served a larger purpose.

Breasts. Evil, evil breasts.

Mighty Avengers – The Ultron Initiative, Venom Bomb, Secret Invasion Book 1 and 2

This was also written by Bendis, and was a direct result of the events that took place in Marvel’s Civil War cross over. At this point in the storyline, this team was the “official” Avengers team, and basically filled the more “traditional” Avengers role: They only took care of planetary threats, were sanctioned by the government, etc. This book was a little bigger, a little more epic than the New Avengers book. It also attempted to break some new stars, specifically Ms. Marvel and Ares. I think it succeeded with the latter, but maybe not as much with the former. This book started with a bang. The Ultron arc is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It’s a big-time, world is about to end, Avengers story, and with incredible art by Frank “I can create better breasts than God” Cho, and it stands up well as one of the better self-contained Avengers stories of the past few years. The Venom story is also good, but gets a little bogged down with some of the subplots of what’s happening with the other Avengers team. After that, the book becomes just another Brian Bendis Avengers book, and it loses a lot of the scope and wide-screen adventure that the first two arcs had. All in all it’s a good superhero book, and the first arc in particular is a barn burner.

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Eeeevil. So very evil.

Dark Avengers – Assemble, Molecule Man, Siege

If Mighty Avengers was a response to Civil War, then Dark Avengers was a response to the Secret Invasion storyline. Quickly then: The supervillain formerly known as the Green Goblin has somehow become in charge of America’s security. As such, he leads a new team that he calls “Avengers”. In actuality, the new team is composed of criminals, posing as popular heroes (Moonstone as Ms. Marvel, Bullseye as Hawkeye, Venom as Spider-Man), as well as Ares and the Sentry, and of course Norman himself. I would have thought that the fans would have been up in arms over this, but for the most part people embraced this, and so did I. I don’t think this would have worked so well without the years of set up that Bendis had prepared us with beforehand, but by the time this storyline came out it felt as a very organic part to the epic that Bendis was crafting. Even though the team is composed of nothing but villains, Bendis still makes you care about them, if by care you mean ” I REALLY can’t wait until someone comes along and kicks their ass”. By this point Mike Deodato had evolved into one of the better superhero artists on the market, and his work here is exemplary.

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Because training child soldiers is always a good idea.

Avengers: The Initiative – Basic Training, Killed In Action, Secret Invasion, Disassembled

Yep, another spinoff, this one coming out of Civil War. So now every hero has to “register” with the government, and The Initiative the government’s way of training all these new heroes. This was writer Dan Slott’s first big book, and he did a nice job with it. He put familiar faces like Tigra, Hank Pym, and Justice in as the trainers, and then threw a combination of new and old (but still not well-known) characters in as the students. When I started rereading this, I think I thought I would be getting rid of these. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoy this book, mostly for its engaging character development. Slott is pulling out all the stops in trying to get us to love these new characters, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, the book is not without its problems. Like his previous work on She-Hulk, the book did start to get bogged down with sub-plots. Because so much was happening in the Marvel Universe at the time, it feels as if this book was being pulled in too many directions at times. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable read, if not entirely essential.

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Young Avengers – Sidekicks, Family Matters

This book started not long after the original New Avengers title started, and shares the bleak “Our heroes are gone, what will we do” vibe that Bendis’ book did for a time. The premise is that a group of young heroes with costumes and code names reminiscent to Avengers of the past is patrolling the city, and Jessica Jones (formerly of Alias fame) is trying to get to the bottom of it. And so are Captain America and Iron Man.

This is a very good teen superhero book. It’s more superhero than teen, but it’s still quite good, and easily the equal (if not better) than DC’s recent Teen Titans books. The question is this: Why would trained, experienced combat fighters like Iron Man and Captain America let untrained children dress up and fight crime. The answer: They wouldn’t. Which of course leads to conflict, which is something that teen superhero books often lack. What is forgotten is that no matter how powerful these people are, they’re still kids, and should act like them. I don’t mean have scenes with them making out with each other, or playing X-Box all the time. YA avoids these clichés (thankfully), but it does show them acting the way teens do: erratically, but trying to do the right thing. Allen Heinberg and Jim Cheung did a beautiful job with this series, and it’s nice to see that they’re currently in the middle of another one with the same characters.

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Next up: NOT AVENGERS! YAY!