Thor: The Best Superhero Movie Since The Dark Knight

Remember the winter of 2008? When the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight made it seem like superhero movies were finally becoming a serious genre in their own right?

The past few years, that's felt like a promise unfulfilled. The good news is, Thor is the first big-budget movie since The Dark Knight to use the trappings of superheroes to tell a real story. Thor treats the superhero film like a full-fledged genre, capable of launching many different stories.

Thor doesn't just look and feel different than other superhero movies, thanks to the "Norse Gods in space" thing. It has a different spin on the common themes of the genre. Instead of "with great power comes great responsibility," Thor shows that sometimes, from the act of taking responsibility comes great power.

Spoilers ahead...

Thor is the story of two brothers, Thor and Loki. They're both sort of Norse gods, and sort of aliens, and it's all very mythy-wythy wibbly wobbly. Thor and Loki are the children of the Allfather, Odin, whose great achievement is that he kicked the asses of the Frost Giants in Jotunheim, and took away the source of their frosty power. Since then, Asgard has had an uneasy truce with Jotunheim, but all that is about to change.

Both Thor and Loki start out the movie as immature godlings, living in their father's shadow and eager to prove themselves. And they go about trying to prove their worth in different ways: Loki by being a sneaky fucker, Thor by launching an assault on the Frost Giants. And both Thor and Loki wind up losing their identities, and getting cast out into the wilderness, in very different ways. One of them becomes the hero of the movie and the other the villain, but they both go on a similar voyage.

Thor's arc in the movie is fairly predictable, but it's done so well that you don't care. He's banished to Earth, stripped of his godly powers (and his shirt, a lot of the time) and forced to live among puny humans. It's obvious to the audience, if not to Thor himself, that this experience is meant to teach him a lesson in humility and restraint.

Meanwhile, Loki's arc is a lot more subtle and surprising – without giving too much away, Loki goes through just as many changes as Thor, and faces just as much heartbreak. Loki is not your standard supervillain who hatches a cunning scheme and spends the entire movie implementing it. He's a living, breathing character who makes mistakes and loses his way, only to fall into greater error as a result.

I'm not sure what's more impressive: the fact that Thor takes the somewhat cliched story of the "hero who's humbled and has to prove himself" and makes it feel fresh and emotionally true; or the fact that Thor manages to create a villain who's as captivating, and nearly as sympathetic, as the hero.

That it all works so well is thanks in large part to Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who manage to make their characters feel fully lived in. Even when Hemsworth is playing up Thor's obnoxious impulsiveness, he's always likable and comfortable in his own skin. Hiddleston, meanwhile, makes brooding and second-guessing into an art form, and you can see both hidden emotions and secret plans running through his mind every second.

The other good news is, Thor is funny as shit. The supporting cast totally clicks, especially Kat Dennings as Darcy, the slackery assistant to Natalie Portman's astrophysicist, Jane Foster. Several of Darcy's lines from the film have already found their way into my repertoire of catch phrases since watching it. Also great: Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig, Jane Foster's mentor who was raised with the stories of the Norse gods and is weirded out by meeting someone who claims to be one. (Especially when he and Thor go drinking.)

Meanwhile, Thor's Asgardian friends, who are goofy in the comics, manage to be just as goofy here without spilling over into camp. The Warriors Three are pretty true to the comics, including Volstagg's Obelix-sized appetite for both food and battle. (Great motto: "Don't mistake my appetite for apathy!") And Jaimie Alexander (Jessy from Kyle XY!) is the perfect warrior princess type.

She's not as funny as a lot of the rest of the supporting cast, but Natalie Portman is also great as Jane, the scientist who keeps running Thor over with her RV. She has two tricky tasks to perform in the film: make the scientific underpinnings of Thor's cosmic mythos seem plausible (thanks to an Einstein-Rosen Bridge), and sell us on a romance between Thor and Jane. Portman gets a lot of credit for the fact that neither thing feels too much like an afterthought.

If the cast has a weak link, it's probably Anthony Hopkins, who seems a bit disconnected at times. But he has a few nice moments where he seems to connect with his costars, and he's way better than he's been in other recent films. Hopkins is sort of the wise but touchy presence at the centre of a maelstrom of daddy issues, and he's absolutely fine in that role.

Edited to add: The only other quibble I had is that the film's 3D conversion feels completely pointless. See this film in 2D if you can.

Whether you're as excited by Thor as I was depends, probably, on how much tolerance you have for people in funny costumes standing around making big God Talk. And whether you have any problem with a film that lurches back and forth between the overblown Yea Forsooth-land and an irony-laden, fairly naturalistic version of the real world. (Don't worry, nobody actually says "Forsooth" in this movie.) I have no problem with either thing, and even if I did, I think the film pulls both things off better than you might expect.

And the fact that the film is sincere about both both worlds allows it to pull off the best trick of all: Making us feel the culture clash of Thor trapped among mortals, from both sides. You see, plainly enough, that Thor doesn't belong among us, and he's easily mistaken for a crazy person t first. He doesn't understand our ways (he thinks he can ride around on a dog or cat) but also he's too damned godly. His huge, ridiculously cut torso moves among us mortals, and you can tell at a glance that he's never had to make the million compromises the rest of us have to make to survive.

Most superhero movies are about the proper use of power, and Thor is no exception - except that in Thor's case, he's not just being groomed to be a hero, but to be a king. And one of the themes running through the movie is that of statecraft and the necessity of war. Should Asgard try to keep its truce with those pesky Frost Giants, who keep testing the Asgardians' resolve, or should they take the first opportunity to wipe those cold bastards off the face of Yggdrasil?

The question of what to do about the Frost Giants has no easy answer, any more than the question of what we humans should do with the depowered god in midst does. Thor is only worthy of regaining his power when he starts to understand that a king is more than a warrior - a king is a protector, among other things. And sometimes, war is the only way to protect people - but not always. (The difference between warrior and king, fortuitously, seems to be at the centre of HBO's Game of Thrones right about now as well.)

Just like the first Iron Man, Thor is a political allegory that you can read a bunch of different ways, but you could definitely read a strong anti-war message into it. Loki learns the opposite lesson from Thor, for reasons that make total sense, and you can't even say for sure that either one of them is completely right or wrong.

But the whole thing is so good-natured, and so fundamentally optimistic, that you can't dwell on the story's darker or edgier implications for too long. That's the other thing that's great about Thor - it's a film that takes its main characters seriously, but not itself. All of a sudden, the world of colourful costumes and epic battles feels new and exciting again.

Republished from io9

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