Thor, even more than most movies based on a comic, has some tough going just to keep its cast from looking ridiculous. The facial hair alone is enough to remind you that Thor’s fellow Asgardians are not worth taking seriously, but it’s more than that: The titular hero is crown prince of a heavenly city where nearly everyone is always wearing armor, even just to hang around the living room. And by living room, I mean enormous stone vault.
Things get even more awkward when the fantastical is literally brought to Earth; Thor is cast out of Asgard for almost provoking a war between Asgard and their nemeses, the Frost Giants. Stripped of his powers and his hammer, Mjolnir, Thor is sent to Earth to learn modesty and show off his heavenly six pack.
To be sure, the script must have had some difficult decisions about what tone to strike, since a Norse god stuck on Earth is a ripe subject for fish-out-of-water laughs, but, like anything but the most single-minded comedies, the movie also needs to sell a dramatic line.
The humor is mined adequately, with many of the best laugh lines going to Natalie Portman as a scientist swept off her feet. But Thor’s inability to understand human customs is just a passing joke, and the only other big laughs come from Clark Gregg, whose delivery is often spot-on as the secretive government agent who’s seen it all and has the light ironic tone to show it.
It’s really in the drama where things get murky, though. On Earth, time is wasted trying to substantiate the idea that Asgard’s method of transporting people across “realms” is actually a wormhole, but the exposition on this point only reminds us how terribly unscientific Thor’s entire existence is. Thor explains that in Asgard magic and science “are one and the same,” but, nope, pretty much everything we see in Asgard looks like pure hocus pocus.
Similarly, Natalie Portman and her colleagues spend some time debating whether Thor is real, but their conversion from skeptical unbelievers to credulous champions is strangely brief. And — it’s so common in this sort of film that it almost pains me to bother pointing it out — the romance between Thor and his mortal lovely really only boils down to a meet cute in a tornado and a night at a bonfire that somehow result in deep mutual yearning.
Back in Asgard, there’s more questionable melodrama. Part of the problem is that tenuous exposition is constantly being used to keep things running by creating exceptions to principles that were only recently conveyed. What, exactly, can Heimdall observe, and why didn’t he see treachery coming? How many ways are there to get from Asgard to the land of the Frost Giants? What is Odinsleep, and, perhaps more importantly, why don’t mere mortals like us get to have a special name for our nappy time?
More troublesome, however, is that we don’t understand the movie’s villain, Loki. It’s an early alarm that his talent for lying is first revealed as a passing comment in a discussion between Thor’s comrades, a violation of the basic rule that a movie should show the audience a character’s personality rather than just telling them about it.
Moreover, we never learn what compelling psychological condition all of Loki’s lying reveals. Instead, other motives are developed — Loki is angry when he learns about a long-buried family secret, then acts as though he is making a play for power, but then finally wants to please his father. It’s all a little muddled, and he never quite becomes a cohesive character.
As for the more purely aesthetic front, it can’t be denied that much of Asgard is astoundingly lovely and the costumes minimize the absurdity. In an interesting and unusual choice, many establishing and master shots are canted, so the camera’s down is not the down of gravity. It’s an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t play particularly well here, since it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story. It might have been a more appropriate approach in a movie with Spiderman, who is often posed at odd angles from the ground.
In sum, this major studio film is not as well written or thought out as it might have been. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t even be the last this summer.