Thor (2011)

"A wise king never seeks out war. But he must always be ready for it." -- Odin (Anthony Hopkins)

In Iron Man 2‘s post-credits scene, we are treated to a brief snippet from Thor that shows S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) investigating an impact crater in the desert where Thor’s hammer Mjölnir has crashed into the earth. I was surprised when watching Thor again just now to see that this scene actually exists within Thor itself since to my knowledge this isn’t standard operating procedure — I can’t think of another MCU mid-credits or post-credits scene that is repeated later. Anyway, even though Marvel clearly didn’t do the work it would later so carefully do in constructing an original post-credits scene (a mid-credits scene was not present, FYI), it demonstrated they were in pretty deep in terms of wanting to build the universe and crisscross all the characters and storylines together.

To be honest, I had completely forgotten about this tease at the end of Iron Man 2 until I watched it prior to reviewing it, but once I saw it again, I did actually recall seeing it originally and not knowing what the hell it was supposed to mean. I had no idea Iron Man was a comic book character before they made the first Iron Man movie, and while I was aware of Thor’s existence as a figure in Norse mythology (an exercise during 10th grade English class many years ago informed me that the word “Thursday” is derived from “Thor’s Day”), I certainly didn’t know he was a comic book character. As a result, I’m almost positive that I did not watch Thor in a theater when it kicked off the summer movie season back in 2011. It’s one of only four MCU movies to not gross at least $200 million domestically, so I guess others weren’t chomping at the bit to see it either.

odin and thor look upon asgard

No, I watched it at home when my roommate decided to rent it. Years later, I can remember only a few things about this experience: 1) I didn’t care in the slightest about any of the stuff happening in outer space away from Earth, 2) The visual effects for all of the Asgard/space sequences were pretty bad and 3) What the hell was Natalie Portman doing in this movie? I wasn’t really into it. Watching it again (in 4K, no less) now that I can place the movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s much larger context has resulted in a more favorable impression. It’s by no means a great movie and is a notch below Iron Man in quality in my estimation, but it’s actually a lot more fun than I remembered to watch Thor’s fish-out-of-water exile on Earth. As for Asgard (i.e., “home”) and everything that happens there, it’s not nearly as bad as I remembered, even if the CGI looks expensive but not particularly good.

At the time, I was growing pretty weary of comic book movies and didn’t really want to invest in caring about the origins of yet another character when I assumed this whole comic book stuff was a fad that would eventually pass. After all, Twilight and all of those vampire movies came and went, right? Surely the masses would grow weary of superhero movies too. It was also hard to not be cynical about what a cash grab this all was (and still is). But give the then-recently-formed Marvel Studios and producer Kevin Feige (who’s more or less the showrunner/”movierunner” of the MCU) credit where credit is due: if no MCU existed at all, we would not care nearly as much about the origins of Thor. But since he is in so many Avengers movies in addition to two more Thor movies (and a third that’s on the way), it’s fun to go back and look at the Thor origin story having spent so much time with him.

casket of ancient winters

In that respect, the first Thor as a standalone film — or even just the first in the Thor series — is probably not as good as when viewed as a chapter in the ongoing MCU saga. But given that the MCU does in fact exist and I am watching and reviewing these movies in an attempt to rate and rank all of the movies in the MCU canon, it’s hard to view Thor as something self-contained like I did all those years ago. It’s simply hard to deny that, having now seen the MCU play out all the way through Avengers: Endgame, these characters have developed in a manner equivalent to the way vesting works. So if the Thor in 2019’s Endgame is the fully vested version of the character, the Thor in 2011’s Thor is the version that has not vested at all. With each subsequent MCU appearance, he achieves another round of vested audience interest.

So with that said, does Thor do its job well? Actually, yeah, I would argue that it does for the most part. We get a very Lord of the Rings-like prologue walking us through what is presumably a bastardized version of some Norse mythology: more than a thousand years ago, in 965 AD, the Frost Giants from the off-Earth realm of Jotunheim invade Norway in an attempt to conquer all nine worlds, of which Earth (otherwise known as Midgard) is one. Asgard is another, and it’s where Thor (Chris Hemsworth), his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) are from. The Asgardians, led by their king Odin, show up and help the Norwegians withstand the invasion in a battle that is an abbreviated version of the great battle from the 2015 Game of Thrones episode “Hardhome.” (Incidentally, it would certainly appear the Night King character was heavily influenced by the king of the Frost Giants, Laufey.)

odin arrives on jotunheim

The Frost Giants are defeated, and Odin even confiscates their power source — a small blue box that apparently is called the “Casket of Ancient Winters” for some reason — and takes it back with him. Much later, it’s time for Thor to ascend to the throne of Asgard. However, the coronation is interrupted when Odin senses that Frost Giants have infiltrated Asgard, even though this is supposed to be impossible. Once the threat is dealt with — unsurprisingly, the Frost Giants were trying to steal the power source back — Thor goes rogue and leads a handful of friends and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Jotunheim to seek revenge. It goes badly, and Odin eventually arrives — on horseback, which is a weird image considering he comes from another planet/world — to save the day and teleport everyone back to Asgard.

Once there, Odin banishes Thor to Earth, but also sends Mjölnir over — but not before enchanting it with a spell that ensures only someone worthy of the hammer can wield it from now on. For the next hour of the film, Thor is on Earth. My issue with Thor the first time around was that it just took too long to get to this point — by the time we finish with the first round of Asgardian stuff we are already about 30 minutes into the movie. At the time, it was hard to shake that this was really two movies, and that they were related to each other only tangentially at best. Watching it now, I find that I kind of like that about it. Although the scope of the entire story feels oddly small despite spanning three different worlds — Asgard, Jotunheim and Earth — the movie does work and is pretty fun even when it is merely going through the motions during its more predictable stretches.

mjölnir stuck in rock

One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, particularly during the sequences on Earth — I always get a kick out of the makeshift carnival that pops up around the Mjölnir impact crater, for example. No one can pick up or otherwise move the damn hammer — I guess being unworthy has its drawbacks — and when a truck ties a tow cable to it and starts to drive away, it breaks the truck. Of course, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson descend upon the scene soon thereafter and set up a quarantine zone around Mjölnir, as previewed in Iron Man 2‘s post-credits scene. When Thor shows up on the scene, he finds out he cannot pick up Mjölnir either, and is then taken prisoner. (It’s not like there’s anything else for Thor to do at this point.)

Something I had totally forgotten about is Jeremy Renner‘s uncredited cameo appearance as Clint Barton (i.e., Hawkeye), the guy poised to snipe Thor from above with his a bow and arrow that would later become Hawkeye’s trademark. I had assumed that, as with Scarlett Johansson, Renner was introduced in The Avengers. Nope; he’s actually introduced rather peripherally in Thor as part of the S.H.I.E.L.D organization. He’s given a pretty good line too as he communicates with Coulson about taking out Thor (presumably with a tranquilizer) as Thor continues kicking ass below him: “You better call it Coulson, ’cause I’m starting to root for this guy.” One of my complaints about Iron Man 2 in my review was that they didn’t really get much out of Johansson since she was almost deliberately underwritten, and the same more or less applies here.

loki chats with heimdall on the bifröst bridge

Renner at this point was a pretty recognizable (and respected) actor, having received a Best Actor nomination for The Hurt Locker in 2009 and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Town in 2010. Even though his cameo was uncredited in Thor (he receives very little screen time), it was still obvious he was appearing for a reason. As we later found out, he would figure prominently into the plot of The Avengers just a year later, as would Thor’s brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston. Loki, if I remember correctly, is the villain in The Avengers, so it’s interesting to track his journey from the beginning here in Thor. Remember how those Frost Giants infiltrated Asgard during Thor’s coronation? Turns out Loki secretly let them in. Remember how Thor was banished to Earth for trying to exact revenge on the Frost Giants in Jotunheim? Turns out Loki was counting on that happening as well.

The story is fairly predictable in that respect. I can’t remember now if I saw that coming or not when I originally saw the movie, but certainly if you know Loki later serves as the villain in The Avengers, it’s not hard to infer that he would likely be up to no good here as well. From a mythological standpoint, Loki is a fairly interesting character who bears a passing resemblance to Moses in terms of origin and upbringing. Loki, it turns out, is actually the biological son of Laufey (the Frost Giant king), and was adopted by Odin following the war in the prologue after Laufey abandons him as a baby. Odin partly adopts him to potentially use as a bargaining chip in the future for keeping the peace between Asgard and Jotunheim. Any similarities with Moses pretty much end there, at least in terms of how the story plays out in the film. (The Loki in actual Norse mythology may be somewhat different than what is presented here.)

thor and loki fight on the bifröst bridge

Moses is adopted as a baby by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as part of the ruling family alongside his (adoptive) brother Rameses, but he returns to the Israelite population to lead them in adulthood. (I’m using The Ten Commandments as my reference here, not the Bible itself.) What Loki does is pretty different. Upon being informed by Odin that he is really the son of Laufey, he travels to Jotunheim, informs Laufey he was the one that let the Frost Giants in, and tells him he will let them in again so Laufey can kill Odin and take the Casket of Ancient Winters back. Loki allows most of this to happen, but just before Laufey kills Odin (who is lying in some Asgardian form of hypersleep to prolong his life), Loki steps in and kills Laufey and tries to use the staged assassination attempt on Odin as justification for wiping out Jotunheim. In other words, Loki is intent on proving himself to Odin and his adoptive family, not his original one.

His motivation is a bit flawed, honestly — Loki should know that Odin wants peace with the Frost Giants more than he wants genocide. Then again, with Thor banished on Earth and Odin in hypersleep, Loki is now king and has no reason to believe anything will upset his plan. (I’m sure revenge on Laufey for abandoning him is also top of mind.) Anyway, Thor’s detour on Earth eventually ends and he comes back and stops Loki’s genocidal attempt to wipe out the Frost Giants. There is a final fight on what’s called the Bifröst Bridge (i.e., the thing that allows for travel between worlds) that, frankly, is highly reminiscent of the Rainbow Road track from Mario Kart, and when Thor attempts to destroy the bridge even if it means never seeing Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) again, Odin emerges from hypersleep to grab Thor before he falls to his death. Loki holds on to Thor before letting go when Odin rejects his attempts at approval. In the post-credits scene, we see that he’s still very much alive.

jane, darcy and erik try to find thor

The passages on Earth require the least amount of explanation and analysis. Unlike the stretches on Asgard, there isn’t much to untangle, really. Basically, the astrophysicist Jane, her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) await a disturbance in the sky based on Jane’s, er, scientific predictions, and then it happens. What Jane doesn’t count on is the disturbance delivering Thor via a wormhole. Portman does a good job with the role of Jane, balancing a scientific mind with childlike curiosity that reveals a vulnerability and lack of maturity. Dennings provides nice levity through one liners, and Skarsgård is a good straight man to round things out, and since he is Scandinavian, he is already familiar with the Thor of Norse mythology and serves as the much-needed skeptic of the crew. Overall, the characters are nicely balanced here and this in large part contributes to the scenes on Earth working pretty well.

The biggest drawback to the Earth sequences is that they feel pretty small. It’s pretty easy to tell that the tiny New Mexico town where most of these scenes take place is just a gigantic set. And since it’s also obvious that all of the Asgard and Jotunheim scenes are filmed in front of a green screen, the movie as a whole maybe isn’t as satisfying as it should be. At the helm for Thor was actor/director Kenneth Branagh, a British character actor probably best known to mainstream audiences for playing the flamboyant Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He had directed before, but certainly nothing with a budget that came anywhere close to approaching $150 million. (He’s best known for making movie adaptations of Shakespeare plays, actually.) In the end, Thor is a pretty decent movie that does work, but it maybe could have used some more polishing to pull everything together more tightly.

new mexico town under attack

To read about how Thor looks and sounds on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, check out the review over at Blu-ray.com. Keep in mind that although Thor was shot on 35mm film, it was finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI), likely because its many, many visual effects were created at 2K resolution. Therefore a true 4K resolution image of Thor will never exist and we will see diminishing returns on the image quality as the 2K image of the finished film is upscaled to 4K resolution (and, eventually, 8K resolution, 16K resolution, etc.).

Summary
Thor is another fun-but-flawed entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, possessing a stellar cast that makes do with a story that isn't the strongest.
Good
  • The Earth-set middle portion of the film works pretty well and is consistently fun
  • Natalie Portman has a lot of fun with her role and turns in a really good performance
  • The cast is pretty strong and they're all pretty game to work with someone like Kenneth Branagh
Bad
  • Anthony Hopkins's performance can be pretty hammy at times
  • The CGI looks like it cost a lot of money, but often it doesn't look all that great
  • Often feels like two movies in one, each with different tones
7
Good

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