The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
If you had told me a few months ago that I’d be one of the few people defending Your Highness, I’d have... almost no reaction whatsoever. I thought the first Red Band trailer for the Danny McBride-starring, David Gordon Green-directed R-rated fantasy-stoner-comedy looked funny enough, but it also looked like the best bits may have all been crammed into that overly long trailer. I was lukewarm on the whole thing, maintaining an optimistic look forward but really not getting my hopes too high. So, had you told me I’d be one of the few defending it, my only surprise wouldn’t be that the movie needed defending but that so few would be taking up its banner. After all, a fantasy-stoner-comedy featuring Danny McBride, Justin Theroux, James Franco and Natalie Portman can’t be so bad as to actually piss people off, can it?
Well, as the 26% Rotten Tomatoes score shows, apparently it can. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a week to set the scene.
Every now and then, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, gets very excited about an upcoming film and decides to put on a special event for it. Most of the time this means preparing a novelty meal and drink menu for the movie, but sometimes it means putting on a bit of a show and hosting a Q&A with the filmmakers. So last week, the Drafthouse put together an epic fantasy triple feature programmed by the minds behind Your Highness. The night started with Albert Pyun’s 1982 flick The Sword and the Sorcerer, which fed into Your Highness, which was followed up by Peter Yates’ Krull (a personal childhood favorite). David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Justin Theroux were on hand to talk a bit between the movies, about why they chose to show these two films, what they meant to them growing up and how they influenced Your Highness.
It was a fun time and yet another reason I love the Alamo Drafthouse, but if I’m being perfectly honest, what Green, McBride and Theroux had to say about the other two fantasy films didn’t really impress me. Why? Because their love for Sword and the Sorcerer and Krull was the same love the 240-plus people in the audience had: a nostalgia-tinted view at a time in their lives when movies like those not only represented movie magic, but they were kind of taboo and risky to watch as a kid (well, not Krull; that movie’s tame). There were no deep revelations as to what made those movies great. It was the same “I was a kid and these movies had big, burly men with preposterous weapons fighting over who got to sleep with a scantily clad woman. IT WAS AMAZING!”
And there’s a reason that there was no deep revelation on their end. It’s because movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer aren’t actually that great. Sure, as a kid you love the boobs and the violence and the fantasy set pieces, but as an adult you can look past those and see that the acting is dreadful, the production design is goofy and the plot is abysmal. Don’t get it twisted, I’m a big fan of Krull. I wore out a VHS tape of it as a kid, and as an adult I have a framed UK quad poster of it hanging in my living room. I even happened to watch it with my wife a week before the Drafthouse event was even announced. But even I can admit it’s a boring movie with a charisma-less lead and a really, really stupid story (but man does it have a tremendous score and cinematography, and the Widow of the Web sequence still gives me the willies).
Now, I’m not saying that people today should grade Your Highness on a curve because the fantasy flicks of yesteryear are, in actuality, not very good movies, but I’m a little surprised that people are seriously annoyed by the movie -- that they paint its badness with a broad stroke, completely overlooking some seriously impressive elements of it. Even if there isn’t a single joke in the movie that makes you laugh, how can you not dig on the fantasy elements? The hand-snake battle in the pit is an inspired bit of writing and something I’ve never seen before in a movie. The three mothers given to the evil wizard are far more interesting than most bad-guy henchmen of any genre. Toby Jones’ genitalia-less squire, the minotaur, the merging of the two moons -- all of that stuff is surprisingly rad and more creative than I’d ever expect from a movie like this.
Of course, you can argue that Your Highness is a comedy first and a fantasy adventure second, and I wouldn’t dispute that argument, but I think the latter elements are so strong that they buoy the movie enough to prevent it from ever sinking into worthless territory. And yet the film’s haters gloss over those things with a dismissive, “Really, David Gordon Green, this is what you’re doing these days? Have you fallen this far?” reaction Well, if an indie director convincing a major studio to spend $50 million on a fantasy-stoner-comedy full of profanity and Minotaur penis is considered a step backwards, I’m baffled as to how one defines career success in Hollywood.
Yeah, I thought giving a handjob to a weird puppet creature-pedophile wasn’t very funny, and Danny McBride still isn’t my first choice to lead feature films, but you know what? That weird puppet creature-pedophile looked pretty awesome, and McBride was surrounded by the likes of Natalie Portman (as the sexiest ranger ever, I might add), James Franco, Justin Theroux, Toby Jones, Rasmus Hardiker and Damian Lewis. For everything in Your Highness that doesn’t work, there’s enough in there that’s at least worth talking about. That’s what defines the beloved fantasy movies of the ‘80s. As a whole, they’re far from flawless, but the mixture of their imperfections with their swing-for-the-fences commitment is what made them awesome. And if claiming a Minotaur penis as a trophy in a fantasy-stoner-comedy made by a major movie studio isn’t swinging-for-the-fences commitment, I don’t know what is.