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.
Vince Vaughn never worked as a stand-up comedian but as an actor who struck gold making people laugh he clearly has an affinity for those who tell jokes and shout down hecklers for a living. This side-splitting travelogue documents what happens when Vaughn puts together a comedy version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Instead of Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull proudly showing off their feats of skill you have Vaughn goofing around onstage with his buddies and four funnymen busting their butts to win over (occasionally hostile) audiences. And when they’re not trying to generate chuckles with bits about sex shopping and showers the comics must contend with life on the road—driving from city to city with Vaughn in a tour bus that doubles as a frat house on wheels and sharing hotel rooms too small for their fragile egos. At first though you wonder whether the film--and the tour for that matter--is just an excuse for Vaughn to get paid to have fun with Jon Favreau Justin Long Peter Billingsley and Keir O'Donnell in Saturday Night Live-ish skits (a spoof on Favreau’s roundtable gabfest Dinner for Five is money). Or visit places pivotal to his life and career such as the University of Notre Dame where he and Favreau became good pals while filming Rudy. But as the tour progresses Vaughn slowly but surely takes a backseat to the comedians who are trying desperately to make the most of the big break afforded them by their big-name benefactor. There’s no denying that Vaughn’s just as much a larger-than-life presence onstage as he is onscreen. Whether he’s getting his balls busted by Favreau or singing a duet with Dwight Yoakam Vaughn’s certainly comfortable working in front of a live audience. That said he knows his limitations. He wisely sticks to serving as the show’s emcee rather than pretending he’s the second coming of Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld. He’s also the face of the tour which means we get to see him in salesman mode trying to part the public from their entertainment dollars. You’re left with no doubt that Vaughn and the occasionally cranky fast-talking alpha males he plays are one and the same. As for the comics John Caparulo and Bret Ernst waste little time grabbing the spotlight. Fueled by nervous energy the foulmouthed Caparulo scores big laughs by machine-gun riffing on his very many shortcomings. Ernst’s “Guido jokes” are also made at his own expense and his hilarious recollection of roller staking as a kid ranks among the film’s most hilarious moments. It’s a tossup as to whether Caparulo and Ernst have the best rapport with audiences but both have bright futures ahead of them. Unfortunately Sebastian Maniscalco doesn’t project much in the way of personality and his neat-freak act just isn’t amusing. Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed is a one-trick pony. Yes there’s much humor to be found in his unsettling experiences as an Arab American—especially when he recalls being arrested—but he exhausts the topic so much that he really needs to find something else to take aim at. Anyone owning a YouTube digital camera could probably do just as good a job directing this documentary as Ari Sandel does. He takes a point-and-shoot approach to his subject--which is in contrast to Dane Cook’s stunt-filled series Tourgasm--but that doesn’t matter. This is a film that lives or dies in the editing room not on the road. As the film opens Vaughn naturally dominates the proceedings. And his skits with Favreau et al. are admittedly hysterical. He does quietly but noticeably fade into the background allowing the comics he hand-picked from L.A.’s Comedy Store their shot at glory. Sandel’s priority is to capture them in performance at their best and worst while revealing--through interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage--the trials and tribulations they face as unknowns who have yet out to set the comedy world on fire. To this end Sandel assembles a fun and intimate portrait of four men who during the course of one month bond over their desire to make people bust a gut laughing. And that’s never more evident when they hand out tickets to a show to Hurricane Katrina refugees who have set up camp in a park near Birmingham Ala. By the time the Wild West Comedy Show reaches its final destination of Chicago Vaughn seems exhausted but his compatriots have hit their stride. “We played 30 cities and we rocked all them ” Vaughn giddily declares. If Vaughn didn’t rock your city then the Wild West Comedy Show is definitely the next best thing to being there. Even better there’s no two-drink minimum.