Monday, May 16, 2011

Religious Reflections in iMax and 3D: Thor

Kathy and I were were hoping for a Battlefield Earth or Showgirls: something which should never have been put on celluloid, but which achieved a certain perverse glory through its shambling unabashed godawfulness.  We were afraid that what we would instead get a soulless Hollywood blockbuster created by committee, one which never took the sort of chances which would lead to the spectacular fun of a good bellyflop. What we got instead was a surprisingly thought-provoking film with an uncommonly nuanced, intelligent portrayal of one of my favorite gods.

This film is not without its flaws. Unlike Tron: LegacyThor was shot in 2D with 3D added later.  I found some shots dull and fuzzy - an issue which others have noted as well.  Natalie Portman was wasted in the non-role of Jane Foster, the scientist who discovers that Bifrost is actually a wormhole.  Patrick Doyle's soundtrack is mostly generic. The Warriors Three are given little to do, save adding more characters to an already overloaded cast. Fight scenes are too often staged ala Zack Snyder, with headache-inducing fast-fast-fast-SLOOOOOW-fast-fast-fast-fast-fast cinematography.  But after the closing credits (and the Easter egg hidden at the end), I felt it worth the price of two tickets and a bucket of popcorn.

The visuals lived up to the promise of the trailers: Chris Hemsworth is not the only eye candy Thor has to offer. Asgard and Jotunheim looked like they had been lifted from the fervent imagination of Jack Kirby, as did the... memorable... costumes and monsters. One almost expected to see "Kirby Crackle" as energy bolts flew fast and furious in various combats.  Branagh wisely contrasted the glories of the other Worlds and their dwellers with flat, bleak utterly unremarkable New Mexico scenery for the Midgard scenes.  It helps keep viewers grounded through a rather convoluted plot involving more schemes and secrets than a whole season of Real Housewives of New Jersey.

For much of the film Thor behaves like a hot-tempered grunting fratboy - not implausible, given his position as heir to Odin's throne. (Hemsworth's occasional overacting can be forgiven: he shares the big screen with Anthony Hopkins, one of the most well-smoked hams in Britannia's bulging larder).  His subsequent loss of powers and transformation in the face of trials is the stuff of many legends and coming-of-age tales. It's a story told in broad strokes, and Hemsworth tells it beautifully - or at least looks beautiful telling it. But chiseled abs and baby blue eyes are not (quite) enough to make a movie: Thor's story is told with the aid of a Marvel-ously large supporting cast.

Among them Colm Feore's Laufey is a suitably monstrous Frost Giant King, with a spiteful sneer worthy of roid-raging Vincent Price. (Alas, his troops look more like Frost Latex Makeup Creations, combined  with New Improved CGI Swarm Algorithms).  Idris Elba was a controversial casting choice in some quarters, not all of them dentally and socially challenged.  His performance as Heimdall should silence any critics. Elba captures a suitably godly nobility and hints at the ineffable power and wisdom one would expect from the greatest watchman in the Nine Worlds. But perhaps the biggest news is that a Marvel movie manages to bring us a decent antagonist.

The Loki of Marvel Comics often evokes Adam West's Batman villains: a "god" who is as frightening as Egghead or Mr. Freeze. Given the cinematic butchering of Doctor Doom and Venom, we could hardly expect much from Loki's movie debut.  But Tom Hiddleston's Loki is complex, charismatic and thoroughly unpredictable. Hiddleston draws inspiration from his Shakespearean acting experience, giving us a character inspired by Cassius in Julius Caesar and the bastard Edmund of King Lear. His Loki thinks he is more qualified to rule Asgard than brother Thor, and not without reason: he is certainly more subtle, devious and politically skilled.  (He generally dresses better as well and even manages - almost - to pull off the notoriously silly Loki helmet).

The brother/frenemy relationship between Hemsworth and Hiddleston is far more interesting than the more common portrayals of Loki as Asgard's sworn enemy: instead of a melodramatic blackguard, we get a conflicted and canny antihero. The forces which push him and Asgard into conflict take on the air, if not necessarily the depth, of Greek tragedy. This vision of the Lord of Misrule is less primal and terrifying than Heath Ledger's Joker, but perhaps it will be no less resonant. Over the past decade or so heathenry has grown increasingly interested in (or at least tolerant of) Loki.  Hiddleston's vision may well provide Himself with further inroads into the community: as a bit of cosmic irony, Elba's portrayal will almost certainly inspire renewed interest in Ol' Flamehair's sworn archenemy, Heimdall.

(Some of you may think it silly that one might draw spiritual inspiration from a comic book movie. Consider the debt which modern Wicca owes to J.R.R. Tolkien, to Victorian Romanticism, and to the Ossianic poets of the 18th century. If the muses spoke to Greek worshippers through poetry and drama, why wouldn't they reach out to today's worshippers through movies and comic books? The line between fiction and prophecy can be a fine one: today's folk hero may be tomorrow's demigod and today's historical event can become tomorrow's edifying myth).