Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Chris provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.
The Film According to John:
Kenneth Branagh, the director of "Thor," the 2011 movie version of the Marvel comics character The Mighty Thor, seems to have been trying to inject as much epic Shakespearean tragedy into the story of Thor and his family as he could fit in; however, it looks as though he'd rather have been directing "King Lear" than this hit-and-miss affair. I mean, Branagh did exceptionally well with "Henry V," "Much Ado about Nothing," "Hamlet," and "As You Like It"; but Marvel ain't the Bard, no matter how you dress it.
Here's the thing: For me, the best superhero movies have depended on their lead actors for success. I think of Christopher Reeve as Superman, Christian Bale as Batman, and Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man in particular. These are fine actors who project charisma--personality, color--in the roles, actors who make us care about their characters. As Thor we have Chris Hemsworth, who looks terrific in the part but projects little notable personality; at least not while so much is going on around him that he's barely noticeable.
The story begins in Asgard, the principal country of the Norse gods, ruled by the head god Odin (Anthony Hopkins), his son Thor (Hemsworth), god of thunder; and his adopted son Loki (Tom Hiddleston), god of whatever. After apparently thousands of years of serenity in the family, things break apart when Thor takes it upon himself to avenge an act aggression by a race called the Frost Giants, thereby incurring the wrath of his father, who banishes him to Earth (the horror, the horror) and, worse, takes his all-purpose, all-powerful boomerang hammer away from him. On Earth, Thor meets a beautiful scientist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an older scientist, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and their assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and they get into an adventure involving the duplicitous Loki and his evil intentions. Along the way, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D. inevitably shows up to remind us the movie is another prelude to "The Avengers," joining "The Incredible Hulk," "Iron Man," and "Captain America" in the lineup.
OK, so what did I like or not like besides my not finding Mr. Hemsworth the most-compelling superhero I've ever seen? Well, let's start with the character Hemsworth is stuck with. Thor has been a vain, greedy, pampered, pompous, arrogant, headstrong, reckless god for, well, almost forever, yet not more than a few minutes after he meets the lovely Ms. Foster does he do an instant about-face and become a courteous, polite, affable Mr. Nice Guy. Go figure. Apparently, Ms. Foster has seriously beneficial effects on people (and gods).
Speaking of Ms. Foster, or Dr. Foster since she has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, why must every female scientist in an action movies always be young and beautiful? Are there no middle-aged female scientists of modest appearance in the world? In any case, poor Natalie Portman gets virtually nothing to do in the film but look lost and admire Thor's physique. There is little or no spark between her and Thor in spite of what the film wants us to believe.
Sir Anthony Hopkins makes an appropriate god Odin, especially in the absence of Sir Laurence Olivier, now deceased, and Liam Neeson, occupied with Zeus in "Clash of the Titans." Like Hemsworth, Hopkins looks good in his regal costumes but gets little to do beyond fall into a stupor now and then.
The real scene-stealer is Tom Hiddleston's Loki. Of course, this is unfair, as the villain in any action movie usually has the best and most memorable part. In Scandinavian mythology Loki was a trickster god, often depicted as merely mischievous, sometimes more nefarious as he is here. I look forward to more of this character as "The Avengers" comes around.
Jumping back and forth between the worlds of Asgard and Earth, and trying to deal with two sets of characters (on Earth the aforementioned scientists and on Asgard, Thor's good buddies, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three), doesn't make for the smoothest forward plot momentum, and audiences are apt to appreciate one place and its inhabitants more than the other. Certainly, Asgard is more imposing compared to the intentionally drab little New Mexico town we find on Earth. The trouble is that nothing much really happens in either location despite all the busyness going on; it's "Much Ado about Nothing" all over again.
Perhaps even worse, the action scenes in this action movie lack much audience involvement. There is a battle with the Frost Giants toward the beginning of the film that shows promise but ends quickly. There's a series of fistfights between Thor and about 800 S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that seem routine. There's a battle between Thor and a giant robot that is reminiscent of the final confrontation at the end of "Iron Man," with predictable results. I found the "Iron Man" fight a low point in that movie, and the one here is even less interesting. I dunno; maybe director Branagh just isn't very good at creating the tensions and excitement needed for action scenes, or maybe the script just didn't give him much to work with.
That said, I found the sets and costumes often stunning; the CGI special effects mostly effective; the occasional humor, surprisingly much of it coming from the assistant, Darcy, welcome, although there really isn't enough of it; and the movie's conclusion, as predictable as it was, satisfying.
Is "Thor" worth the effort? I liked it better the second time around on Blu-ray better than I did in a theater, but maybe that was because I could forget about the disjointed plot and lifeless characters and concentrate on the visuals. Eye candy makes up for a lot of shortcomings.
And, as usual, don't forget to wait for the epilogue, after the closing credits.
John's film rating: 5/10
The Film According to Chris:
In ye olden days, "Thor" would have been the latest Kevin Sorbo vehicle (with a shiny aluminum hammer and perhaps some Julian Sands) and we would have liked it. Oh, we would have loved it. By we, I mean not just comic book fans, but we Thor-o-philes, we Hammer-Heads, we who seek Journey into Mystery #83 as the Holy Grail and have a soft spot in our hearts for Beta Ray Bill and the Thunder Frog, and especially those of us who can spot our (official!) Thor replica hammers from our keyboards. Just as long as Sorbo was a better Thor than that doofus in the "Hulk" TV movie, we'd have watched the good scenes (scene?) every time it played on SyFy. And that would have been good enough.
Today, comic book movies have come a long way, baby. Several billion dollars in global box office changes expectations and, apparently, attracts top line talent. "Thor" features two Oscar winning actors plus a director with four Oscar nominations on his résumé, and even some of the folks who make brief cameos need to show their Academy credentials if they want a slice of the merchandising pie. Aspiring actors used to don spandex costumes just for the catering. And given the almost-guaranteed worldwide and ancillary returns of any major Marvel property (ex-Punisher), the $150 million budget is a conservative bet. The only question is whether "Thor" will be a hit or a mega-hit.
Thor has thundered through the Marvel Universe for nearly 50 years now, so it's no surprise that the creative committee behind the film plucks plot elements from multiple eras: a bit of Stan Lee/Jack Kirby (1960s), a little Walt Simonson (1980s), and a dose of the recent run by J. Michael Stracynzski (who shares story credit on the movie with Mark Protosevich) along with some new material. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the crown prince of Asgard (the home of the Norse gods) and, armed with his trusty Uru hammer Mjolnir, is the golden realm's greatest warrior. The Thunder God's might is unrivaled and his future reign guaranteed, and as a result, he has grown vain and arrogant. Disobeying the orders of his father and liege Odin (a bearded, one-eyed Anthony Hopkins), he initiates a war with the frost giants of Jotunheim. Odin is royally pissed, and strips Thor of both his power and his hammer, then exiles him to Midgard (better known to mere mortals as Earth) so that he may learn humility and once again be worthy of both his title and Mjolnir. It's a tough love approach.
Thor crash lands in the New Mexico desert where he meets a team of freelance astrophysicists, including the lovely Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has apparently switched professions from her comic book days as a nurse. Mjolnir also lands nearby and is quickly sequestered by the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (already ubiquitous in the Marvel movies). Thor doesn't know about it at first, though, and spends (far too much of) his time just hanging out with his new mortal buddies. The real action takes place back in Asgard where Odin falls into a deep sleep known appropriately enough as the Odinsleep (it's in the comic books) and Thor's jealous younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) takes over the throne, with his own inscrutable agenda.
Branagh* appears to have come to the two surprising conclusions about Marvel's Norse mythos: Thor is ridiculous, and Loki is a sympathetic character. On the latter front, Hiddleston delivers the film's best performance, imbuing the trickster god with conflicted and plausible pathos. He is Loki, and therefore destined to be a bad guy, but he doesn't embrace his fate eagerly, making him more of a tragic figure than a cardboard villain. It's even tempting to root for him at times.
(*Here I rely on the lazy shorthand of auteurism by attributing these aspects to the director – Branagh took the reins well after the script was under development.)
Meanwhile, Thor's excellent Midgard adventure is played mostly for laughs. Mortal he may be, but a giant prick he remains until Jane begins to work her Oscar-winning charms on the big lug. Thor's penance doesn't last long though, and it only takes a day or two for him to unlearn centuries of privilege and become a super nice guy. He is ready to reclaim Mjolnir just in time to fight off a giant robot. Giant robot? Yes, that's right, Odin built a giant electromagnetically powered robot because that's the Viking way, and Norse gods have a lot of spare time on their hands. It's in the comic books. (Comic geek technicality alert: It's an enchanted suit of armor, not really a robot but, actually, it's a giant robot.)
Unfortunately Thor's battle with the giant robot (The Destroyer) isn't particularly exciting (it's barely visible) and, for that matter, neither are any of the other action scenes in the film. "Thor" is further proof that shaky cam + nighttime scenes + 3D = a muddled mess. In 3D, many of the darker sequences (including the gray and slightly different kind of gray color palette of Jotunheim) look woefully underlit, if not outright indecipherable. Why even bother to take off the lens cap?
The CGI effects are equally lifeless, not to mention weightless, and lack any of the pop and joy of the gorgeous four-color source material. Why is the Rainbow Bridge so dingy? Asgard is a video game world full of steely scientific gewgaws and vast, drably decorated chambers; the visuals induce none of the sense of wonder and majesty crafted by the great Jack Kirby. The camera repeatedly returns to the same static, two-dimensional (even in 3D) setups meant only to showcase its posable action figures-to-be. "Thor" has long ago banished deep focus to a distant corner of Niflheim. I suspect it would be a more bearable experience in good old-fashioned 2D and its brighter image, but the movie is mostly an eyesore.
"Thor" has the feel of a film that never quite starts. Branagh and the studio's armada of writers (there are three screen-writing credits in addition to the two story credits) set up multiple story lines and characters, then keep setting them up until suddenly the film is just about over. The battle with the Destroyer should be a midpoint development rather than the penultimate set piece, but then again "Thor" is clearly marketed as a lead-in to "The Avengers" next year.
"Thor" aspires to be an epic, but settles for cool instead of awe. Yes, it's cool to see Hawkeye's teaser appearance. Yes, the stalwart Heimdall (Idris Elba) looks cool standing with his sword planted in the ground. Yes, Anthony Hopkins' beard and eye patch are kinda cool. But is cool all there is? We've come to expect more by now. If Branagh is shooting for the romantic comedy repartee that fuels the "Iron Man" franchise, he falls desperately short. There are a few good jokes along the way, and the lightly genial atmosphere is appealing, but don't look for too much wit or even a dollop of chemistry. The budding romance between Thor and Jane has all the heat of a long dead dwarf planet barely clinging to the outskirts of the solar system before it is inevitably cut loose to spiral out into the galaxy, alone, unloved, missed by nobody, just drifting, ever drifting through the void until the indifferent, ancient universe reaches a state of maximum entropy and all motion, life and even time itself grinds to a halt.
Were my expectations set too high for the big budget debut of THE GREATEST COMIC BOOK CHARACTER EVER? Perhaps. "Thor" is not completely charmless. Hemsworth has an electric smile and is the only cast member who looks comfortable in his armor, so there's some reason to look forward to his reprisal of the role in next summer's "Avengers" tent pole. Hiddleston's Loki is one of the more interesting Marvel Studio villains and should be menacing the Avengers as well. But "Thor," drawing from such rich and diverse source material, could have been and should have been so much more. Maybe it needed Kevin Sorbo after all. There's still a chance in the sequel. He'd make a good Red Norvell (it's in the comic books.)
And yes, there's a scene after the (lengthy) closing credits. I won't spoil it here, but if you really want to know ahead of time, just Google the cover of "Tales of Suspense" #80.
Chris's film rating: 4/10
The video quality has its ups and downs, but no more so than I recall from seeing the movie in a theater. Paramount use an MPEG-4/AVC codec and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce the film on Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio, 2.35:1. In the Asgard scenes, we get a soft golden glow that tends to make the place more ethereal but does little to clarify the definition except in close-ups. In the Earth scenes, the picture is better focused but a tad bright, glossy, and rough. Nevertheless, these are minor issues in a film that generally looks quite spectacular.
The sonics are the real star of the show, Paramount using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 to envelop us with aural effects. The 7.1 processing opens up all the surround channels and supplies a strong, deep bass. The sound rumbles, roars, crashes, and thunders around us, yet it's so well balanced that the midrange dialogue remains clear and easy to follow. Sit right in the middle of your sound system and revel in the experience.
It looks as though Paramount threw in everything but the kitchen sink for their "Limited 3D Edition," with a high-definition Blu-ray disc, a high-definition 3-D Blu-ray disc, a standard-definition DVD, and a digital copy. But wait: If you order in the next five minutes, we'll double the offer and throw in a complete set of Ginza knives!
Disc one contains the feature film in high def, plus a number of bonus items, all of them in high def. The first bonus is the compulsory director's commentary, so Kenneth Branagh gives it his best go. Next up is "Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant," a four-minute scene with Clark Gregg, Maxmiliano Hernandez, William Hurt, and Robert Downey, Jr. It's odd, and it's fun, pointing toward the future of the franchise.
Following those items is a series of seven featurettes on the making of the film: "From Asgard to Earth," twenty minutes on costume and production design; "Our Fearless Leader," three minutes on director Branagh; "Assembling the Troupe," five minutes on the stars; "Hammer Time," six minutes on Thor's remarkable hammer; "Creating Laufly," five minutes on the Frost Giants; "Music of the Gods," two minutes on composer Patrick Doyle's score; and "A Conversation," two minutes with Stan Lee. Then, we find "Road to The Avengers," three minutes on the coming together as a team of the Marvel superheros for "The Avengers" movie; and eleven deleted scenes totaling about twenty-four minutes, with optional director commentary.
Disc one concludes with sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the feature film in high-def 3D on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. In order to watch it, you'll need a special 3D television, a special 3D Blu-ray player, one or more sets of special 3D glasses, a special HDMI cable, and if you have a surround-sound system, probably a new receiver.
Disc three contains the feature film in standard-definition on a regular DVD and a digital copy download, also in standard def, for PC or Mac, the download code expiring September 13, 2012.
The three discs come housed in a special "Blu-ray 3D" non Eco-case with inner plastic sleeve, further enclosed in a handsomely embossed cardboard slipcover.
As you can probably tell, my colleague Chris Long is a much bigger comic-book fan than I am and knows a lot more about the world of Marvel characters than I do. So one can understand his being more underwhelmed by Thor's movie incarnation than I was. Still, even as an outsider I felt the movie version of "Thor" needed help. While it looks good, it feels fragmented, the action never coming fully to life and the central character rather colorless. Like the film itself, Chris Hemsworth's Thor looks terrific, but the actor lacks the charisma or script to make us care much about him or even be much entertained by him. I suspect the character will fit in better among the ensemble "Avengers" cast where he won't have to support a whole movie by himself.