Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.

NR: Avengers… Assemble, I Guess?

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

More Jon Favreau related news, and this time it’s bad… maybe.  The ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Iron Man 2’ director has decided, with good reason, to leave the franchise.  I learned of this from this article.

Photo from Paramount Pictures

Favreau left because Marvel Studios is, apparently, unfocused and confused.  As he said,

“In theory, Iron Man 3 is going to be a sequel or continuation of Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Avengers… This whole world… I have no idea what it is. I don’t think they do either, from conversations I’ve had with those guys.”

I’m sure they can rustle up a good director of ‘Iron Man 3’, but that’s hardly the issue.  If Marvel’s suits don’t really know what they’re doing, if in fact they are unaware of what direction this boulder this roll, they’re in big trouble.  There’s no stopping the ‘Avengers’ behemoth now.  If it fails creatively, people will still go see it, if only to see what kind of damage the giant boulder can do.  I don’t think Favreau’s departure from the undeveloped sequel project is a death knell, per se, but I hope it convinces the execs to find greater focus.

But wait! Favreau has more to say, as found in this LA Times article.  He says, among other things,

“Marvel and I both came of age together. The years that we shared were a pivotal experience. Kevin has a firm grasp on the many franchises and how they all interweave and I am happy that I had the opportunity to establish the world that these characters can now play in…. ‘Iron Man’ has given me tremendous opportunities and Kevin and I are enjoying a lot of momentum in our careers thanks to the ‘Iron Man’ films. I look forward to seeing what others can do playing in the same world.”

He also says that basically he’s switching his focus to Disney’s ‘Magic Kingdom’ film, and that’s the real reason for his departure, not a creative dissatisfaction with Marvel.  That would seem to directly contradict his earlier statement.  It could be because he was angry about something and spoke too soon or perhaps too honestly, and his interview with the LA Times is a political move just to smooth things over and make it all look positive and professional.  Though I’m sure that if Favreau wanted to direct ‘Iron Man 3’, Marvel could accommodate his ‘Magic Kingdom’ schedule because he already gave them two big hits.

I don’t doubt that Favreau’s decision comes from creative passion for his Disney project, but such passion is a double-edged sword, and I have a feeling that he really did mean his earlier statement.  Of course, just because one director expresses disappointment with Marvel’s grand scheme does not mean it will fail, or be anywhere as bad as I said it could be.  The Favreau situation is really interesting because of the director/studio dynamic at play.  The truth of the situation is left to the future and our best guess.

Iron Man 2

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A fun, funny, big comic book movie that matches the success of the first.

Review: Superhero sequels tend to go in two directions.  Either they are two steps up from the original or two steps down.  It’s a rare moment when the same level of quality is delivered twice, and ‘Iron Man 2’ is just such a rarity.  It’s got all the fun of the first — perhaps more — and though it lacks the pure dramatic strength of the origin story, it’s got a great cast, amazing action and a better villain.

This time around, Tony Stark — having revealed his identity as Iron Man — is now more popular than ever.  Though it’s obvious he still struggles with ego, he’s also trying his best to create a heroic legacy for others to follow.  Legacy is foremost on his mind because the element that powers the miniature reactor in his chest is poisoning him, and he doesn’t have much time left.  On top of this, the government is demanding that he hand over his suit, creating a rift between him and his friend Lt. Colonel Rhodes.  The secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is keeping tabs on him.  Lastly, a mysterious Russian inventor is out to destroy him for reasons of his own. Will Tony Stark find a way to stop the poisoning?  Will he keep his suit?  Will he repair his relationship with his friends?  Will the Russian guy get him?  Will there be a sequel!? I can’t stand the pressure!

Anyway, it’s obviously not as focused as the first, but the strength of the cast holds it together.  Mainly, of course, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, who plays the exact opposite of Bruce Wayne.  He’s a popular rich guy who enjoys the hell out of being a superhero.  There’s no major brooding here.  I have a theory about the AC/DC songs that introduce us to Stark in both films.  In ‘Iron Man’, it’s ‘Back in Black’, a song about defying death, which is of course the central theme of that film.  In ‘Iron Man 2’, it’s ‘Shoot to Thrill’, a song about, well, thrill-seeking, which is arguably the central theme of this film, as it is Stark’s real Achilles Heel.

Though it kind of drags in its second act, it never lost my interest.  For all the dramatic material, it’s a hilarious script and the gags hit their marks most of the time.  It’s a great crowd movie.  It’s a good superhero movie.  It shot to thrill, and hit its target.

Buy It From Amazon:  Iron Man 2 (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

Iron Man

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  A fantastic and dramatically credible way to set up Marvel’s ironclad hero.

Review:  The superhero genre on film seems to be in the middle of a Renaissance.  Rival companies Marvel and DC, both plagued by bad renditions of their characters, seem to be trying harder and mustering greater creative forces to realize their iconography on screen.  ‘Iron Man’ could be considered, after a mixed third ‘Spider-Man’ and two disliked ‘X-Men’ installments, to be Marvel’s comeback.  It has invigorated mainstream interest into Marvel’s great selection of “unknown” characters, and is the first in a series of films to set up 2012’s destruction of the world via Joss Whedon crossover extravaganza ‘The Avengers’.

So here’s why it works.  The heart of it is a redemption story.  Billionaire genius Tony Stark, played with originality by Robert Downey, Jr. in a comeback role, is a real jerkass who follows a mythic story arc into a modern hell — a cave in Afghanistan — where he is confronted with the knowledge that his company’s weapons are being used by terrorists.  They try to force him to build them a WMD, but he instead builds himself a suit of armor and escapes with extreme prejudice.  Because of his ordeal, he is being kept alive by a power core, which is analogous to his new heart.  His new appreciation for life and sense of responsibility clash with his company’s double-dealing.  The classic path into hell and subsequent rebirth is a story as old as humanity.  A confrontation with suffering, one’s own sins, and a need for empathy is setup for a successful hero, both in fiction and in true life.  The film never loses steam, per se, but the strength of the picture is in Stark’s metaphorical resurrection as a hero, and when it diverts from this in the second and third acts it loses some of its punch.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, the film works brilliantly because it taps into the redemptive relationship between God and man.  Contrary to popular and misguided opinion in Christian circles, the point of the faith is not to escape hell, but to confront it directly.  The human race is inexorably tied into an ontological relationship with Christ.  By this I mean, where He goes, we ought to go.  This is what Christians (should) mean when they say salvation is in Christ.  It’s not only in His name, like “Here’s your membership card with Christ’s signature on it”, but directly united with His specific actions.  Namely, death and resurrection.  Through and after his ordeal, Tony Stark acts as, in the best sense of the word, a Christian.  Like the Christ.  That’s not to say he’s a perfect character — that was never the question.  The question was whether he would go through hell and emerge a different man.  In a broad sense, we all go through the fire, and we all have a choice: Refuse it and be destroyed, or accept it and change it into a vehicle of metamorphosis.

A great film with a few weak points.  Here’s to Marvel’s Renaissance.