So Thor is… pretty good, all things considered. And this comes from someone who is avowedly not a fan of Thor comics, so for once I was approaching this more as a general moviegoer than somebody with the Fuck Yeah _____ t-shirt on. It has decent performances, fun enough action, some pretty decent dialogue and plot, gorgeous visuals and solid editing. It was a perfectly decent superhero movie.
That having been said – some critics have accused it of being bloodless or soulless, and although I don’t agree with them I can see where they’re coming from, because Thor really toes a line that’s been bothering me more and more vis-a-vis superhero movies. Thor in many ways feels like a different sort of exercise than what moviegoing should be like: what bothers me, however, isn’t the “this is the obvious Piece X in the set of pieces to make the Avengers movie happen” aspect of the film (which is certainly prevalent).
What bothers me about Thor is that, although it doesn’t quite cross the line, it definitely comes right up to it in that Thor feels like the balance between “let’s make a really good and faithful adaptation of some comics that were good” and “let’s make a good movie.”
When I talk about this I’m not talking about something like Watchmen, which is a slavish imitation of the original comics and way way over the line. That’s certainly an example of the problem, but a hyperbolic one. What I’m talking about instead is that Marvel’s movies – and looking at Green Lantern it appears DC is following the trend – have started to get a really slick, corporate feel to them. I know that sounds like an odd complaint (“wait, you’re saying that enormous movie studios are making corporate product? Shut your mouth”) so let me explain.
Basically, the filmmaking process for superhero movies is starting to feel less organic. Fans have praised Thor for being visually and thematically faithful to the Kirby vision of what Thor comics could be, and to that my response is “why is that faithfulness de facto praiseworthy?” Granted, after years of things like Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider movie or Ang Lee’s Hulk1, I can see why comic fans might want to encourage filmmakers to stick closer to the existing ideas behind comics. But Fantastic Four, on the other hand, demonstrates that staying reasonably close to the existing formulae doesn’t necessarily mean a good movie either.
And the current crop of super-faithful movies don’t advance the characters or their overarching story: you only get that when you let filmmakers tinker a bit with the ideas. Superman wasn’t a Kansas farmboy until Superman: The Movie established that Smallville was in Kansas. Gotham City wasn’t the dark, nightmarish Gothic city that’s dominated the comics for two decades until Tim Burton and Anton Furst got their hands on Batman.2 If you want a smaller-scale example of how this can work, think about how the Blade franchise turned a Z-lister into a really cool bunch of B-movies, which is no small accomplishment when your main star is Wesley Snipes.3 Or how The Crow turned what was, let’s be honest, a pretty lousy comic into a pretty great movie.4
Thor is fun, but there’s no really new ideas to it: the closest you get is the exercise of making certain elements of a superhero mythos that might not work in a two-hour movie palatable for a mass audience, referenced as callbacks for nerds. Most of the modern crop of Marvel movies fit into this mold (the first Iron Man is an outlier, mostly because of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance). When critics complain about superhero movies becoming soulless, that’s what they mean. These movies don’t advance the story: they’re about “let’s make a Thor movie that’s just like what the comics would be if they were a movie!” And that’s kind of a shame.
- Yes, I know people have tried to reclaim it as a secret success. Those people are wrong. [↩]
- And then Christopher Nolan completely ignored what had become the standard and plainly portrayed Gotham as Chicago in his Batman movies, which again goes to show how a fresh take on a character can creatively rejuvenate a franchise. [↩]
- He used to be a big star at one point! [↩]
- Which then had pretty lousy sequels. [↩]