With Thor: Ragnarok being released to North American audiences this weekend, I decided to revisit the first two Thor films. It feels like a long time since we've gotten a Thor film. Thor: The Dark World came out back in 2013, pre-The Winter Soldier and the first Guardians of the Galaxy. That film ended with a huge twist- Tom Hiddelston's Loki disguising himself as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ruling on the throne of Asgard. I find it surprising such a major plot point was never addressed in the subsequent Marvel films- though I assume Ragnarok wraps it up.
The first Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the film that opened up the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond Tony Stark/Iron Man. We already knew Stark was part of a larger universe but Thor announced that Norse Gods existed in this world. Branagh's background in theatre and Shakespeare suited the...well, Shakespearean qualities of the source material. The best parts of the film take place in Asgard. Usually I find the the fantasy elements in Hollywood blockbusters can come across as dry and exposition-heavy. However, I like the interpersonal dynamics of these scenes. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is about to be crowned Asgard's King when Frost Giants invade. They are killed but Thor wants to retaliate. His anger at this "day of triumph" being ruined and Odin dismissing Thor's desire for revenge shows his arrogance while also making him relatable. Loki is more reserved and an observational than Thor, an Iago-esque character that remains the MCU's most alluring antagonist.
Bo Welch's production design and the gives Asgard a somewhat alien look feel. There's a grandness and mystery to it, with an specifically spooky atmosphere to it. Alexandra Byrne's costume design finds a middle ground between fantasy and science-fiction. I love how Thor's red cape stands out in this show. I also think it's a beautiful example of the production design, art direction and direction.
After battling with the Frost Giants in their home world of Jotenheim, Odin banishes Thor to Earth (Midgard to the Asgardians) and strips of his power. He sends Thor's hammer Mjolnir as well but Thor won't be able to pick it up until he becomes worthy. Thor encounters Astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman,) Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). S.H.I.E.L.D shows up and takes all their equipment and research due to the three being where Thor landed on Earth. S.H.I.E.L.D's presence in the story is a good example of organic world-building. It makes sense they'd be in this story because they're interested in Mjolnir. They also provide essential conflict for Thor on Earth while not being outright villains. When Thor can't lift Mjolnir at the S.H.I.E.L.D research site and then is lied to by Loki (He tells Thor he's permanently banished) Thor goes from brass braggart to humbled man with no home shows how good Hemsworth is in this role. He's able to be both arrogant, charming, romantic, heroic, and vulnerable. It's a true superhero movie performance.
I think the best scene in the movie is Loki confronting Odin about true lineage. Loki is a Frost Giant- Laufey's (Colm Feore) son- Odin adopted when he was a baby, after Odin waged war against the Frost Giants. We feel Loki's resentment at being lied to and realising while Thor was always favoured over him. Odin's pain over his relationship with both his sons' being broken is also apparent. While Odin can be viewed as simply a pay-cheque role, I think Hopkins is great at both scenery-chewing and more deeply-felt moments. What's intriguing about Loki is you see the evolution of his villainy, though I think the script makes things a little too convenient for Loki, with Thor being banished and Odin, overcome with emotion, falls in to the "Odinsleep." And honestly, I'm still not sure what that it is.
I wish this film was set entirely in Asgard- a Shakespearean Lord of the Rings mixed with Game of Thrones and 300. I do understand why they needed to create a connection between Thor and Earth, particularly his relationship with Jane. Hemsworth and Portman have good chemistry, the two characters clearly like each other. However, I think this romance needed a few more scenes to develop and deepen, particularly when we get to the second film. The relationship never feels like the grand romance it's supposed to be.
Returning the matter of scale, I also think the filmmakers wanted to do a throwback to what a Thor movie would be like in the 80s or 90s. I find this movie resembles a early 2000s version of a Thor movie made with 2011 special effects. Even the use of the Foo Fighter's "Walk" over the end credits feels reminiscent of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films.
I remember enjoying Thor: The Dark World in theatres, despite feeling it was just a filler film. Revisiting it for the first time since theatres, it's even more apparent the film is essentially a two part TV finale rather than a movie. It's story has potential but it's never fully developed enough, especially in a movie that's under two hours. That's not to say you can't have a well-developed story in under two hours, just that this film felt it needed more time to breathe. I glean there was difficulty in figuring where to take Thor next. Thor doesn't really have an arc in this film. At the beginning he doesn't want to be King of Asgard and by the end he feels the same way. The only real change is he admires Loki for sacrificing his life to help him; but that emotional development is undermined by the ending reveal, essentially an"Oh that Loki" moment that reinforces the filler quality of the film.
The scenes between Thor and Loki are the film's strongest and emotional. Loki continues to be more multilayered than the other MCU villains. Moreover, The conversation between Loki and his his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) reveals Loki's emotional vulnerability. When he learns of her death at the hands of the Dark Elves, he psychically smashes things in his cell. Without dialogue or even seeing his face, we feel his anger and despair and his mother's death.
Alan Taylor, who had directed several Game of Thrones episodes, replaced Branagh on this film. Taylor made sense as a replacement due to Game of Thrones having the qualities that would suit a Thor film but I feel Taylor doesn't bring the same directorial stamp as Branagh. Asgard does have a more Game of Thrones feel but it lacks the atmosphere and striking visual look of the first film
Malekith is the weakest villain of the MCU thus far, a shame since Christopher Eccleston is wasted and the character is much more entertaining sinister in the comics. I do like the Star Trek/Wars look of the Dark Elves, with their blasters and spaceships. They're a good representation of how the Thor side of the MCU blends fantasy and science fiction.
The teleportation climax is inventive and Thor getting on the train is a great bit. Skarsgard smartly deadpans Selvig's insanity after being possessed by Loki in The Avengers and is pretty funny- but I wish this plot thread was treated more dramatically.
Ragnarok is supposed to be the best of the three Thor films. I gather it's the Iron Man 3 to The Dark World's Iron Man 2, less filler, more style and energy. I think Thor is a mostly good film and The Dark World has its entertaining moments but Ragnarok has be excited. Walking in to the Marvel films I always hope it'll be my favourite one so far.