Before I became a bonafide fan of the MCU, I watched their movies whenever I got around to it. Sometimes that was on DVD. Sometimes it was when it was streaming on Netflix or whatever. Rarely was it in theaters. I caught Thor on cable TV while at my in-laws for Christmas. The house was full of people, both adults, and kids, few of whom were watching the movie. Some were in the dining room playing a game, others were talking in the kitchen. Most were sitting in the living room working a puzzle or playing on their tablet. Nobody kept quiet. Because it was cable TV, there were commercials. Lots of them. Thor’s theatrical run time is 115 minutes. I think it took the cable television four hours to show it.
Because of all this, I hated it. I thought it was a colossal bore. I really wanted to just go to bed and not watch some dumb comic-book movie, but I have a hard time not finishing a movie so there I sat, nodding off through all the commercials and sometimes the film. In the end, it was my father-in-law and I left in the living room at midnight, while everyone else went off to bed.
Watching it again this week, after being a bonafide MCU fan for several years, I can say I liked it quite a bit more, but it is still on the low end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe spectrum. The trouble is Thor just isn’t an interesting character on his own. Or at least he wasn’t in this first film. Now that he’s starred in two other stand-alone films and several outings with The Avengers, I’ve come to love him, but here. Here he’s a dud.
What’s weird to consider now, some 23 films into the MCU is that Thor was only the fourth film in this cinematic universe. And really, let’s be honest here, while The Incredible Hulk is technically counted as part of the MCU, it really shouldn’t be. That film was more of a course correction, after Ang Lee’s more thoughtful, less action-filled Hulk movie. Pretty much no one involved with The Incredible Hulk has gone onto make any other films in the MCU. Which makes Thor really the third film in what we consider to be the MCU, and only the second character to star in his own movie. The MCU was still a baby. They were still figuring out exactly what this universe was going to be. There was no guarantee it was going to be the billion-dollar juggernaut that exists today.
With that in mind, Thor seems like such a gamble. While he was a popular comic-book character, Thor wasn’t exactly a household name like Spider-Man or the Hulk. His back story is kind of confusing to a layperson. He’s based on the Norse God, but is actually part of an alien race whose superpowers seemed godlike to us pitiful humans eons ago. His people are protectors of the nine realms, which include Earth, and they travel across a rainbow bridge, etc. It is all very strange and very nerdy and not exactly the sort of thing that usually makes for blockbuster magic.
It was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who had a popular turn as Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but as a director, he was mostly known for his Shakespeare adaptations. Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, and Natalie Portman lend the film some star power but Chris Hemsworth, playing the titular character, was a complete unknown at the time. Again, this should not have added up to massive box-office success and could have put an end to the MCU before it had hardly begun, yet it went on to make half a billion dollars and help propel the MCU into a massive international success.
Even more baffling is that it isn’t a particularly great film. I won’t rehash the plot here, but having seen it twice now I still couldn’t explain exactly what is going on in it. There is a lot of palace intrigue in Asgard with Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) vying over who is going to be heir to King Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) throne. There is some business about Frost Giants but who they are exactly and what they want is beyond my powers of deduction. As bad guys, they are pretty terrible, given little back story or motivation and not appearing enough on screen to make me care. Three films in (or okay four if you still want to count The Incredible Hulk) and the MCU already has a villain problem. Even Loki, who has gone on to be one the best villains in the entire franchise, is weak sauce in this film.
The best parts of the film are when Thor is banished to Earth and must try to navigate life amongst the humans without his powers. He meets three scientists played by Stellan Skarsgård, Natalie Portman, and Kat Dennings (okay, Dennings character isn’t technically a scientist, but whatever). They wander about the desert doing science-y things (honestly, I have no idea what it is they are trying to accomplish out there) and literally run into Thor. There are some funny moments with them as Thor tries to understand and adapt to human life. Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up and does some funny things with Thor’s hammer. Then big, poorly filmed action sequences occur, Thor gets his powers back, and then more big action sequences happen back on Asgard.
It really isn’t a very good movie. What works for me now, being a big Marvel fan, is not so much what happens in this movie but what I know will happen later. I’m a pretty big fan of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and it is a lot of fun seeing Coulson in this movie before that show was created. Knowing how so many of these characters develop and how big the stories become, it is a delight seeing them at such an early stage here. It would be nice if the film stood on its own better, but as an early stepping stone in the larger universe, I’m glad it exists.
My memory of the sequel, Thor: The Dark World, isn’t very good but I know I didn’t like it, which seems to be the general consensus of it. Finally with Thor: Ragnarok, they figured out that Chris Hemsworth is a delightful comic actor and his Thor movies needn’t be so dour. You can see glimpses of that here in Thor, but they are too far and between to make it anything more than a light slog.