After spelling out a few days ago why I think the Marvel Cinema-verse is an important event in modern film-making, the next two films on my countdown to “The Avengers” are “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), and “Thor” (2011). While they are very different films, together they are the two weaker movies of the five lead-ins.
I am told by those who know Marvel well that the Hulk is at its heart a story about contrast, control, and the battle with your inner demons. That would have been a fantastic movie to watch, but instead “The Incredible Hulk” is a two-hour-long chase movie. The scenes basically go as follows: Military finds Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), Bruce Banner Hulks out, Military shoots at Hulk, Hulk smashes Military, Hulk escapes. Small plot development along the angst-y why-can’t-I-stop-Hulking lines, then Military finds Bruce Banner, Bruce Banner Hulks out, Military shoots at Hulk (because it worked so well last time), Hulk smashes Military, Hulk escapes.
Most of the rest of the plot is pretty forgettable: Bruce Banner looks for a cure and reunites with his girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler), a nasty soldier (Tim Roth) gets injected with the Hulk serum by General Ross (William Hurt), and eventually the nasty soldier becomes Abomination, which is pretty much an uglier, smarter version of The Hulk. This I didn’t get: Abomination has language skills and normal human cognitive functions. The Hulk is a dumb brute who throws a rock at lightning during a thunderstorm when he gets scared. The only reason why The Hulk wins when fighting someone who’s his same size but smarter is because The Hulk’s supposed to be the good guy. That’s sloppy writing.
Really, my overall problem with the movie was sloppy writing. The writers hint at some of the themes my Hulk-happy friends have described; at one point Betty tells Bruce that she believes there’s still a part of him in the Hulk. But ultimately Bruce’s journey of self-discovery is one-note: he wants the Hulk gone until it actually is gone, then he needs it so he Hulks out again. I guess he made peace with his inner demons while he was falling out of the helicopter to fight Abomination. That’s some impressive multi-tasking.
Similarly, going with my connected-Marvel-Cinema-verse theory, “The Incredible Hulk” goes the weaker route by doing face-value fanservice instead of actual development. They hint that the Hulk serum may be based on Captain America’s super-soldier serum and name a few Marvel characters, but the most annoying example is Tony Stark’s cameo at the end of the film. I gather that “The Incredible Hulk” is supposed to take place during “Iron Man 2,” but if that is the case then Tony Stark should not be recruiting for the Avengers. Stark turned Nick Fury’s offer down. Overall, “The Incredible Hulk” became an example of what I was hoping this superhero franchise wouldn’t be: fanservice mixed with weak plot and poor tie-ins to the overarching universe.
“Thor” cannot be accused of being only weakly associated with “The Avengers” because it is introduces both Thor and the primary antagonist for the Avengers: Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). As directed by Kenneth Branaugh, “Thor” attempts to be an operatic story about warring brothers and a divided kingdom, and it comes close to achieving its goal. Everything starts on a grand scale, with gorgeously-designed sequences in Asgard that look like Philip K. Dick’s version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. When the film moves to New Mexico things get dull, because that’s around the time you realize the fractured quality of the plot.
Brannaugh has described “Thor” as a retelling of “Henry V,” but I think it more closely resembles the subplot between battling brothers Edmund and Edgar in “King Lear.” Loki, like Edmund, secretly yearns to overthrow his brother and take power. Also like Edmund, Loki tricks Odin (Anthony Hopkins) into banishing Thor. Much of Edmund’s evil nature is explained by his bastard status – at one time, bastards were considered duplicitous by birth – but Edmund’s lust for power is coupled with his desire for legitimacy. (In his soliloquy in Act I Scene ii Edmund obsesses over the word “legitimate.”) Loki has a similar bastard origin: he is the kidnapped son of the Frost Giants, the mortal enemies of Asgard. Even though Loki is initially unaware of this fact, the film implies that this makes him evil by nature. When Loki discovers his secret origins, his sibling rivalry with Thor blossoms into a full-fledged war for the throne. Loki ascends the throne in his father’s illness, further secures Thor’s banishment and even sends a killer robot to destroy him. Loki then engineers a war with the Frost Giants so that he can destroy their planet and prove himself the true son of Odin, because nothing says Daddy Issues like genocide.
So, if “Thor” contains such Shakespearean themes, why do I rank it among the weaker Avengers films? As I said, the problem starts when Thor is banished to New Mexico. Against the epic backdrop of Asgard, broadly painted characters (such as the Warriors Three) and stilted dialog (“Be warned, I shall uphold my sacred oath to protect this realm as its gatekeeper”) make a certain kind of sense. The largest example is our titular protagonist: Thor is the Young Hero, and is therefore Powerful, Headstrong, and Arrogant. However, the flaws in this broad characterization are glaringly obvious against the more quotidian backdrop of the USA’s “Land of Enchantment.” Part of the “joke” of Thor in the human world is that he doesn’t fit, which would be fine except that the human characters are similarly wooden. Natalie Portman’s character is the Love Interest, and is therefore Intelligent, Beautiful, and Inspiring. Kat Dennings’s character is the Sidekick, and is therefore Snark-y and Chipper. Loki begins to feel flat as well; in the scene where he visits Thor on Earth, Loki oozes Devious Villain.
Plot points are similarly contrived. Thor’s purpose on Earth is to Learn His Lesson to win back his hammer Mjolner (Odin’s enchantment: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of THOR”). However, when Thor does win back the hammer during his fight with the killer robot, the scene rings hollow because whatever change he is supposed to have undergone is unclear. He didn’t so much Learn His Lesson as Need To Finish The Movie. When reviewing “Ben-Hur,” I said that every good epic has a human heart at the center. Unfortunately, “Thor”’s heart is artificial.
As a standalone movie “Thor” does poorly because of its contrivances, but as a lead-in to “The Avengers” it works. It introduces not only a hero but also the villain for “The Avengers” without the awkward overcrowding of “Iron Man 2,” and hopefully will contribute some themes about power and identity as well. Since “Thor” did best when following Loki, I hope that they will continue his lost-identity character arc instead of reducing him to a mustache-twirling super-villain. This would be awkward, especially since he lacks a mustache.
Whew! Made it threw another long review. One more movie until “The Avengers!” Next up is the leader of the pack, “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Look for the update on Sunday.