Episode #66 of The Swampflix Podcast: All the Darkmen & Non-Stop (2014)

Welcome to Episode #66 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-sixth episode, we kick off the Halloween season with an unhinged Liam Neeson. James & Brandon discuss all three movies in Sam Raimi’s Darkman franchise and James makes Brandon watch Jaume Collet-Serra’s airplane-set thriller Non-Stop (2014) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

John Woo Goes Hard, Goes American

There seem to be two distinct markers for the creative decline of the Hong Kong action cinema glory days that started in the mid-1980s: the handing over of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997 & the movement’s biggest directors transitioning into helming Hollywood blockbusters, also in the mid-1990s. Up until Alli presented Hard Boiled as a Movie of the Month selection I was only familiar with John Woo’s work after these two declines in quality. Titles like Face/Off & Mission: Impossible 2 have a kind of slickly-produced charm to them, but are nowhere near the quality of action spectacle offered in Woo’s Hong Kong heyday. The interesting thing about Hard Boiled, though, is that it finds John Woo on the cusp of both transitions. Hard Boiled may be the director’s most often-cited work from his Hong Kong glory years, but it arrived just before his transition into a Hollywood big shot, which would steer his career for the remainder of the 90s. This means it’s also his final contribution to Hong Kong cinema before the handover to mainland China after 50 years of British colonial rule, a transition many mark as a downfall for the region’s action cinema boom. His first foray into American action cinema kept the spirit of his Hong Kong years alive, though, so much so that I often get its title mixed up with Hard Boiled’s. Like so many Hong Kong directors gone mainstream, John Woo began his Hollywood career helming a Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle, this one titled Hard Target. Watching the film in retrospect, it’s initially difficult to see what Woo brings to the picture that you wouldn’t find with any nobody American director, but then the intense kineticism & absurdist tone of his Hong Kong work take over as it barrels towards a blissfully chaotic climax. This cusp before Woo’s creative decline, where he effectively goes hard, is possibly his greatest sweet spot.

Hard Target has more than an American sensibility & a recognizable action star going for it in the way of making Woo’s style palatable to me specifically; it’s also set in my home city. In the opening sequence a homeless man is being hunted with a crossbow in The French Quarter, eventually succumbing to the steel-tipped arrow on the banks of the Mississippi River. Some details in this sordid take on New Orleans are a little iffy, like everyone’s weirdly thick Southern accent (whereas local Y’at accents have a cadence all to their own) or that a man being hunted on Bourbon Street would ever be turned away for refuge, as those bars never really close in real life. By the time Wilford Brimley’s cartoon Cajun invades the screen, though, the discrepancies become highly entertaining instead of eyerollingly awkward. I also have to admit that the film’s overall estimation of New Orleans as a heartlessly hedonistic city that world allow rich white men to openly hunt the homeless in the streets for sport (in a modern retelling of “The Most Dangerous Game”) is harsh, but fair. The scenario that allows this absurd evil where it’s “the pleasure of the few to hunt the many” is a little oddly structured, as it’s a police strike that leaves the city temporarily lawless. You’d think corruption and collusion among the police force & the wealthy hegemony would drive the plot instead of this weird anti-union political bent, but there’s still some interesting class politics at work in the film all the same. In its most poignant moment, a hunted homeless man desperately pleads for help from Bourbon Street tourists, who coldly turn their backs on him as if he were begging for pocket change. Most of the film’s local flavor is used as a conveniently novel backdrop (majestically so in the case of a climactic shootout in a Mardi Gras parade float warehouse), one I’m always tickled to see onscreen. However, that tourist-begging sequence actually has a sting of truth to it as a jab to New Orleans’s uglier side as a hedonistic playground for tourists that doesn’t give a shit about its own ailing population.

Of course, for most American audiences (since, mathematically speaking, most Americans have never lived in New Orleans), the main window into Woo’s appeal offered in Hard Target was his handle on the action. Jean-Claude Van Damme is meant to hold our hand through this cultural exchange as our action hero, although Woo makes him just as (charmingly) goofy as Chow Yun-Fat’s jazz clarinet enthusiast appears to be in Hard Boiled. Contextualizing his Belgian accent as a result of being a Cajun drifter, JCVD stars as the hilariously named Chance Boudreaux. A former medaled Marine who’s now desperately strapped for cash, Chance is introduced as a bizarre set of images: a single earring, a pronounced mullet, a slurped-up bowl of gumbo, etc. Just as cheesy jazz bar noodling follows around Tequila in Hard Boiled, Chance is scored with consistently cheesy blues guitar-riffing at every appearance. Early in the film, you get the sense that Woo’s directorial style has been significantly damaged in its exportation to America. It seems as if only his corniest stylistic impulses had made the jump, with none of the over-the-top action spectacle that contrasted them. Once the film leaves the city limits to meet Wilford Brimley’s Cajun caricature in the swamp, Woo’s personal touch becomes much clearer. Stunts, explosions, gunfire, motorcycles, and hard asses biting heads off snakes fill the screen in a nonstop, absurd cacophony strung together from a mind-bogglingly long parade of individual camera setups. What easily could have been a forgettable JCVD cheapie with a vague point to make about class politics and our casual disregard for the homeless transforms into a beautiful, explosive indulgence in over-the-top hyperviolence. The difference between John Woo and his American counterparts was that he went all in on action spectacle, where others would pull back & leave room for the audience to breathe. The problem is that American movie studios were much less accommodating to that violent fervor than the financiers that he was used to working with in Hong Kong.

As you might suspect, the reason Woo’s touch for over-the-top spectacle doesn’t initially come through in Hard Target is that American movie studio tinkering was holding him back. Universal Pictures executives had zero confidence in Woo (an unease they pinned entirely on a language barrier) despite his reputation for delivering all-time classic action vehicles like Hard Boiled. It took recognizable, bankable names like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sam Raimi (who was hired to hang around on set “on standby” to take over direction in case Woo “couldn’t handle” the production) to vouch for his genius for the studio to give him any creative control. Beyond that, 1990s MPAA censorship was much stricter on violence than its Hong Kong equivalent, so Woo had to make extensive cuts to Hard Target’s onscreen bloodshed to secure even an R rating. He smartly got around this hurdle by saving most of the absurd ultraviolence for the film’s Mardi Gras warehouse climax, making it count where he could. Still, you can feel early in the film how the softer edges on the violence (along with the shortened 90 min runtime, which leaves little room for elaborate action set pieces) stifled what made a John Woo film special in the first place. Hard Target is a deliciously silly action vehicle for JCVD’s brand of macho violence, maybe even one of his best, but it isn’t nearly as overwhelming in its creative heights as Hard Boiled, the Woo film that directly preceded it. As a pair, the two Hard films demonstrate exactly how Woo’s sensibilities were dulled & distorted in his transition to the American studio system, leaving the glory days of Hong Kong’s action cinema heights firmly in his rearview. The comparison is perhaps unfair to Hard Target, which eventually excels in an American action cinema context once it warms up, but it does help illustrate what was so spectacular about Hong Kong action’s heyday and what was lost in its slow 1990s fadeout, thanks both to American influence and to the culture of Hong Kong itself fading away.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Psychic (1977) Goes Southern Gothic in Raimi’s The Gift (2000)

Boomer recently wrote about how August’s Movie of the Month, Lucio Fulci’s paranormal horror The Psychic, was initially confused by audiences to be a rip-off of its contemporary, Eyes of Laura Mars, despite being released in Europe before that American work. Constructing a paranormal murder mystery around a fashion photographer’s visions of crimes from the killer’s POV, Eyes of Laura Mars is widely cited as the only successful attempt to make an American giallo picture (although it’s arguable that the entire slasher genre is built on that same foundation). Eyes of Laura Mars held on tightly to European art horror aesthetics in its own version of a clairvoyance murder mystery, only serving as an American version of The Psychic in the means through which it was produced, not necessarily in its tone or aesthetic. The most fiercely American version of The Psychic wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Sam Raimi would set a psychic visions murder mystery in the Georgian swamps of the American South. Raimi (working with a script penned by Billy Bob Thornton) would translate The Psychic‘s basic DNA from European art horror to Southern Gothic melodrama. The results aren’t necessarily a clear improvement, but they were undeniably more American.

The Gift (2000) features Cate Blanchett as a Georgian clairvoyant much more genteel in her demeanor than we’re used to from her steeled roles in works like Carol. Unlike in The Psychic (and most other media featuring a woman with psychic abilities), The Gift‘s clairvoyant protagonist is widely respected & believed within her local community, perhaps as a comment on the superstitions of American Southerners. Only a tough as nails sheriff (JK Simmons) & an incredulous lawyer (Michael Jeter) are skeptical of the psychic’s titular “gift” as she attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered local woman. Some even come to her for medical advice instead of consulting with a doctor. This psychic senses violence long before the central murder occurs, focusing on the intense energy of a pencil rolling off a table when she first meets the future-victim (Katie Holmes), much like how the protagonist of The Psychic has visions of the objects that populate a future murder scene: a lamp, an ashtray, a mirror, etc. Unlike with The Psychic, however, the visions frequently occur throughout the picture as she pieces together the image of Katie Holmes being choked to death in a nearby swamp with the other flashes of murder scene details that intrude her idle thoughts. The Gift doesn’t echo The Psychic‘s exact plot or tone, but the similarities are close enough to suggest what a Southern Gothic version of that giallo work might look like.

Something The Gift does share with The Psychic thematically, at least, is the tyranny of men. Like how the protagonist of The Psychic is isolated and made to feel insane by the skeptical men in her life, Cate Blanchett’s similar clairvoyant is surrounded by dangerous men who make her feel vulnerable for a “gift” she did not ask for. The Southern men who surround her are conspicuously abusive, threatening rape & other forms of violence in a way that extends far beyond the mystery of a single murder into a routinely monstrous way of life. This dynamic leaves plenty of suspects for the central murder: an abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) who regularly beats his mousy wife (Hillary Swank) for visiting the psychic, an on-edge mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) with a deeply fucked up familial past, the victim’s straight-laced husband (Greg Kinnear), her wealthy father, and the various men who participated in her extramarital affairs. Much like with all giallo pictures (and, I suppose, murder mysteries at large), the answer to this question is hinged on a last minute twist (or two) that disrupts the accusation of the most obvious suspect the movie sets up early on. The way The Gift manages to make the images in its protagonist’s psychic visions actually mean something in the film’s final reveal is a narrative feat, however. That’s more than you can say for Eyes of Laura Mars or Fulci‘s other clairvoyance horror, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which use psychic visions mostly for stylistic flourish and a device that obscures the give-away details of the murder.

The Gift is an excellent little thriller, worth seeing for Raimi’s unusual displays of restraint, (not unlike Fulci’s atypically mild-mannered The Psychic) and for novel performances from actors like the surprisingly genteel Cate Blanchett or Keanu Reeves’s Southern fried preview of the monster he would later play in The Neon Demon. Some of the Southern Gothic touches to its paranormal mystery can be A Bit Much (Reeves’s threats to retaliate with Voodoo & witness stand accusations that Blanchett is a witch both border on being outright silly), but the film gets by just fine as a deadly melodrama even with those impulses. I especially believe The Gift is worth viewing as a wholly American contrast to the similar plot filtered through giallo aesthetics in The Psychic. The Gift opens with slow pans of Georgian swamp waters and incorporates lightning storms & visits from the dead into its murder-solving psychic visions in a way that feels distinctly more Southern Gothic than its European counterpart. I’d contend that The Psychic is the better film of the pair, but The Gift is very much worthwhile viewing as as an American counterpoint, maybe even moreso than the directly-linked Eyes of Laura Mars.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and last week’s comparison with its hornier Fucli predecessor, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).

-Brandon Ledet

Darkman (1990)

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I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.

A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.

Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.

Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.

It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.

Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.

-Brandon Ledet

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor (2011)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The ironic thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it owes so much to the success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but Thor owes its placement in the MCU to the failure of that series of films, although I’m getting ahead of myself. Sam Raimi initially conceived of making a Thor film after he finished production on 1990’s Darkman, one of the best films ever made about a costumed hero even before one takes into account that it was not based on a previous intellectual property. This project never got off the ground, but after the success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000, interest in the potential of adapting Marvel’s Thunder God was renewed, although by that time it was being considered for a series adaptation for UPN. After a few years of discussion, the project was again tabled until Kevin Feige started dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2007, Mark Protosevich, fresh from having written the screenplay adaptation of the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, expressed interest in drafting a Thor script. That same year also saw the beginning of the definitive 21st Century arc for Thor comics in the wake of Civil War, penned by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski was already well known in nerd circles for having created Babylon 5 (and would become even more so following the publication of One More Day, the notorious Spider-Man arc in which Peter Parker makes a deal with Mephisto that costs him his marriage and unborn child). This new direction, envisioning a newly recreated Asgard hovering over farmland in the American breadbasket, featured interaction between Asgardians like Thor, Sif, and Balder and locals. You can see a definite influence from that story in this film, even if the specifics are quite different.

Ultimately, both Protosevich and Straczynski ended up with story credit on this film, with the screenplay credit going to Ashley Edward Miller & Zach Stentz alongside Don Payne (the ampersand here indicating that Stentz and Miller worked together on their version of the script). Stentz and Miller had also previously worked together on television series as varied as Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe, where they created the scripts for several episodes of the second season, including the premiere. The last screenwriter, Don Payne, had a series of one-to-two episode stints on utterly forgotten sitcoms in the nineties, like Hope & Gloria, Pride & Joy, Men Behaving Badly, and something called The Brian Benben Show. His breakthrough big screen work was 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which is the antithesis of the above-cited Darkman, in that it is one of the worst films ever made about a costumed hero, even after taking into account those others which were not based on previous intellectual properties. As Payne also had the critically and popularly reviled 2007 Fantastic Four sequel on his C.V., there was much speculation about whether or not Thor would be the MCU’s first artistic and financial failure (which was later the speculative case for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man).

At the same time, over at Sony, the Spider-Man series was running out of steam. The goodwill that was built up by the first two films had been virtually obliterated by the backlash against the third when it was released in 2007. Jokes about Peter Parker’s pseudogoth makeover following his bonding with the Venom symbiote persist to this day, even after an entire reboot series in the interregnum between Tobey Maguire and the new kid set to reappear when Spidey finally shows up in the MCU. A script for a fourth film was solicited, and concept art even appeared in Wizard Magazine showing designs for the costumes of Vulture and his daughter (supposedly to have eventually been played by John Malkovich and Anne Hathaway, which seemed farfetched even then). Ultimately, however, Spider-Man 4 was cancelled following friction between Raimi and Sony, and the release date for Thor was bumped up. Kenneth Branagh, who was most well known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, including Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, was brought on as director. With such a long time in development limbo and with so many fingers in the pot creatively, there was much debate as to whether Branagh’s film would be any good.

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Brandon: At this point in the MCU’s trajectory I was just desperately hoping for a movie that didn’t involve Tony Stark in any way. It’s no surprise, then, that Thor ended up being my favorite film in the franchise so far, especially since I had set the bar so underachievingly low. The silliness is cranked to deliriously enjoyable heights in this film, a nice change from the wealthy douche fantasy fulfillment of the Iron Man movies & the somber romance machinations of The Incredible Hulk. Thor is essentially a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a Norse god stranded in Modern Times America once he is banished from an Oz-looking palace on a planet where gods live for being “nothing but a little boy trying to prove himself a man.” This is a film where a one-eyed Anthony Hopkins plays a space lord in a golden Jack Kirby getup similar to Skeletor’s at the end of Golan-Globus’ Masters of the Universe. Idris Elba, also playing a golden space lord, serves as a “Gatekeeper” for a “rainbow bridge” that can transport these gods to any location in the Universe (although they often end up settling for America, because of course they would). And then there’s the copious amounts of lush, reverent shots of a magical mallet, a.k.a. Thor’s hammer. It’s all quite ridiculous.

The comedy didn’t work nearly as well in Iron Man because it was coming from a nasty, misogynistic place. The Incredible Hulk had flashes of comedy spread throughout its runtime, but they were mostly buried under an overwhelmingly grim tone. After watching the self-absorbed antics of a playboy billionaire & the pensive longing of a blood-poisoned scientist, it was thoroughly refreshinging to watch an empty-headed, naive, absurdly trusting bimbo of an ancient god bumble his way through political relations between warring planets & through the logistics of life in modern America. And because Thor is played by handsome/buff/charming actor Christ Hemsworth, there’s an absurd lean towards shirtless beefcake here that’s a nice change after two movies’ worth of Tony Stark’s grotesque womanizing. Natalie “What Is She Doing Here?” Portman is also pretty refreshing as Thor’s Earthling arm candy, which is somehow less gross than it is when Tony Stark’s endless parade of faceless hotties fill that role. It’s at the very least amusing when Portman’s smitten scientist easily gives in to her boy-toy’s explanation of the Universe’s nine realms & his own origins in a place “where science & magic are one & the same”, disregarding all skepticism that would be necessary for her to sustain a career in her field.

I’m not saying that the film is entirely successful. It’s just that it’s silly enough to pass as an entertaining trifle. Most of what gets in the way of Thor being a thoroughly winning film is director Kenneth Branagh’s over-reaching personal style. I know that it’s a common complaint that Marvel Studios doesn’t allow for enough of a personalized touch in its films & relies heavily on a “house style” (especially considering the way they homogenized the typically-recognizable work of Edgar Wright & James Gunn), but I gotta say that most visual traces of Branagh’s touch are distracting in this particular case. I suppose he was well suited for the task based on the Shakespearean nature of Thor’s home life on the magical god planet Asgard, but the melodrama is laid on fairly thick here. Far worse is the director’s perverse use of Dutch angles, tilting the camera so drastically left to right to back again that I swear it was mounted to a seesaw. The effect was downright nauseating. There were also some generic superhero movie problems afoot here presumably out of Branagh’s control. The CGI “Frost Giants” serve as pretty bland, vaguely-defined villains. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a thoroughly unsurprising heel turn in the second act (Could anyone ever buy him as a “good guy”? Don’t answer that). There’s a pretty annoying false-death crisis (or “Disney Death” if you will) in the third act, etc.

None of these faults register as too tragic, though. For the most part Thor is a decent example of what sets the MCU apart from other post-Dark Knight superhero franchises: lighthearted humor. This a fun, dumb movie, one with irreverent gags like its alien god protagonist demanding that a strip mall pet store provide a horse or a dog/cat/bird large enough to ride & getting called a “dumbass” when he mindlessly wanders into traffic. I suppose they mostly made this tonal choice to contrast the ridiculous/large-scale power its Norse god hero holds in comparison to the blood-poisoned scientist & rich douche with a mech suit heroes in the films prior. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome glimpse into the mindless fun of films I had previously seen from this “universe” before starting this project: the two Avengers movies, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It makes me a lot more eager to continue watching how this whole thing unfolds, as opposed to how Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies were beating me down.

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Boomer: I was a little nervous about rewatching this film. It was the first MCU movie that I saw in theaters (in 3D, even, because some of my friends were a little slow to realize what a cheap and useless gimmick that is and always has been); in fact, we went to the opening night, and I still have the half-sized poster the ticket taker handed out to prove it. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had failed to make a huge impact on me even though I found them passable, but I was more hesitant to commit to a Thor movie. I had only been introduced to Thor as a character (outside of his involvement in Avengers and crossover events) as of the Straczynski run mentioned above. This was a character with a very involved backstory and so many supporting characters that I wasn’t certain how that would translate to the screen; moreover, this was a character that actually mattered to me as a reader, and I was almost certain it was bound to fail. My expectations were overturned, and I remember walking out of Thor and immediately texting several of my nerd friends in other cities about how it was one of the best comic book movies I had ever seen.

My concerns that the movie would not hold up turned out to be unfounded as well. The market saturation of the MCU and the omnipresence of superhero narratives has dulled a bit of the movie’s shine (not to mention some serious Loki fatigue brought on by the continual revisitation of that character), but it still holds up as a fun movie that manages to lend gravitas to the more outlandish and potentially cheesy ideas. Although it borrows the same tired opening structure as Iron Man—a bunch of characters in a vehicle encounter an event, and then the film flashes back to show the audience “how we got here”—the film makes this stupid in-media-res-then-[x time]-earlier thing seem fresh. In fact, considering that the film credits the story and script to a cumulative five people, the narrative is surprisingly streamlined and internally consistent, never splitting focus to the point where the audience becomes bored (as was the case with Iron Man 2).

I have to admit that I have never seen any of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, but coming from that world probably made him the person best suited to helm this film, especially considering that the title character and his entourage were always based more on Shakespearean drama than real Norse myth anyway. The Thor books always used characters from a largely dead religion with great dramatic license; one of the most noteworthy things about Marvel’s Thor is that he has blond hair, but traditional Norse Thor has a fiery red mane and beard. It’s fine that the comics (and thus the films) deviate from tradition, and it’s much more fun to accept the Elizabethan speech patterns than try to rationalize them. The plot is like someone threw a Shakespeare anthology into a blender with some Norse characters and made a smoothie that was not merely palatable but compelling: a Lear-like Odin has unwittingly instigated a rivalry between his roguish natural-born son and the Iago-esque son he adopted; he realizes that his son is not yet fit to lead, to so he banishes him to a far-off land to teach him a lesson, but falls ill before the prodigal’s return, allowing his even more ill-suited, manipulative son to take the throne.

Thor could easily come off as terribly unlikable (and some parts of the internet will defend any interpretation of the film which lends itself to positing that Thor was a bully and Loki was justified in his actions by default), but Chris Hemsworth deftly treads the line between aggression and exuberance. Ultimately, he keeps Thor sympathetic and the audience is invested in his evolution from an immature prince to knowledgeable leader with enough wisdom to know that he is not ready to be king but will be one day. Tom Hiddleston is also quite good in his role, and I really enjoyed watching his manipulations this time around. It’s hard to divorce the role from the overwhelming outpouring of Loki apologia that has haunted particular corners of Tumblr for the past five years, but he does well in keeping Loki grounded. Sure, Loki wants More! Power! just like Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and General Ross, but this desire stems less from the lust for power itself and more from his need to demonstrate his worthiness to his father. Of course, whether or not that’s actually the case or just one more of his manipulations is never made utterly clear, which is what makes him so interesting.

As a character and in theory, Thor had the potential to be just as much of a jerkass as Tony Stark; as the potential future leader of the highest realm, he was an even greater child of privilege than Stark was (as much as Howard Stark swaggers, I sincerely doubt he ever gave Tony a “all the light touches will one day be yours” speech). The film is well served by focusing on his depowered earthbound adventures, as this allows Thor to be a newcomer who must learn the ways of the new world in which he finds himself. Instead of your typical origin story, this is a spiritual journey in which a man who believes that his way is the only way and that peace can only be achieved with subjugation becomes a man who understands the importance of self-sacrifice and the realizes that the most virtuous use of power is to show mercy. Those are hardly groundbreaking concepts, but they’re larger and more thoughtful than the topics tackled in superhero films before this point, and Thor represents a step in the right direction towards more heady ideas and more inventive plot structures for the MCU.

There’s a lot to love here, from the humor of Thor’s exploration of Midgard, the great interactions between Jane and her crew of ragtag science outsiders, Thor’s confrontations with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the early-bird introduction of Hawkeye, the incredible performance that Idris Elba brings to a largely thankless part, Anthony Hopkins’s pitch-perfect Odin, etc. In fact, the only element that rings a little false is Jane and Thor’s relationship, which moves too fast. As a narrative weakness, that’s pretty common, and may even be part of the intentional Shakespeare atmosphere, but it doesn’t irreparably harm the movie. Overall, this was the first truly good MCU flick, and proved that there was potential for Marvel projects that weren’t based on names with which mainstream audiences were already familiar.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Although I enjoyed this film more than any other entry in the MCU so far, it did backslide a bit in terms of making its inter-connected universe count for something. The exciting development in Iron Man 2 was that it finally gave non-Iron Man Marvel characters something significant to do in an Iron Man film, namely ScarJo’s Black Widow & Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury. Here, Nick Fury is again relegated to post-credits stinger status & future-Avenger Hawkeye basically just pops into acknowledge that he exists. There’s also a quick, throwaway reference to Iron Man in a climactic battle with a space robot where one of the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. asks “Is that one of Stark’s?”. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., they’re actually given the most do here as connective tissue, acting as total Big Government dicks even though they’re essentially on the same team as the scientists they overpower. That was a nice touch. I’m still getting the sense in these early MCU films that the studio was getting too ahead of themselves in promising the next big spectacle where all of this will finally pay off (in the first Avengers film) instead of making it count for something in the moment.

It’s also throwing me off how out of date & behind the times these films feel. This is mostly detectable in Thor by taking a glance at free spirit/comic relief Darcy’s (Kat Denning’s) wardrobe. I’d swear that her awful hats & scarves where purchased sometime in the early 2000s & not in 2011 if I didn’t know any better. Similarly, Thor’s ragtag group of immortal ass-kicking buddies are amusingly out of step with what’s cool & what’s corny (although I suppose you could argue that some of that effect was intentional). At some point in its lineage the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema. I’m still not seeing it yet.

Boomer: Josh Dallas’s Fandral looks really silly here. Like, really silly. Every time he appeared in a scene, it really took me out of the moment. Also, how strange is it that his daughter on Once Upon a Time is played by Jennifer Morrison, who in turn played the wife of Chris Hemsworth’s character in the Star Trek reboot? That has absolutely no bearing on this movie but felt it merited consideration. As for how Thor fits into the rest of the MCU, this film features the return of fan favorite Coulson, although S.H.I.E.L.D. is outright antagonistic for the first time in this film in a way that will be explored further down the line. This is also the first appearance of Agent Sitwell, who was a total non-entity to me the first time I saw Thor, but his appearance here is noteworthy based on what comes to light later. Also, in retrospect, I can’t believe it took four films to finally introduce a villain who would recur later in the franchise (not counting General Ross, who is set to reappear in Civil War). It’s just too bad they’ll go to the Loki well so soon and so often that this goodwill will wear out.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor (2011)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.