Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Electric Norseman by J.A. Fludd

‘Cross the Rainbow Bridge of Asgard,
Where the blooming heavens roar,
You’ll behold in breathless wonder
The God of Thunder, Mighty Thor!

-Theme lyrics from The Mighty Thor on The Marvel Super-Heroes, 1967.

In my fan life, one of the comic books that has brought me the greatest inspiration and pleasure is The Mighty Thor, created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and originally running in Journey Into Mystery until that book was retitled for its starring character. Thor is a character with whom some of the best stories you’ll ever read in comics have been done. I get the same flush of excitement remembering them as I get from Stan and Jack’s Fantastic Four.

The length of issues #114 to #136 (in the middle of which the title switch from Journey Into Mystery to Thor took place) is collectively one of my all-time favorite stories. A long narrative made up of many individual adventures, it is about how mighty Thor wants nothing more than to be with Jane Foster, the nurse who works for his mortal alter ego, Dr. Don Blake, and pretty much everything in the universe comes between them, starting with Thor’s father, Odin. (“No son of mine is going to be sleeping with any mortal women. Maybe the Greek gods carry on like that...”) Thor and Jane must get through the Absorbing Man, Loki, the Trial of the Gods, the Norn Stone-empowered Demon, Hercules, Pluto and the Netherworld, Tana Nile and the Colonizers of Rigel, Ego the Living Planet, the High Evolutionary and the New-Men, and the maddening menace of the Man-Beast before Odin finally says, “Okay, son, bring the chick home and let’s see what kind of goddess she’ll make.” (Not in those words, of course.) Thor brings Jane to Asgard, and Jane, being a pre-feminist comic book woman, can’t handle godhood at all and must be sent back to Earth with amnesia, to marry a mortal doctor not unlike Don Blake. Thor is anguished, but Odin says, “Listen, son, suck it up. We’ve got the Trolls about to invade us, so think with your other hammer for a change and go out and defend the Realm.” He does, and along the way meets up with his boyhood sweetheart, the stunning Sif (Stan, who liked wordplay, adjectives, and alliteration, would sometimes use the epithet “stunning” in reference to Sif)--a fearless warrior goddess who was not only easy on the eyes but could probably have beaten up Xena herself. Sif, a much more suitable mate for Thor, became the “official” girlfriend of the book and has mostly remained so ever since.

It wasn’t so long ago that Thor, who had been the pride of Marvel Comics, fell on hard times. Fans were ignoring him. His stories grew tedious. His book was cancelled and revived. Fans ignored him again and his book was cancelled again. In Avengers/JLA, the breathtaking miniseries in which the Avengers met, battled, and teamed up with DC’s Justice League of America, Superman--who is known to be unable to overcome magic--was permitted to push back Thor’s hammer (which is enchanted by no less than a mythological godhead)--and punch him out! And when the US Post Office issued a set of stamps commemorating the heroes of Marvel Comics, Thor was not among them. Spider-Woman and Elektra were immortalized on stamps, but not the immortal of Asgard who is among the characters who built the company! The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, the Hulk, even the damn Wolverine got stamps, but not the God of Thunder! I found that insulting: Spider-Woman and Elektra, for crying out loud, but not Thor! What a burn! What a rip-off!

Lately, no doubt because of the movie just released a couple of days ago, Thor has experienced one of the biggest turnarounds ever seen in comics. Not long ago I went on my weekly trip to the comic shop and counted off every comic book I could see that either starred or featured old Goldilocks. My tally came to about a dozen; Thor is everywhere! His current series--in which the hammer tosser and his entire cast have been redesigned and Asgard now floats over a plain in Oklahoma instead of lying at the far end of Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge--is a best-seller. Thor books are all over the shelves. The God of Thunder, so recently ignored and disrespected in spite of his place in comics history, is getting back what’s his, and it’s a gratifying thing to see.

Which brings us to the movie. Wow--what a movie. Thor is just about everything that all the Superman movies should have been. Seriously.

Director Kenneth Branagh may have a background in Shakespeare, but you’d think he was channeling the spirit of Jack Kirby himself to make this picture. Not that it’s a direct adaptation of the original comics (that was never going to happen, so I’m not even going to bother kvetching about it), but the pure feeling of what Jack did with Stan is there. Much has been changed. This did not occur to me until I was actually sitting in the cinema watching the first act of the film, but a key character is completely missing and not even mentioned at all. Where in the heck is Balder? I can’t believe they would leave him out; Balder is Thor’s best friend, the person or god that Thor trusts the most. The handsomest and most noble of the gods after the Son of Odin (Jack Kirby made him so sexy that evil Karnilla, Queen of the Norns, spent a years-long subplot trying to get Balder into bed), Balder is one of Marvel’s most stalwart supporting players. He doesn’t seem to exist in this movie. It wound up not detracting from the film overall, but I missed him. A lot.

Other things are different too. Jane Foster here is not a nurse and is no part of the medical profession at all, though her ex-lover who figures tangentially into the story turns out to be (wait for it) a physician named Donald Blake. (In the comics, Jane eventually grew a backbone and became an MD. At one time she was even the on-call physician for the Avengers!) This Jane is an astrophysicist who studies wormholes and is thus better prepared to deal with hunks who come falling off Rainbow Bridges than Stan and Jack’s character was. Though we’re missing Balder, Thor’s entourage of other gods is present. The stunning Sif and Fandral the Dashing are much as we know them from the comic books. The voluminous Volstagg has most of the mirth but not quite as much girth as in the source material. But in what I’m sure is a nod to multiculturalism and marketing, Heimdall, the Guardian of Bifrost, is black and Hogun the Grim is a beardless Asian! Yes, a race of gods worshipped by the thoroughly white Vikings somehow includes an African and an Asian! (You could probably argue that these are not the gods that the Vikings worshipped but the beings whom the Vikings apprehended as gods, so they didn’t really all have to be white. Being a classic Marvel Comics purist, I could go into a rant about this, but some of you have heard or read my rants and I won’t put you through another; besides, I like this movie too much to get angry about it. It bothers me, but not to the point of anger.)

Bifrost in the movie is pretty dazzling, but is not exactly a “Rainbow” Bridge. On close inspection it seems to be made up of billions of little rainbows, laid out like gleaming brick and mortar, which was an interesting choice, to say the least. As for the way this Rainbow Bridge works, it’s a part of the movie that seems pretty familiar if you’ve ever seen a certain science fiction movie and TV franchise. Let’s just say that whenever they were using Bifrost I kept expecting Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Shanks to show up. They didn’t, but I would not have been surprised.

Oh, and you have to pay close attention to the scenes in the New Mexico town where much of the terrestrial business of the film takes place. There’s a travel billboard that carries the slogan, “Journey Into Mystery.” No kidding, watch for this.

Now, as for the principals of our story, there’s Jane, played by lovely Natalie Portman, making her second claim on a big-budget imaginative movie franchise. (To Star Wars fans she is, of course, the dauntless but doomed Padme Amidala, beloved of Anakin Skywalker and mother of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa.) And then there are the big three: Odin, Loki, and mighty Thor himself. I’ve seldom seen a more eminently watchable trio in any film. This is especially true of Chris Hemsworth as Thor, but I’ll come to him in a moment.

The film’s Loki is very different from the character that Stan and Jack originated in the comics. For one thing, as played by Tom Hiddleston, he is vastly better looking than the actual comics character. You know the old saying, from another mythology, that “the Devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape?” That’s Hiddleston as Loki. He’s also not as demonstratively evil as the comics character. He’s much more subtle and manipulative, maneuvering people (starting with his brother Thor) into doing what he wants by speaking softly and saying exactly the right thing at the right time, not unlike the mythical Serpent in Eden. That makes it much more effective when his true evil does come exploding out, when he discovers the truth about his parentage (parents, always level with your adopted children) and he turns on Odin, steals the throne, and becomes a physical adversary for Thor. In the comic books I never really felt any sympathy for Loki, who seemed driven purely by envy (“Dad likes you best!”) and the desire for power. In the film, I actually did pick up on his feelings of hurt and betrayal by his loved ones. This is written, and Hiddleston plays it, with great skill, and helps make Loki one of the most satisfying comics-to-movies bad guys.

Anthony Hopkins plays Odin the All-Father, and makes the perfect regal presence (there’s that Shakespearean background working.) He juggles Odin’s three roles--father, king, and omnipotent deity--pretty much effortlessly and is convincing at all of them. HIs love of his two boys, his wrath and disappointment when Thor screws up and Odin de-powers him and exiles him on Earth (right out of the comics), his heartbreak over Loki, all are spot-on. And in yet another nod to the comics, his sorrow about Loki even sends him into the Odinsleep! (Every so often, the comic-book Odin has to take a long, deep nap to replenish his power. The Odinsleep is never, ever good news; you just know that whenever the All-Father goes for his forty winks, Loki will take over Asgard, someone will turn on the Destroyer, someone will let Mangog out, or some other calamity will befall. One story I’ve always wanted to see in the comics is Odin going to sleep and nothing happening! But I’m not holding my breath.)

And finally, there’s the star of our show. Ye gods, is Chris Hemsworth perfect in this role or what? My brother has expressed skepticism about the incredibly hot and strapping young Aussie playing Goldliocks, but I expect Chris Hemsworth to win him over the way Robert Downey Jr. did as Iron Man. You know, Marvel spotted Hemsworth a couple of years ago playing James T. Kirk’s father in the rebooted J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie and immediately collared him for the role of Thor, which was one of their smartest moves. He inhabits this character as Christopher Reeve did Superman. To this point I counted Chris Evans playing the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four as the all-time sexiest movie super-hero, but this summer he has some major competition from Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Ryan Reynolds as the Green Lantern. (Of course, in couple of months we’ll see the formerly “Fantastic” Evans as his second Marvel hero, Captain America, for which this film has a trailer. I’m looking forward to that.)

And it’s not just that young Hemsworth has the right look; his actual performance serves the story to great effect. He is as subtle in his own way as Hiddleston at taking Thor from a brash and conceited character whose actions threaten the realm with war, to someone just as proud but more thoughtful and capable of nobility and sacrifice. He captures Thor’s godly appetites for food, drink, and battle, his gullibility with Loki, his arrogance with the Frost Giants, his remorse over what he thinks is Odin’s death and his part in it, and his growing compassion for mortals and tenderness for Jane, hitting just the right note with each one. Hemsworth’s Thor is every bit the equal of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, Chris Evans’s Torch, and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. The hammer hits true.

While the cinematography in some parts of the movie is a bit too dark and makes the action slightly difficult to follow (especially in the sequences in Jotunheim, the land of the Frost Giants), the set designs and costuming are Oscar-worthy. The Academy will probably snub them, but they’re that good.

One more impressive thing about the film is the menace of the Destroyer, set loose on Earth by Loki to seal the doom of Thor and his friends. For non-comic-book or non-Marvel readers, do you remember the original movie The Day the Earth Stood Still from 1951? The Destroyer is a kind of “Gort” that Odin built to defend Earth against an unnamed future menace. After Stan and Jack parted ways, some years later other talents revealed that the Destroyer was meant to battle the planet-judging Fourth Host of the Celestials from a later Kirby creation, The Eternals. See how all Marvel stories link up? The Destroyer is as awesome and as fearsome as we’d like him to be. I’ll never forget the first time Goldilocks mixed it up with this armored golem; the Destroyer sliced Mjolnir the hammer in two and almost disintegrated Thor! (Issues #119 and #120. This was also the first Odinsleep story--see what I mean?) Odin’s metal monster brings that same deadliness to our film. However, I do have to agree with my friend Martin in Scotland, who points out that the showdown between Thor and the Destroyer is over far too quickly and Thor’s victory is far too facile. I remember another story in which the Destroyer actually lived up to its name and sent our Thunder God to Hela, Goddess of Death! (Thor Vol. 2, #1-3.) The studio may have thought a proper battle with the Destroyer would make the picture too long, but how long is too long with a threat of this magnitude?
Anyway, the absence of Balder and a too-facile smackdown with the Destroyer are the only things holding this picture back from shooting past the first Iron Man film on the Super-Hero Movie Scale. As it is, Thor is probably better than Iron Man 2 and almost as good as Iron Man 1, which makes it one of the very best super-hero movies. And it is in fact the only super-hero movie to date that has left me with the feeling of absolute awe and wonder that so moved and inspired me as a young fan reading the original, classic Marvel comics, which puts it in a class by itself. I look forward to seeing Thor again in The Avengers, but I’m also “breathless,” as the old theme song put it, for another movie just about Thor. I propose an adaptation of the “Thor vs. Hercules” saga from issues #125 to #128! I’d love to see whom they’d cast as Marvel’s Hercules!
I’m still fuming over the whole postage-stamp thing, but I’m so proud of Thor’s mighty comeback and what’s been accomplished with the God of Thunder. Definitely sign me up for the next trip over the Rainbow Bridge. Thor rules!
Don't know why I didn't see this coming...


Leovi said...

Very interesting, I love the mythology.

♥~Judy~♥ said...

I have a son who was very heavy into mythology was going to high school - comic books too. I am sure this would make him very happy.

♥~Judy~♥ said...

Wow! I loved comic books as a child and was glad when my oldest one did. His struggles with reading were quickly over as he became engrossed in their tales.

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