I Am Captain Bland and I Wield Bojlnir, the Bland Hammer
MCU 4: Thor
What do you do if you're Marvel at this point. So far your nascent Cinematic Universe consists of one out-and-out hit (2008's Iron Man), and absolute dud (The Incredible Hulk, also from 2008), and then a financially successful but critically panned sequel (Iron Man 2 from 2011). Right now you're batting more misses than hits, but clearly there's some kind of plan in place, right?
In 2011, we got our answer to that question with the release of Thor, Marvel's second attempt at launching any hero other than Iron Man that could have their own series. The goal, of course, was the build a world that could host a superhero team-up, the great comic-book crossover writ large on the big screen. Since these were all B-list heroes that Marvel still had sitting around, the crossover would have to be built on The Avengers and that required heroes that famously had been on that team. Skipping over poor Ant-Man and Wasp (two found members of the team that wouldn't get their own movies until years later), we get the Asgardian god, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and his adventures across the nine realms of the universe on the back of his mighty hammer. As silly as the concept sounded, it still couldn't have been any worse than The Incredible Hulk.
After a brief prologue explaining the war between the Asgardians (the gods of Norse mythology) and the Ice Giants evil creatures that wanted to place Miguard -- Earth -- under snow and ice), we start the meat of the movie in Asgard, at the coronation of Thor. Thor, son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of the Gods, is being named successor to the throne (you know, eventually), but the ceremony is ruined when Ice Giants invade the royal treasury and attempt to steal back a great and power treasure of theirs that Odin took centuries ago (Asgardians and Ice Giant both live for thousands of years). Thor, enraged at the impertinence of the Ice Giants goes to their home world along with his friends and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) against the express wishes of Odin. He nearly gets himself and all his allies killed in the process, and they all have to be saved by Odin.
When Thor isn't in the least bit apologetic, and instead causes and even bigger fight with Odin, the King strips Thor of his title and power and banishes his son to Earth. He also changes the blessing of Thor's hammer, granting "The Power of Thor" to anyone worthy enough to wield it. As Thor soon learns, that's not him, as even when he grabs the hammer it won't budge -- Thor has been a bad son and a bad hero and the hammer knows it. Stick on Earth, with no where to go and nothing to do, Thor has to make new friends -- like Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), doctors of astrophysics studying Asgardian phenomena (even if they don't realize that's what it is) -- and make a life for himself on Earth. All this without realizing Loki's machinations, the desire Thor's younger brother has for power and the throne.
To be frank, Thor is a bit of a mess. It's not anywhere near as bad as The Incredible Hulk, as it's both well produced and quite enjoyable to watch, but it's still not a great movie in comparison to many of the films that would come out as part of the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. in the following years. The first, big issue with the film is that it's just so small. The movie goes on about the nine realms, the job of the Asgardians to protect all who live across the universe, but all we see of this is a single location on the Ice Giant's home world, a few rooms in Asgard, and a small portion of a small town in New Mexico. The film tells us of epic adventures and stunning locations but never actually shows us more than a few studio back-lots and some green-screened sets.
Not that the movie is at all interested in doing anything on a big scale. Thor sets itself up as a redemption tale for its titular hero, but then it quickly rushes through everything, resolving its entire story in a matter of days. A story like this should takes months, if not years, to play out appropriately, but Thor is somehow ale to get cast down to Earth, learn his lessons, fall in love, and redeem himself in, essentially, a day-and-a-half. That's less exile than the Asgardian equivalent of Thor being sent to his room without dinner. I don't know what kind of lesson someone could learn in that span of time, but it couldn't be anything truly lasting. Maybe we're supposed to learn that Thor had the true heart of a hero all a long, but then wouldn't his magical hammer, Mojlnir, have known this and been able to detect it?
What the movie needed was a chance to slow down, to explore it's characters and their actions at a scale that made sense. For Thor, this would have meant keeping him on Earth for a few weeks, letting him become a part of the community around him, to learn what it's like to just be a mortal and find a way to care about people not as a go or king but as a man. This would have then sold his redemption arc because he truly would have cast aside the thought of being a king, or even a hero, and would step up to save the day just because he cared about those around him deep down.
Meanwhile, giving the film a longer time-scale would have give us time to see what Loki was really planning. He could have been a petulant god-king, a petty tyrant with petty plans, being greed and callous while his kingdom suffered. This both would have better established him as a villain while also giving Thor's friends (the so-called "Warrior's Three") more of a reason to go to Earth and find their friend. Everything would have felt much more organic if the film would have just slowed down and taken it's time to build things up properly.
But then, it really didn't feel like director Kenneth Brannaugh wanted to slow down at all -- it's more like he wanted to collect his paycheck and get this whole dirty business of making a superhero movie over as fast as possible. Any number of times the director could have slowed things down, lets the various scenes and action beats play out, but he rushed everything ahead, time and again, to get us to the end of the movie that much quicker. The only time he ever seemed to want to slow down was for long, majestic tracking shots over Asgard, moments where there weren't any characters on screen and he could just let the CGI artists show off their handiwork while he was in another room drinking a brandy while reading the Bard (or whatever it was his did).
It's a pity, too, because there's a lot to like in the movie. Despite this being Chris Hemsworth's blandest performance as Thor in the whole series of MCU movies he's made, I don't really think that's his fault. There are flashes of the character we know and love from later flicks, but every time that version of Thor crops up, almost immediately the film cuts away to some other character or scene. The great, humorous Thor that Hemsworth could delivery isn't interesting enough for Brannaugh, so we move on constantly.
Hiddleston's Loki, too, is betrayed by the movie but that's just because we never get enough time with him to see like the grand schemer he's billed as. Everything we know about Loki we get from the actor, and Hiddleston does such a great job in the role it's almost enough. Loki is one of the best villains in the MCU and that's despite the film he's in having very little interest in the character at all.
It's not hard to see a better film coming from the bones of the movie we got. The story was perfectly salvageable and with just a little massaging it could have been an absolute winner. And that's not to disparage the film we actually got too much -- I've watched it a few times and while I can see the flaws, I still enjoy it every time. It's not great but it is pretty good. Thor is passably solid popcorn, a good time that, sadly, could have been even better. Thor deserved better, but sadly he wouldn't get a rally great movie until his third solo outing.