Friday, May 6, 2011

Blockbluster: Bush v. Thor

Posted By and on Fri, May 6, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Lets get hammered and then nail.
  • "Let's get hammered and then nail."
Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during which sorts of movies regular people all over the country are getting hammered. This week they ogle Norse gods in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor.

STEWART:
Hiya, Ben! If you and I are talking again it can only mean one thing: it's summer blockbuster season (though not actually summer), which we're kicking off with an unusual superhero movie. Thor has a respectable pedigree, on a level we don't usually see in these popcorn pushers—from America's favorite Shakespearean, Kenneth Brannagh, in the director's chair to our best actress, the ubiquitous, Academy Award-winning Natalie Portman, in the co-starring, love-interest role. (Her character's name is Jane, highlighting that she plays the Jane to Thor's Tarzan.) What difference does such reputable talent make? Well...at least it's not tiresomely militaristic, or some mess of reactionary, half-baked ideologies, right? And there sure was a lot more crying than usual. I thought Brannagh & Co. brought to Thor basic levels of competence often missing from these things; it's pretty inoffensive, but hardly anything to get excited about.

SUTTON:
"Inoffensive," Henry!? Sure, I guess, except for all the crypto-Christian imagery and symbolism smuggled in under the guise of comic book-adapted Norse mythology. These ancient Norwegian deities live like clergy in a giant church organ made of gold. The conflict between king Odin's (Anthony Hopkins) good son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and evil, adopted son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) can be mapped onto any number of biblical narratives, or Paradise Lost, or just any story that's ever pitted good white dudes against dark monsters (most blockbuster narratives, in other words). But, yeah, it could be worse. Branagh and writers Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne keep a sense of humor throughout, with tossed-off references to other Avengers franchises, that hilarious scene of symbolic impotence when Thor can't get his Excliburian hammer up, and when the fire-zapping Destroyer blows up a presumably lucrative 7-Eleven product placement. I also liked how Thor tapped into the New Mexico alien conspiracy subgenre, with torture-threatening G-Men, UFOs and, at their landing sites, the desert equivalent of crop circles (dust circles?). Meanwhile, the thing that bothered me most was that literally every second shot was canted. What was up with that, Henry?

STEWART:
I think dutch angles are considered part of an authentic "comic book aesthetic"; David Fear calls them "Kirbyesque"; people even call them Batman angles sometimes, because they were so heavily utilized in the old Adam West series (not to mention Batman Forever, ugh). I would chalk it up to Branagh feeling a little insecure with the material and overcompensating. You might say he shows poor leadership qualities, which is ironic because that's what Thor is all about! Did you notice how the screenplay was anti-George Bush without being particularly pro-Obama? (How could such an Aryan hero celebrate our black president, right?) Loki, the bad guy, essentially tries to kill "an entire race" in order to impress his father, not unlike the main character in Oliver Stone's W. Loki's also the one who preaches the importance of seamless leadership continuity—echoing 43's supporters in 2004 who insisted you "don't change horses in mid-stream"—while pushing for the kind of unity based on uncritical obeisance, echoing the right's accusations of left-wing anti-Americanism. But a Bush allegory, ultimately, is a little too reductive, not to mention dated. The movie exploits the country's desire, in the wake of Mr. Bush, for a wise warrior king, one who never seeks out war but does not cower from it, either. (Like Star Trek two years ago, Thor kicks off the season with cool-headed centrism. Don't get used to it, America!) Although, in the wake of bin Laden's death, Obama starts to look like Black Thor, no? What confused me most about the movie was that the bad guys were Ice Creatures, and the good guys were from the New Mexico desert. Hot vs. Cold—is there some global warming thing I'm not getting, Ben?

SUTTON:
There definitely is, Henry: never mind Black Thor (which must've been a Roger Corman project sometime in the late-70s), it's all about Gore Thor, the mythic superhero who'll prevent us from entering another ice age through peace-keeping temperance rather than hot-cold climate wars. Notice how the beams transporting Asgardians to Earth are lightning-filled tornadoes, which we never used to see so far West—except in 2012. This also explains why the Destroyer explodes Anytown, New Mexico's gas station: that giant fire-zapping knight is a primordial Scandinavian eco-terrorist! By this reading Jane becomes a noble climate change researcher, her ground-breaking almost-discovery seized by the government, presumably to be turned into a weapon.

But enough about nature; what's up with this royal family co-opting the noble hammer, a symbol of the global labor movement, in service of what is at best interstellar diplomacy by intimidation, and at worst cross-realm colonialism? Nah, Hemsworth and Portman aren't Tarzan and Jane, they're William and Kate.

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