Sunday, May 15, 2011

Where the Booming Heavens Roar

During Marvel Comics' Silver Age heyday, in the 1960's, the three comic features that best showed off the synergy of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby team were THE FANTASTIC FOUR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and THOR. Each title showed a different aspect of Kirby mastery of comics art. The FF showcased Kirby's talent for science fiction, fostered by his lifelong love for SF literature and his fascination with new technologies. CAPTAIN AMERICA, which Kirby co-created with Joe Simon in the 1940's, reflected his love of action and his depiction of street-level brawling raised to a high art. And THOR was his fantasy title, in which he took his interest in mythology and mixed it with his science-fiction sensability to create his take on the Norse myths -- one in which Asgard is a gleaming metropolis of impossible architecture, with gleaming-plated warriors galloping horses across the Rainbow Bridge with nebulae and exploding stars hanging in the sky above.

Of the many accomplishments of Marvel Studios' and director Kenneth Branagh's movie adaption of THOR, the greatest is that it has brought Kirby's fantastic vision to life. Early in the movie, we see Thor, Loki, Sif, and the Warriors Three galloping their horses across Bifrost, the skies crowded with astronomical phenomena, and the scene looks like a Kirby panel brought to life.

This is an aspect that has been missing from the previous Marvel movies. In part, this is because the previous movies involved characters with which Kirby was less involved. SPIDER-MAN was primarily the visual creation of Steve Ditko and his artistic successor on the strip, John Romita. X-MEN was created by Lee and Kirby, but the movies focused less on Kirby's era and more on the modern incarnation of the mutants, capturing the look of artists such as Neal Adams, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. Similarly, the Hulk was co-created by Kirby, but most of his adventures were drawn by other artists. Same for IRON MAN. As for the FANTASTIC FOUR movies, they did capture Kirby's versions of The Thing and the Silver Surfer, but squandered the chance to adapt Kirby's talents for set and technology design.

But THOR brings the Kirby. Not only in depicting Asgard, but also in the costume and armor design, the depiction of Thor in action (Thor's spinning hammer was thrilling to watch), and Kirby's giant-robot creation The Destroyer (which some critics derided as generic, probably because others have ripped off the design).

All that eye candy would be wasted, of course, if the movie weren't entertaining otherwise. Chris Hemsworth radiates tremendous charisma and likeability as Thor, which is essential since the character starts off the movie as an arrogant bully. Anthony Hopkins does such a good job as Odin (a kinder and gentler Odin than the tyrannical papa in the comics) that it's hard to imagine who else could play the part. And Tom Hiddleston as Loki manages to play his villainy so subtly that you can imagine why people continue to trust a guy who's, y'know, a trickster god. Further, although they play only supporting roles, the actors who play The Warriors Three (essentially taken whole from the comics, except Volstagg, who was apparently redesigned to resemble Gimli from the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Sif are terrific.

The story (the product of a committee, most notably including comics and SF writer J. Michael Strazcynski) isn't brilliant, but it serves the movie. Notably, Thor's character arc of developing humility isn't accomplished through spending years as a lame doctor on earth (as in the comics) but through a couple of days of being mortal and powerless. After all, everything's speeded up in Hollywood. But it works.

THOR leaves me with high hopes for the next Kirby creation to appear on the big screen, in a couple of months, from the same studio: CAPTAIN AMERICA.

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