Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Watcher Retrospective - Hammer time!

Since the brief glimpse of Mjolnir, Thor’s legendary hammer in the epilogue to Iron Man 2, advance publicity for Marvel Studios’ latest has gathered pace, with two official trailers and several lengthy clips all over the net. Thor, with his magical origins, epic family drama and none-more-super powers (well he is a god) seems the perfect fit in a world where big budget, fan-pleasing comic book adaptations are now routine.

Back in the day however, before FX technology (not to mention public demand) was good enough, only the most iconic superheroes got a shot at big screen glory. Marvel themselves seemed content to carve out a live action niche on the small screen. The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), while ostensibly a sequel to Kenneth Johnson’s fondly remembered T.V. series, was also a ‘backdoor pilot’ for a Thor television series, with star Bill Bixby seemingly content to give the God of Thunder a leg up.

Banner, now living peacefully and on the verge of a cure for his destructive Hulk-outs, receives an untimely visit from ex-student Dr. Donald Blake, who needs help with a ‘little problem’. Echoing the comic book continuity, Blake has stumbled upon an ancient tomb in the Scandinavian wilderness and finding Mjolnir, summoned Thor himself. Thor is slightly retconned here as a long dead Viking king, rather than actual god, whom Odin has barred from Viking heaven, Valhalla, for "the sin of pride." From his initial appearance - in which he not only demands to have some booze before wrecking Banner’s lab, but also manages to goad the Hulk out of his two year slumber seemingly for fun - it is easy to see Odin’s beef.

Although this initially makes our new hero seem like a bit of a tool, it nevertheless sets up a neat ongoing theme for a series, as Thor must learn humility and seek redemption (possibly by beating up some bad guys week after week?) It was probably also due to the needs of an ongoing series that the distinct personalities of Blake and Thor are here cast as two separate people, rather than sharing a body as in the comics. This allows Blake, played by Steve Levitt as an equally flawed character, and the buff yet likable Eric Allen Kramer as Thor, to share some entertaining banter, whether bonding over pitchers of beer in a biker bar, or discussing the seemingly endless torment of Thor’s life in purgatory. The original odd couple, if you will.

Overall however, the format proved too limiting for a series. Although Thor here is not a god, his sheer power and pure fantasy origins clearly demand more colourful enemies than the rent-a-thugs the budget affords him. Also, whilst Blake’s situation is likened time and again to Banner’s own struggle, the interplay with Thor is too comfortable by story’s end and he ultimately lacks Banner’s innate hubris.

Of the clips of Thor 2011 released so far, it appears that director Kenneth Brannagh is going for a similar character arc for the title character, played by Chris Hemsworth - immense appetite, lab wrecking and humour aplenty, but with the presence of a fully realised comic book world, together with a stellar cast and some nifty effects. He seemingly has more tools than just a hammer to craft an epic worthy of a GOD.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe just hopes that this Thor is mighty enough to withstand the dreaded 3D conversion

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