Thor


The fourth film in the first phase of the MCU is Thor (2011), directed by Kenneth Branagh. At first glance, it seems strange to see a great Shakespeare actor and director attached to a superhero film, but Branagh has been a enthusiastic Thor fan since childhood. His zeal certainly shows in the character development in the film. Branagh also saw a lot of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in Thor, which he was able to utilize to fully develop and elevate the characters and world of Asgard.

How do you even approach a film about comic book superhero-gods based on Norse mythology and make it successful? Branagh certainly had a lot to do with it. He infused the film with full-fledged characters. Chris Hemsworth also had a lot to do with it. He creates a character that has all of the regality, strength, and assurance of a god while also blending in charisma and humor. He’s completely believable as a force for good, passionate in keeping the realm safe, who rallies his warrior friends behind him to do what must be done. He’s also incredibly endearing when he’s ousted from Asgard and lives on Earth as a mortal, interacting with human folk and learning their ways and customs. Branagh and Hemsworth brought life and empathy to the character, whose unexpected behavior still keeps audiences laughing in all his future films.

The rest of the cast is fantastic. A great protagonist flourishes against an equally great villain, and Thor’s “brother” Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the best MCU villains out there — so good that he comes back as the villain for The Avengers. What makes Loki’s villainy so interesting is that he is learning about and dealing with the truth of his childhood. He feels betrayed by his family yet close to them. He feels spurned to embrace the malicious instincts he feels, yet he can be good. He is very much a conflicted villain, which sometimes is even more interesting than a conflicted hero. He isn’t a purely wicked character; he spends the film fighting it, exploring it, coping with it. Hiddleston’s performance is absolutely finessed and breathtaking. He can interact with Thor as a brother and, just as naturally, challenge him as an enemy. Odin (Anthony Hopkins), their father, is an equally strong force, overseeing both of their shenanigans and teaching them important lessons. Both Hopkins and Hiddleston put on performances that steal the show, with their emotional depth and on-screen presence.

Jane (Natalie Portman) is a scientist, incredibly smart and gutsy, but a little tangential to the scientific community. She pursues science that fascinates her, but her peers do not appear to support her ideas. She is probably the opposite kind of personality that Thor would ever meet in a woman in Asgard. She’s strong, smart, and wild, which really piques his interest. S.H.I.E.L.D makes another appearance to push forward to The Avengers. Here, they mostly are just trying to understand the bridge between Earth and Asgard so that they can establish a communication with the gods. Clark Gregg makes another appearance as Agent Phil Coulson who mostly irritates Jane.

Overall, Thor is a fantastic edition to the MCU, even more brilliant after the lackluster chapter of Iron Man 2. Characterizations were polished, performances were excellent, and direction was masterful. Patrick Doyle lends a majestic score with themes that represent the rugged power of Mjölnir and the wonder of Asgard. Thor flourishes because Branagh sought out to create characters not shells. What sets Thor apart from the previous MCU films and many that came after is the decision to humanize the villain. Villains that the audience can commiserate with are scarier, because it forces everyone to recognize the villainy inside us all.

Iron Man 2


It seems a little strange to have a sequel in the first phase of the MCU before other heroes’ first film. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. return in Iron Man 2 to bring back that snarky Stark personality that won over the country in Iron Man. The first film was definitely a hit, but the sequel is not so solid.

The good thing about Iron Man 2 is the integration and development of S.H.I.E.L.D’s presence in the MCU. Clark Gregg reprises his role as the charismatic Agent Phil Coulson, this time joined by Director of SHIELD Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and undercover agent Natasha Romanoff, alias Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). SHIELD’s almost ever-present involvement is crucial for pacing the multi-movie arc leading to the assembly of the Avengers; otherwise, they’re just a bunch of superhero films. What tickles me most about Iron Man 2 is that while Stark always feels that he’s in control, SHIELD has been infiltrating his life without his knowledge. Granted, he has been preoccupied with saving his life, but it’s still amusing.

Another good thing about the film is the struggle Stark has with making his father proud of him. He genuinely believes that his father was, at best, apathetic or, at worst, ashamed of him. While going through many of his father’s personal items, he sees a video where his father tells Stark that everything he has built has been for him, that he loved him. It’s a touching moment; though, it’s overshadowed by much of the action in the film. A scene like this is a rare glimpse into the man behind the persona.

Other than that, Iron Man 2 does not dazzle like its predecessor. Stark’s increasingly pressing mission to save his life from the contaminating arc reactors is compelling, but his spiral to immaturity and neglect is off-putting. It does not come across as a man who is more and more aware of his mortality; rather, it feels like his all too familiar Stark antics. It’s hard to feel sympathetic  for Stark. It’s written more for show and laughs than it is for a real exploration of Stark’s character. Add in an uninteresting villain, and you’ve got a pretty generic superhero film. Iron Man 2 provides a little dip halfway through Phase 1 of the MCU, which thankfully climbs back up with the subsequent films.

Westender


Westender (2003) is the directorial debut for Brock MorseWestender tells the story of a revered knight who has fallen from grace and his transformation to his former self. The film stars Blake Stadel and the film’s composer Rob Simonsen.

There is a lot of passion for this project. Filmed in Morse’s home state of Oregon, the scenery in the film is one of Westender‘s best qualities. The landscapes — be it forest, mountain, or desert — are beautiful to look at, even if the action on screen isn’t that engaging. It takes a lot of guts to make a fantasy epic as a first film with a meager budget. The outcome is heartfelt but unpolished. The script is severely lacking. I like the mystery of the protagonist Asbrey of Westender, that he has somehow lost his way from knighthood and that he has lost love in his past, but the narrative leaves many more questions unanswered than resolved. For instance, the opening text of the film addresses some lore of good and evil, but the film never sets up or explains the film’s established world. What is the political and governmental set-up? Is this historical fiction or pure fantasy emulating the Middle Ages? As for Asbrey of Westender — what is the significance of Westender? To title the film after something that isn’t explained is careless. The script meanders and lingers far too much. I get the sense that Morse wanted to let things breath and have that gravitas of a fantasy epic, but the elements that loiter in the film drastically curtail the momentum. One example is when Asbrey and Grim find the procession of knights. They just watch the march shuffle by for a languidly long time before doing anything. Another example is when Asbrey wanders around the desert for an excruciatingly long time. The audience gets the idea of the lost hero finding himself in a desolate place — we do not need to go through our own walkabout while watching the film.

Independent films have the freedom to play outside the convention of bigger film companies. Storylines can explore innovative delivery and don’t always have to be tied in a neat bow at the end. However, Westender leaves too many things unresolved. The whole premise of the film is Asbrey’s search for his ring. He never gets it. The film’s one shining comedic relief, Grim — played by composer Rob Simonsen — is a delight, but he’s written out of the script and completely disappears. In the film’s “climax”, some folks unfortunately cross paths with Asbrey and the thief who stole his ring. They speak a different language;  the young man in their group threatens Asbrey at one point but saves his life, but their whole existence is never explained. Who are these people? Other than some crying children who can attempt to create an emotionally heavy moment.

There are some shining moments in the film. Along with the scenery, Simonsen’s score is the best part of Westender. His music is highly fantastical and sweepingly grand. The score gives the film a grandeur and depth that frankly would never have been achieved otherwise. Though, at times, the script’s extremely slow pacing interferes with the natural phrasing of the music, causing it to be elongated or stifled to fill up the empty space. The lead actor, Stadel, is committed. It might be over the top at times, but this film needed devoted acting to keep the audience engaged with Asbrey’s story. Simonsen’s acting is also charming, with the right comedic timing.

All in all, the film falls a little flat. Its production value is low, evident in the big battle scenes and obviously choreographed action sequences. The spirit and heart of a grand fantasy epic are there — heard in Simonsen’s beautiful score — but the narrative fails in its responsibilities in storytelling. The script needed more refining before filming. It sets some interesting ideas in motion but lets them fizzle out or wander around aimlessly. The potential was there without the ample execution.