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.

Noah


Noah (2014) is a biblically inspired epic fantasy film (emphasis on the fantasy) written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, score by Clint Mansell. Although inspired by the biblical story of Noah, it is a fantasy film separate from that cannon, ultimately attempting to develop the character of Noah — who is quite well known from the Bible while being insufficiently written about or described.

I can still remember seeing rumors about Aronofsky’s next film on Twitter, cocking my head to the side as it was revealed to be a film about Noah. It didn’t seem particularly characteristic for Aronofsky, but after I got over my perplexed shock, I put my trust in him. I’ve enjoyed his films, and I believed that he would be able to pull it off. Over the months, after hearing casting decisions and production news, my curiosity and excitement rose. I really had no idea what to expect. There have been a plethora of articles and reviews about the film, which piqued my interest and curiosity even more. Now it is time for me to pass my judgment on the film. And it is good. For the most part.

The first thing to understand about this film is that it’s inspired by the biblical story — it does not set out to be a literal representation of the tale in the Bible. Aronofsky was fascinated by Noah since he was a kid. Because Noah as a person was not widely discussed in the Bible, he set out to create this film to address the man, the character of Noah. Something that both Aronofsky and Russell Crowe had to tackle was discovering Noah’s character. In the Bible, God chooses Noah and his family to repopulate the Earth, so it is widely believed that Noah was a kind and benevolent man. Aronofsky’s take on Noah is a man who has the strength and will to complete God’s task — to let countless men, women, and children die. This version of Noah is hard, unwavering, yet just. Though, the fundamental difference between the Bible’s Noah and Aronofsky’s Noah is that The Creator (he’s never addressed as God in the film) does not explicitly communicate with or give instructions to Noah. In the Bible, God gives Noah very specific instructions, but in the film, Noah has to deduce what The Creator wants from him. This leads to what I felt to be the awkward part of the film, where Noah sincerely believes that The Creator does not want him or his family to repopulate the Earth after the floods are cleared away. Because of this, he doesn’t obtain wives for Ham or Japheth, and he sets out to kill his previously-barren-turned-furtile adopted daughter’s newborns — all to appease The Creator’s wishes. However awkward it feels to watch it, the narrative gives Noah some depth as a character, a pious man who has to realize and accept that there is good in humanity despite the debauchery and sin he witnessed from the descendants of Cain.

I do have some problems with Noah’s character, though. My biggest problem is his decision to abandon the girl that Ham (Logan Lerman) tries to save. When the family first set out, they found Ila injured. A mob of evil men descended on them; they could have left Ila there, but they took the girl with them and raised her as part of the family. It’s a bit hypocritical to leave the girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), to die, but Noah at that point believes there is no goodness in anybody, including himself. He believes that he and his family are only supposed to safely care for the animals until they can repopulate a human-less Earth, which leads to a big theme in Noah: environmentalism.

The film cries out in support and defense of the natural world. As the family journeys to see Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), they’re pursued by a gang of evil men. They’re forced to run out into a barren land, black and dry of any nutrients. It shows how greedy and apathetic mankind has become towards nature — a clear metaphor for our present society and its unconcern for the natural world. The Earth becomes an actual character in the film, beautifully showcased in many gorgeous shots, particularly in the incredible evolutionary creationism sequence that accompanies the creation story Noah tells the family. The Creator establishes a beautiful world filled with many wonders, and humankind has raped and desecrated it. Nature is also the only way that The Creator communicates with Noah. He sends down a water drop to bloom into a flower in mere seconds to get Noah’s attention. He creates a forest from a sprouting fountain that will provide the lumber for the ark. He destroys the world with floods and water. The natural world is the vessel through which The Creator speaks, which may be suggesting that to embrace and care for the natural world is to embrace godliness.

Aronofsky creates some incredible shots and sequences in the film. His characteristic quick edits make an appearance in Noah in a couple artistic and effective scenes. First is the shot of the doves that follow the stream to the ark. What follows is a series of shots in rapid succession. It would not have been as effective if one or two shots of the doves flying were smoothly edited together to show the passing of time. The quick shots position the birds flying among a plethora of backgrounds, showing a passage of time and change of scenery. Edited quickly, and fitting in a myriad of shots in a short amount of time, it gives the illusion that an extreme amount of time is passing. Another scene that moved me was when Methuselah cures Ila (Emma Watson) of her barrenness. He’s digging for berries and she happens upon him as she searches for Ham. Never having met before, he wants to give his blessing since she is part of the family. He touches her, and an invisible wave of energy emits from her body. She looks up at the trees, at first unclear, and slowly begins to see them in focus. This scene supports the miraculous power of fertility, again relating to the wonders of the natural world. Struck barren for most of her life, once Ila has been given the gift to bear children again, nature reacts physically to emphasize the power there is in womanhood. My favorite scene is the evolutionary creationism sequence. Noah, to accentuate the purpose for cleansing the world of humankind, tells his family the story of creation. It follows the timeline dictated in Genesis, but the sequence that accompanies the story does not follow the literal timeline. The visuals begin with the big bang, and shows the creation of the Earth and the moon out of chaos, the formation of land and sea over eons, and the beginnings of life from amoeba to evolved life forms, all in a beautiful and impressive sequence.

Jennifer Connelly plays Noah’s wife, subtly and beautifully. She’s a strong companion to him and a nurturing mother to their children. Despite that, she’s written into an Eve-like character that I don’t particularly like. She’s the one that speaks with Methuselah about curing Ila’s barrenness, but that is after he’s convinced that humankind should not continue in the new Earth. Because of his unwavering position, she’s painted as the weak woman who was driven by emotion to undermine his decisions. Her alluring and graceful character from the beginning of the film transforms into a flat and mundane character towards the end of the film, which is a shame.

Noah is a film designed to explore the motivations of and character behind Noah. If you go into the theatre expecting to see an exact retelling from the Bible, you will be disappointed. The first two thirds of the film, leading to the building of the ark and the advent of the flood waters, are engaging and thrilling. The timing feels comfortably paced and the visuals on the screen are nothing short of epic. Once in the ark, the narrative goes to a strange, uncomfortable place. The film begins to feel long and is saturated with subplots, including the unnecessary stow-away subplot with Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). The high energy of the film fizzles out once on the ark and is replaced with awkwardness. However, the incredible visuals, amazing cinematography and masterful editing make the film artistic and spectacular, which is definitely worth a watch.