Monday, May 16, 2011

This might get wordy.

Did you all know that the opening to Back to the Future spoils a scene that happens at the end? A minute into the first movie, the camera is panning over all the different clocks that Doc Brown has set up. What most people probably notice but completely ignore is the following clock:

See the little guy danging there from the minute hand of the clock? The guy dressed exactly like how Doc Brown is dressed at the climatic scene of the movie? Yeah. Time travel, eh?

Actually, background objects lead me to my real topic. More often than not, your average movie or tv show completely forgets about the background of the plot. I don't mean the set pieces, which are often greatly detailed and undoubtedly very expensive, but the details within the background are often overlooked. The objects, the sounds, and even the people frequently move in and out of a scene with no greater purpose than to keep you from realizing that the story's extremely two-dimensional, and nobody has anything to do other than wait for two people to fall in love or defeat the bad guys.

In really bad movies and tv shows, they also includes the costars.

Let's look at a movie I just saw that has an interesting take on background characters: Thor.

Having just seen the movie, I'm still torn about whether or not it was a "good" movie. Did I walk away feeling like I got my seven dollars worth? Sure. It was certainly more value than the ten dollars I spent on nachos-minus-cheese and some Junior Mints. Was it fun? In its way, yes. Would I have done some things differently? Yes, and almost all of it involves the backup characters. I'm ignoring Thor because, really, what do you need from his character? Big guy, blond hair, hits things with a hammer, learns humility. It's not complex.

Spoilers follow, but I'll try to keep them as minimal as possible.

(When it comes to SHIELD, I think less is more. Having them around wasn't really necessary to the story, and seemed to just be a way of waving a banner saying 'COMING SOON! THE AVENGERS!')

Let's start with the biggest backup character: Dr. Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman. Now, I've never been the biggest fan of Natalie Portman, but that's possibly just hard feelings from the new Star Wars episodes. To be fair, she isn't a bad actress, but here the character And I'll admit, I'm puzzled why the felt the need to take a character who was an actual nurse-later-doctor and turn her into a physicist. How hard would it have been to write the script so she plays the doctor who initially treats Thor after his arrival? You want her to be upset at the "big, bad government" then have them be the people who take her medical records, not her science notes.

Honestly, watching the movie, the romance felt tacked on, and maybe that's what's bothering me about her character. I will admit that these are attractive actors playing attractive people (okay, an attractive person and a god), but Foster fell for Thor pretty quickly in my humble opinion.

Imagine the following scenario instead:

What if, instead of Thor becoming the fixture of Jane Foster's world, we swap it around. This is his guide in this world to educate him not just on location, but culture. He needs Jane a lot more than Jane needs him. Jane tolerates him because a) she feels a strange sense of responsibility for this giant galoot who follows her around, and b) somewhere under that barbaric behavior she keeps spying hints of the nobility and romanticism underneath. Thor always speaks kindly and gently to children and women, he appreciates the majesty of a thunderstorm even if he needs to be dragged inside to watch from a window, and the things from our world unknown to him (medicine, art, nature) he takes in like a child, amazed at the wonders "mortals" have achieved. Then, once Thor reclaims his power and glory and she's able to see him in all his majesty, then you have her start to admit to herself she has a crush on the big guy, NOT when he's still in the running for "most likely to find a way to dent his head in a padded cell."

But, there should be distance. He's a god, she's a mortal. He's amongst the bravest, most beautiful women in existence who do more wonders in a day than most people in a lifetime, she's a struggling doctor who shares a living space with her friend and occasionally mismatches her socks. There should be some play on just how different these two are. Look at the Lord of the Rings movies, for example, when they discuss how, even though he'll likely live a very long time, Aragorn is going to be old and wrinkled before Arwen has a single wrinkle. That should probably come up considering Odin was fighting frost giants before our calendar even reached A.D.

Let's look at the other background characters. How about the Warriors Three and Lady Sif?

Was it just me, or once they arrived on Earth did they go from being the noblest, mightiest warriors of the Asgardian realms to a college guy's frat buddies and the hot chick they hang out with? The scene with them knocking on the glass exclaiming they found Thor perplexed me. Of course you found him, you walked in a straight line from Point A to Point B and there he was. Did they have a Thor-detecting compass? Did their GPS (God Positioning System) tell them Thor was "five miles west, make a left at the 7-11?" Wouldn't they have been drawn to the hammer, since it was significantly more godly than Thor was at that point? Wouldn't a fun scene have been them trying to ask directions?

And did it bother anybody else that they made the actor playing Fandral look so much like Cary Elwes without letting him just be played by Cary Elwes?

Seriously, I kept expecting him to say "as you wish" or inform a frost giant that "unlike some other Norse gods, he can speak in a Scandinavian accent."

These characters did their job well, though I would have liked to have seen more of their involvement in Thor's childhood. Build up just how strong a friendship he has with the four who are apparently the only other Asgardians significant enough to live in the palace and go on adventures. Do they live in the palace because of their might as warriors, or is it actually the suburbs and Sif just has three of the strangest roommates of all time? (Note to self, pitch sitcom idea as "Asgard Meets How I Met Your Mother." We'll call it "Third Rock From The Aesir" or "How I Met Your Mjollnir.")

Then there's Big Daddy Odin and Loki. God bless you, Anthony Hopkins, you were overacting like every day was meant for the blooper reel, but from you we believe it. Loki...I don't know what to make of you. You're the god of lies and mischief, but it honestly felt that Obadiah Stane did a better job pulling the puppet strings in "Iron Man" than you did here. And he was played by "The Dude." I got a lot of your character, but you were...inconsistent. Were you really just having fun when you disrupted Thor's "big day" by letting the frost giants in, or was it part of your bigger plan? You didn't learn the big secret of your past until later, so maybe some character development where we show you getting overlooked in the past would've been nice, let us see where that resentment came from.

Then there was Darcy, Jane Foster's best friend. At least Dr. Selvig knew people who knew people at SHIELD and was a good point man to send to retrieve Thor.'re going to be joining the ranks of Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl, Rob Schneider in Judge Dredd, Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element, and Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2 as one of the characters that I honestly didn't see why you had to be included. If anything, having a roommate or "best friend" that only pops up now and again would add to why Jane keeps Thor around since she's undoubtedly lonely. Instead, we get a character who seems designed to just spout the most obnoxious lines in the movies and make us really start to root for the Destroyer armor.

But as I said before, it's not just background characters but also the backgrounds that are key to making a movie good. I was disappointed early on when we had the huge, sweeping view of Asgard, and at the bottom of the screen, where the streets were, I kept seeing either tiny CG people standing around or really bizarrely shaped shrubberies. Besides Thor, Odin, the Three, Sif, Loki, and Rene Russo, the only other people who show up in Asgard proper (I'm not counting Heimdall since the dude never takes a coffee break. Honestly, he's the one background character I had no problems with whatsoever.) arrive to hear Odin give a speech and then are never seen again. What do these people do all day? Who tends to gardens, builds the fascinating archetcture, or cleans the floors? Are they all gods and the magic of the realm does that itself, or are some "gods" just more godly than others? I want to see a populated Asgard, not just keep hearing the character in Monty Python say "It's only a model" any time I get a glimpse of the city.

However, there were details I picked up that I really did enjoy, though you have to be a comic book fan to pick them up. In Odin's vault I spied multiple artifacts from the comics, including a rather familiar...well, let's call it a "gauntlet" with six...let's call them "gems" placed in it. If only those frost giants knew what they had walked past.

As for the city in New Mexico...fine, I'll buy that somehow the rainbow bridge moved from Scandinavia (you know, where the people that worshipped Asgardians lived) to the southwest United States. I'll even buy that it doesn't land in the same spot each time (look out, California, it seems to be drifing northwest). But the city itself seemed to be misplaced as well. Maybe it was just me, but I didn't notice a lot of Hispanics in the city. And the people trying to pull the hammer out of the ground seemed like they belonged in The Dukes of Hazzard, not Thor. The city felt like just another backdrop.

Oh yeah, and the Hawkeye cameo? Wow, was that pointless. "Look, he's got a bow! He might fire it! He says something snarky! He never fires an arrow! Look for him in The Avengers!" If it weren't for the fact that I'm a card-carrying member of the Clint Barton Fan Club (Member number 00000243, get a 10% discount when you show your card at the Carson Carnival of Traveling Wonders), I'd wonder "Who is that guy? Why is he here? He's undoubtedly awesome, why couldn't he be Jane's friend instead of Darcy?" ...okay, maybe I was wondering the last part anyway.

If I had to grade Thor as a movie, I'd probably give it a high C+ or a low B-. It was fairly average, nothing about it really leaped out at me as spectacular. But as for the background material...I'd still give it a C. It had some fun eye candy for the comic book fans, but a lot just felt like filler when it could've been so much more.

If they ever do make a sequel to this, I'd love to see actual background characters who are recognizable, even if they just walk through a scene. The X-Men movies did this really well (well, the first two did), and Thor could benefit as well. Toss in a montage of Thor fighting various things like lava men, Ulik, or Fafnir.

Honestly, if they had just tossed in one scene during the ending credits where one of the planets in space looked like this:

...the movie would've gotten an A++. God bless you, Ego, you ridiculous bastard.

(Issues I didn't talk about: time line issues between Asgard and human mythology, the obvious deleted scene where Thor and Dr. Selvig get into their "bar fight," Loki's reputation as God of Lies when everybody believes everything he says, and the fact that Heimdall was black, but who really cares about the last one? If you're upset that Heimdall was black, you really need to get out more.)

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