Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thor, and Where Ebert Went Wrong: A Response to Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert just wrote two blog posts on his site (not official reviews, although I don't know if that makes any kind of difference), thoroughly trashing Thor, which was released in the States last week.  He really, really hated this film:
The story might perhaps be adequate for an animated film for children, with Thor, Odin and the others played by piglets. In the arena of movies about comic book superheroes, it is a desolate vastation. Nothing exciting happens, little of interest is said, and the special effects evoke not a place or a time but simply...special effects.
For some odd reason, Thor was released in the UK earlier than it was in the US, and I saw it a few weeks ago. I wasn't particularly looking forward to seeing it. I'd wanted to see Source Code, which wasn't playing.  It was a choice between Thor and Arthur, and my friend and I essentially flipped a coin and picked Thor.

Now, I have to confess that I do have a (not-so) secret soft spot for huge blockbuster films.  But I'm not a comic film fan-girl, and I don't automatically drool over every Marvel movie.  In fact, I slept through the middle bits of both Iron Man films (saw them on planes), despite wanting to like them.  That being said, I really enjoyed Thor.

It's a big, fun, ridiculous film.  It walks the line very well between being cheesy and taking itself seriously.  And why can't a film be both of those things?  Now, Ebert had some very spefic complaints, most of which seem to be based on the fact that he wasn't giving the film his full attention.  That's a pretty damning comment about a film critic - surely critics should give every film they review their full and utmost attention?  

Well, I'm not sure if Ebert saw this film intending to review it - that's not clear in his posts.  And, more relevantly, he's human.  He has genres of films he loves and respects, and those he does not. I suspect that the category of "comic book films" falls somewhere close to "films based on video games" in his film preferences list.  He doesn't like this type of movie, and when he does (The Dark Knight or Spiderman), he seems to like these films despite the fact they're based on comic books.  

In fact, from his review of The Dark Knight, he says this:
“Batman” isn’t a comic book anymore. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. 
That may be true.  But it implies that being a comic book is a BAD thing.  And I'd argue that it isn't.  There is a place for serious, dark, tragic films based on comics.  And there is a place for bright, shiny, fun, camp films based on comics.  Why does one have to negate the other?

The biggest problems that Ebert seemed to have with Thor seemed to stem from a lack of comprehension of the film.  I'd argue that the reason he did not pick up on these details is because he had already dismissed the film as not worth his time.  In his defence of his initial post, he says this:
It is impossible for most critics to be familiar with the source material of most movies, and that doesn't bother me. A movie must contain whatever the audience requires in order to enjoy it. It's not required to be "faithful" to its source, as if adaptation were adultery.
I agree with this.  A film should stand on its own.  A viewer should not have to do research on Wikipedia (as one commenter suggests) to understand the plot points of a film.


The plot points that Ebert claims not to have understood?  They're in the film.  They don't require knowledge of the comics.  I can guarantee this, because I understood them, and I have never read the comics. Very briefly, and in no particular order, here are some of the problems he had with the film:

  • It was unclear if Asgard was another planet or where it was.  Almost the first lines of the film describe how the Norse people saw the alien visitors from Asgard, thought they were gods and worshipped them.  Thor and his buddies fly through space to get to earth. Thor points out where his planet is to Jane. It is mentioned many, many times that there are portals to other worlds, including Earth.  I really believe that to not have grasped this point means that you just weren't paying attention.
  • "I wondered, for example, why a giant metal robot chose to attack a small New Mexico town when it could have been attacking the Golden Gate Bridge."  Because he was sent to kill Thor.  He went to where Thor was.  There's perhaps an argument for wondering why the portal leads to New Mexico at all, but that's beside the point.
  • Not knowing if Darcy was a scientist. Now, this is a minor point, and not essential to understanding or enjoying the film.  But there is a bit of the film where Darcy asks a very basic scientific question, and upon being asked "I thought you were a science major?", she responds that she majors in political science.  She's an intern working for course credit.  They cover that.
  • Thor's hammer is "stuck".  Odin has a whole speech when he takes away Thor's hammer, about only a person worthy of its use will be able to wield it.  Maybe that was too subtle?  Thor has to earn the right to use it, by becoming a better person/god/whatever
I'm not saying that disliking Thor is wrong, although Ebert certainly thinks that liking it is.  I'm saying that he didn't want to like it.  And so he didn't pay attention.  I have watched many a film in my time, expecting to hate it and finding millions of little points to snark about.  I don't think that everyone has to like what I like.  

But, surely, if you're getting an outpouring of comments on your initial post saying they enjoyed it from regular film viewers (not just crazy comic fans), and if it does indeed have a 79% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, surely then you must at least consider the possibility that you are, if not wrong, then at least in the minority.

Writing a second post, to defend your first trashing of the film and  to hurl a bit of abuse those who disagreed with you, feels a little bit childish.   In his second post, Ebert says this:
One of my weaknesses is to play with the logic of preposterous movies like this. I consider that an amusing exercise, to be read as entertainment and not taken so damned seriously.
I agree, I do the same thing.  However, Thor has an internal logic.  Ebert just chose not to see it.