An overheard conversation; 1:00 am Saturday; Orlando, Florida

   “What about Doctor Strange? What about Mephisto? What about Doctor Doom? He uses magic! They all use magic,” the excitable man,with an immense mein of curly hair, shouts outside the Regal Cinemas Theatre, making his qualms with the blockbuster hit Thor known to his surrounding friends. “This movie makes it seem like there is no magic because all magic is science by another name, and the Norse Gods are like interdimensional beings, but then… what is Doctor Strange doing in his Sanctum Sanctorum with Mephisto? Is there not magic in this movie universe, because there’s totally magic in the comics?”

   “Kay, first off nothing stops Thor from being a god, because what are gods to us but advanced beings from another dimension whom we worship, same as in the comics,” his debate partner, a taller gent with glasses, shoots back. “This movie sets that concept up really well, Kat Denning’s character says as much. And second, what Doctor Strange is doing with his Eye of Agamoto… Agarmotta, whatever thing, is like science to him. Mephisto is an interdimensional being by another name. They worked that balance out really well in the film.”

   They turn to a third young man, a stocky fellow with a shock of bright red hair. “Jeff, settle this!” orders the first boy, and Jeff smirks.

   “I hate to do this to you, Clemente,” Jeff says to the first debater, “but I got to side with Charles on this one. The movie had its problems, yes, but Charles is right, magic and science can be the same thing in this universe, and this movie handles that alright.”

   I gloat as Clemente and I continue arguing our cases for, oh… another ten minutes or so. Jeff’s vote of confidence does a lot to bolster my position, which involves me liking Kenneth Branagh’s newest film a lot more than most people like Kenneth Brannagh’s new film.

   Okay, so it was a bit deceptive of me to pass that off initially as an overheard conversation. But it was an overheard conversation. Plenty of other people overheard it. The looks on their faces indicated to me that they thought we were crazy. After all, we were standing outside a public gathering place at one in the morning having an in-depth, philosophical disagreement about the Sanctum Sanctorum and the Bifrost Bridge.

   I loved every minute of it. I loved that the conversation happened, where it happened, and when it happened. Nerdy – yes. Fulfilling – even more so. If there’s one thing that gets my goat, it’s leaving a movie theater in silence, not truly discussing the film you just saw, refusing to hash out what you liked, what irked you,  and what you could have taken or left in a passionate way which speaks to an actual interaction with the thing you just spent two hours (or more) becoming very familiar with. In a theater you focus (or are supposed to focus) all your attention into that screen, which, hopefully, carries you away to another place that doesn’t look like an industrial space with stadium seating that smells of butter and salt. When the lights come up, you remember that you are surrounded by the real people who accompanied you, and I always feel like I’m committing some crime against the filmmakers when the topic of the film I just saw doesn’t come up as we head up the aisles to our respective cars. I understand why that walk of shame happens — I’ve been in plenty where the group walks out nodding solemnly or talking excitedly about everything but the recently watched movie — and that experience has happened to everyone at many movies, I guarantee, but I do not like it, no matter how sometimes apprpriate it is, because it turns the shared cultural experience of watching a film with peers into, essentially, background music. People are afraid to have divisive opinions on the movies they watch, and they are even less willing to make snap judgements, but, really where’s the fun in that. What does a movie become in the vacuum of our minds? One thing is for sure; it becomes something very different from the movie we share with others. Culture, popular culture included (in fact, especially that culture which is popular, meaning it spans the masses), is a shared thing which gains a lot of its life from how it defines itself once it becomes a conversation piece, a debate topic, a point of relation, that one thing that ties people together or keeps them apart.

   And so I will briefly share here, as I did amongst friends in the early morning after my second viewing of the film, what Thor — the very definition of a fluffy summer movie which, it is widely assumed, requires little to no afterthought — has meant to me and why I like it so much. That is the whole point of this project after all: making discoveries and sharing them, making them part of an ongoing conversation in a public forum about how popular cultrue effects my interactions with the outside world.

   What I love most about Thor is the way it fits into the big picture for Marvel Studios. We’ve been seeing these superhero movies trotted out for many years now, and I think people view the Avengers movies, from Iron Man to The Incredible Hulk to Iron Man 2 and now to Thor, as a series of diminishing returns on a pretty kooky concept. These movies are the set-up for one big punchline – that money shot when, for the first time, we see these incredibly different heroes with their completely different origins (politics of war, tragic monster, mystical godhood, anachronistic simplicity) line up next to each other for the first time. This is a really long build-up to that moment (which Joss Whedon is now filming for release in 2012). No one has ever really tried this type of cross-promotional serialization in film before. It’s risky, and the question becomes, “If the punchline falls flat, does it make the entire five movie set-up worthless?”

   I contend it does not, so cool has the journey been with this new, improved Marvel blend since Iron Man (though I am not as worried as I would have been three movies ago, or even since two weeks ago when I first saw Thor). This film makes clear a trend I hoped would continue when I saw the Norton Hulk, and which I thought was somewhat soured by the tonal sameness of Iron Man 2. That film had no new tricks up its sleeves. This film, this fantasy adventure, with its gleaming city and intense family drama, returns that hope that Marvel’s plan is to keep things fresh and truly separate until that unifying moment when these very different heroes become a strange but wonderful team.

   Each film in this series has its own style, a style which suits the taste of the hero (and, in this film in particular, the villain, Loki, who will, unlike Abomination, Whiplash, and Iron Monger, return to play a large role in upcoming films) around whom it is built, and I love that. The Iron Man films are fast-paced, bachelor fantasies cum techno-thrillers. The Incredible Hulk, rightly taking its inspiration from the ’70s television series, is a man-on-the-run action set piece about control. Thor is, like its hero, a swaggering, charming other-world fantasy epic about humility and about introductions to new places (for Thor that new place is our world, and for his audience it is the splendid Asgard). Captain America, with its period trappings, looks to continue the trend of comic-book movies which, ostensibly, share a universe, but which are enacting the unification of that universe through the symbolic means of drastically different styles and tones, a move which defines the tenor of the heroes who will become the Avengers as distinct and vivid and, beautifully enough, high-mindedly grounded in the shared history of cinematic expression. Pretty good for a bunch of second-string Marvel heroes no one thought would be able to connect with audiences.

   Branagh brings just the right touch to this film. His Earth is light and airy with perfect notes of 50s sci-fi and a dash of classic Western. It is wary of a potentially crazy man who claims he is a God (reflective of our own wariness of the arrogant man-child we see at the film’s opening), but ultimately charmed by him and in awe of his otherworldly power and nobility (reflective of our own change of heart enacted by the humbling of Thor at the feet of his father and brother). His Asgard is a high-strung kingdom of Shakespearean intrigue and melodrama, shining and grand in a way that seems to build wonderfully off the small things, like the way, in the comics, Asgardian capes float ever-so-elegantly just above the shoulder-line rather than dragging along on the shoulders. Asgard floats like that! (I didn’t think a Rainbow Bridge could feasibly work on film. I saw the Rainbow Bridge Branagh’s team created, I gasped, and I said, no joke, “I want one… Now…”)

The Road to Asgard

   The movie does indeed take a lot of narrative shortcuts, I will concede. Part of the morning argument my group had outside the Regal this weekend dealt with the not-all-there quality of the Jane Foster romance. I was alone in believing that the film utilized the cinematic shorthand of Hollywood romance to set up that romance in the time alloted in a way that was reasonable and made me believe in a connection between this god and that mortal. No one else really bought it. Can’t blame them. The Warriors Three, Sif, Thor’s mom, and even Heimdall are all sketched in similarly undercooked terms. All the same, for me, they were characterized well enough in the time they appeared for me to buy them as full, believable characters in this universe rather than stock images plugged in for the sake of fanboys.

   That being said, this film boiled down to two things for me. Firstly, was Asgard — making a big leap from the comic page, where you can hide much of the empty space in a world outside the panel — convincing, cinematically, as this regal plane where the intrigue of the gods happens? Yes. I contend that this film is ultimately more about Loki then about his brother. Loki is wonderfully filled in and I was shocked to find that Marvel took the Otto Octavius approach and made Loki our friend initially and not our foe. Early in the movie, Clemente sent me a text which read “Despite his certain turn to evil, I am sympathetic to Loki’s character.” This encapsulates perfectly the complicated, deeply tragic grounding this film gives to the strait-faced and over-the-top machinations, banishments and pronouncements which characterize the regal Asgardians. Secondly, was Thor’s embrace of Midgard (Earth to we simple Midgardians) rewarding and cohesive? Thanks to the comedic fish-out-of water hijinks, which could occasionaly distract, yes, it does. Thor’s interactions with Agent Coulson set up a reasonable working relationship between almighty God of Thunder and hard-working SHIELD agent. I bought the awe Thor recieves when his full costume finally makes it down to Earth. It was well-earned. How? Because Thor’s journey was hard-fought, emotionally if not physically (fine by me) and, for an audience, it is ultimately rewarding. One image stands out: that of Thor, caked in mud, kneeling before his hammer Mjolnir, devestated by his failure to tear it from the ground. It is probably the most striking visual in this Marvel series yet, and it shocked me the second time. “This, this is good,” I thought. “I want to share this.” So I am. I share with you my contention that the Marvel movies are not, as the concensus seems to be, getting worse. They are just throwing us different pitches (fastball, curveball, slider) and seeing how we react. For this stylistic playfulness I am thankful. We all should be. Do you agree? What think you, fair readers?