Down here in Australia, we actually got Thor in our theaters a full two weeks before the God of Thunder finally visited the United States. Along with our Aussie pride that the title character is played by local lad Chris Hemsworth, that still doesn’t quite equal what our American friends may be feeling over the success of Seal Team Six, but we take our thrills where we find them.
Comic book heroes coming to blows is a concept as old as the medium itself, but this Smackdown pits entire universes against each other. Thor versus Superman. Marvel versus DC. Yes!
The extraterrestrial Superman is the most recognizable comic book character ever created and Thor, the mythically awesome Stan Lee-created Asgardian God who comes to Earth, are the powerhouse figures of their respective comic book universes. DC Comics has published Superman since 1939, while Thor has been around since Marvel introduced him in 1962. Both have incredible powers. Superman derives his incredible strength and abilities from his proximity to Earth’s yellow sun, while Thor’s powers come from his family lineage as a Norse God (who may be an extraterrestrial himself) — the God of Thunder, to be exact.
Fans of the comics would be aware of the 1996 mini-series DC vs Marvel, which pitted key characters in a battle for their universes where Marvel won the fan vote. In that iteration, Superman took on the Hulk (and won), while Thor battled DC’s Captain Marvel (and also won) in the ultimate throwdown of the titans of the comic book universe. Personally, I’ve always thought Thor and Superman would be a better brawl. Consider our putting these two cinematic juggernauts into the ring together as a public service to filmgoers.
Marvel stablemate Thor (again, Chris Hemsworth, proving once more that Aussie talent is just as good as anywhere else), the Asgardian God Of Thunder, is cast down to Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, going gangbusters as the father of the Gods) after a battle for a mysterious Casket goes wrong. Thor is sent to Earth as punishment for his arrogance, along with his weapon of choice, Mjolnir, an almight war hammer, which can only be wielded by one “worthy” to do so. The hammer is the source of Thor’s power, so the interesting problem of how he’s going to be able to wield it (because he’s no longer seen as worthy) develops. On Earth, Thor meets Jane (Natalie Portman), a scientist (aren’t they all) working under the mentorship of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Sparks fly between Thor and Jane, of course. Meanwhile, back up in Asgard, Odin has fallen into something called “Odinsleep”, something which seems to approximate the little known Norse equivalent of narcolepsy, and his throne is taken over by Thor’s adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) – a rule which isn’t viewed favorably by the rest of Asgard. Inevitably, Thor must confront Loki, prove his worth to wield Mjolnir, and reassert Odin as the King of Asgard once more.
The Defending Champion
The sequel to 1978’s Superman: The Movie ended up being Superman II, and was released cinematically under the directorial stewardship of Richard Lester, who replaced original helmer Richard Donner during production at the request of producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Superman II was always a bone of contention for fans of the franchise, mainly because of the way Donner was ousted and Lester given credit for the final cut of the film (when Donner had shot most of it) – it took a number of years and plenty of internet blogging/begging/petitioning to get Warner Bros to allow Donner to return to the editing bay and re-cut the film the way he would have done it. The Richard Donner Cut, as it became known, removed almost all the Lester footage in favor of alternative shots from Donner’s filming, included the original Chris Reeve/Margot Kidder screen test, and tweaked the plot somewhat to link it more closely with the original film.
Superman must take on three Kryptonian villains who arrive on Earth after escaping their Phantom Zone prison (as told in Superman: The Movie), at the same time as his secret identity is uncovered by a dedicated Lois Lane. Zod (a wonderful Terrence Stamp), Ursa and Non land on Earth and find that they have the same super powers as Superman himself, and set about claiming the planet as their own. Superman, meanwhile, has has his powers removed by an ancient Kryptonian vessel in order to live an “ordinary” life with his new-found love, Lois Lane (the fact that he didn’t even ask Lois if he should remove his powers before doing so being a particularly sore point for me as a viewer… selfish!) — a de-powered Superman suddenly finds out about Zod and his cohorts destroying everything they come into contact with, and must find a way to restore said powers and then rush off to save the world. A gargantuan, epic battle in the streets of Metropolis (as portrayed by New York City) takes place, with Superman duking it out for the future of mankind. Oh, and Lex Luthor rides on the coattails of the story as well.
There’s little denying the fact that Superman II was a pretty darn impressive film from the get-go — it features a veritable smorgasbord of effects, stunts and concepts. If the original Superman was a soft-lensed love letter to Americana long past, then Superman II is the ballsy, action-packed big brother the world needed to have. The Richard Donner Cut doesn’t tell a completely new story, rather it tells the same story from a different angle, and removes some plot points altogether. The key battle in Metropolis is still intact, as is Superman’s final gambit in the Fortress Of Solitude, so the jaw-dropping power of the visuals in this film will still take your breath away (by goodness, this film was made before digital computer effects!) for sheer spectacle.
Thor, meanwhile, is a slick, effects driven spectacle of its own. Chris Hemsworth, as Thor, is muscular in both physique and portrayal of the fallen God, wielding that hammer with the authority the character deserves. I think his casting is key to this films’ success. Kenneth Branagh wasn’t my first choice for the director’s chair, I’ll be honest, but he’s acquitted himself brilliantly, giving Thor a thunderous, rousing and involving story and visual aesthetic. Thor ain’t Superman, but by crikey, he’s as close as Hollywood’s come without a lawsuit for plagiarism. The cast, especially Natalie Portman and lead actor Chris Hemsworth, deliver solid performances among the CGI pixels, and while the script doesn’t pretend to be terribly deep and intellectual, does exactly what a comic-book film ought to do — delivers big budget thrills with that slick, Hollywood sheen we’ve come to expect.
Instead of being a vacuous fist-thumper of a film, Thor’s main success is mixing the right balance of action and character, a mix all too often lost by mainstream filmmakers in the quest for bigger box office returns. It’s been mentioned by numerous critics already across the interweb, so this’ll come as no surprise to anybody who’s been following Thor with any interest, but perhaps the best part of Thor is the development of central antagonist Loki: Tom Hiddleston does overplay him a little, but not enough to undercut the value his character has to the central plot. Yes, in a break with Hollywood tradition, the Bad Guy actually develops as a character.
Casting aside (and let’s be honest, the first two Chris Reeve Superman films never had a problem with perfect casting), both films are pretty similar in terms of scope and scale, albeit with Superman depending on the credibility of 80’s visual effects to a larger extent to tell the story, but for muscle-bound hulks duking it out on screen, it’s a pleasure to watch Hemsworth go to town with his enormous hammer (one must surely wonder if that’s a Freudian thing?) while Chris Reeve delivers classy, dependably American Cheesecake superheroics with a big budget to back him up. Both films deliver destruction on a grand scale, although with Thor’s more Godly origins and power, it’s a fair statement to make that Thor does more damage overall.
If I was to pick a point on which both films actually differ, it would be their sense of fun. Thor seems to enjoy being itself, while Superman II does tend to get bogged down in its own self indulgence from time to time. Where Donner was restricted by filmmaking techniques of the day, Kenneth Branagh is under no illusions as to how best to deliver the enthralling CGI effects his budget allows, and he unleashes them with sterling rapidity. Thor isn’t a film bogged down with dreary self-depression about Krypton exploding, it’s about a young God learning that he’s not actually all that and a bag of chips. Superman II does tend towards a layer of suffocating dread from time to time, and in retrospect I’d say this stems from Zod and Co’s unwavering “we will rule this puny planet” dialogue every five or six minutes. And I don’t believe it was a good idea to turn Lex Luthor into the comic relief — a story device which undermines his evil scheming-ness and reduces his work in the first film to almost zero credibility. The subtle wink of the eye, the doff of the cap to the audience in Thor’s more tongue-in-cheek sense of style and fun, means you can take Thor more seriously without taking it too seriously… if you get my drift.
Given that Thor is the most recent of these two films, it’d be easy to simply sit back and say “well, of course Thor’s the better film, because it has better effects”, but that’s a simple brush-off of the quality of the scripting and storytelling in Superman II. Superman II, while it’s seen as a classic today, isn’t as well scripted as Branagh’s Thor. The characters in Superman II seem a little 2 dimensional, mainly due to the fast-paced narrative and character byplay (especially in the Daily Planet sequences, where character don’t even seem to hear what the other is saying, as they talk over each other for the most part) and the kitschy, All American sense of grandeur Donner employed.
With Thor, there’s never any real nod to the feel of the original comics (I admit I never read the Marvel books, gleaning all I know about Thor via vague and half-remembered crossovers and descriptions in other industry-related publications) or a slavish devotion to the source — I’d say Branagh’s freedom with the characters allowed him to give the film its own unique look, and he does just that. The pomposity of Asgard, mixed with the realism (in a comic book film, realism is subjective, I know!) of the Earthbound sequences, and the sense of semi-seriousness Branagh and his cast enjoy, actually work to complement each other, keeping the audience involved in an entirely entertaining way.
The script for Thor, written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne has plenty of modern sensibilities about it, the dialogue feeling a lot less contrived than Superman II’s more comic-y flavoring. Modern pop-culture references (Facebooking and the like) contrast with the magic/science mix Thor is accustomed to, and there’s plenty of subtle humor to be found in Thor’s fish-out-of-water adventures on Earth. However, each film is designed to flow a certain way, and the whimsical tone of the Superman films shouldn’t be dismissed as thinly plotted exposition with minimal character development. Compared side by side, Thor and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut seems a lot like comparing Iron Man to The Dark Knight. Two equally excellent superhero films, although each different in their own way. But which one of our choices here today is the best?
Putting Donner’s aging warrior of Superman II into the ring against the younger, more visceral rival Thor feels like an aging Muhammed Ali going up against an up-and-coming Larry Holmes. One is more wily and experienced, but losing strength, and the other is new and brash, but prone to mistakes. Admittedly, Superman II does now look slightly dated, even with the then-superb ’80s visual effects working in its favor: not even a sense of olde-timey cinema style can dent the majesty and raw power of the Thunder God brought to Earth, falling for resident hottie Natalie Portman. Or rather, battling Loki and the Destroyer (man, that was awesome!). Thor delivers skull-rattling excitement and action, and Superman II can’t match it. Yes, I know there’s a few years between the two films, and I know this result goes against my instinct to support a DC character, but for sheer entertainment and spectacle, this time I’m hard pressed to go past Thor. And I for one welcome our new Asgardian overlords…