11. Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Thor, 2011; The Avengers, 2012)
The idea of a film based around Thor has been kicked around for ages but steel was never put into the ground, with most producers thinking that it’s just a bit too silly of a concept or character.
Naturally, a lot of those reservations did come into play when Marvel studios announced that they were actually making a Thor movie. This is a very hard character to pull off – you have to get the audience to understand and accept a larger than life character and surrounding world that could very easily come off as silly or even stupid. When Kenneth Branagh was cast as the director, a lot of our fears were assuaged, as his history with Shakespeare films seemed like it could lend itself well towards the world of Asgard coming off as distinguished.
That being said, I was still somewhat skeptical. Kenneth Branagh has an overall good track record but still has made some underwhelming films in the past (Frankenstein, Sleuth), and this interpretation was now further burdened by the fact that this movie about space gods had to exist in the same universe as the somewhat more realistic Marvel films like Iron Man that have already been released.
Luckily, my skepticism was proven to be unwarranted. Thor is a great movie. I know this is a character ranking and not a film ranking, but I have to talk a little bit about the world established around him first, because without it, the character wouldn’t work. Branagh’s adaptation of the world of Asgard is fantastic – we don’t think that’s silly for a minute. The epic sets, visuals, and fight scenes are excellent, and we totally buy into them. As surreal as the world of Asgard is when you think about it, it’s totally nailed on film and we buy into the drama and what is shown on screen and accept it for what it is. One of the most common complaints about the film is that people wished there was more time spent on Asgard instead of Earth, which tells you all you need to know about how well the world was portrayed onscreen. It really is epic.
Which is absolutely critical in understanding and selling the character. Thanks to the fact that we understand and appreciate this world, we are able to understand Thor and his mentality and take him seriously. He is arrogant, overconfident, and a bit pompous – but the way Hemsworth portrays him, we still really like him. Despite his character flaws, he still has noble and heroic intentions. When he leads a cavalry to fight the Frost Giants against his father’s wishes, we know that it’s a mistake caused by the aforementioned character flaws, but still sympathize with him because he’s doing it for entirely heroic reasons – his arrogance has simply caused him to misjudge the proper “how” and “when” of his plan. Think about it – this character is the arrogant, overconfident and pompous heir to the throne, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth…in a lot of movies, a character fitting that description would be the villain. Despite carrying all these traits, we still really like Thor, which speaks volumes of Hemsworth’s performance and the film overall.
As if all of these character traits weren’t enough to make it very difficult to pull off the character on the silver screen, the script calls for an additional complication to the character. Not only do we have to accept him as a person within the context of an unusual supernatural world, but then in addition, for a good deal of the second act, this character also has to be the source of comedy in a series of Encino Man-esque “fish out of water” comedy sequences…but without us losing enough respect for him to not appreciate him becoming the noble and seriously-treated hero at the end of the movie.
And somehow, it works seamlessly. The “fish out of water” comedy sequences with Thor on earth are very funny, and it’s pretty hilarious as he misunderstands American customs and culture; smashing silverware on the floor, declaring how he’s the God of Thunder before being tasered down, and walking up to a pet shop demanding a horse. And yet, despite the fact that he’s involved in wacky comedy scenes, the Asgardian scenes have set up enough respect for the character that we don’t lose respect for the character or see him as less of a potential hero. We understand that the comedy comes from a difference of perspectives and world view, and not because the character himself is a joke or a loon, and so when the final battle comes along, the payoff is satisfying and we still see him as a legitimate superhero that has learned something and undergone a satisfying heroic arc.
Quelling another hesitation, when the Avengers movie rolled around, somehow Thor seemed to fit naturally within the parameters of the more realistic characters like Iron Man and Captain America despite the fact that his story and origin is much more over the top and unrealistic than the others. Now, while I mostly have nothing but praise for the character, he probably wasn’t really considered a major highlight of the Avengers movie despite fitting in seamlessly, and that fact coupled with the fact that he doesn’t quite reach the top ten tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the top ten characters on this list.
Usually the “top ten” is a big and major breaking point, but I’m just going to blaze right into the top ten without any fanfare. In this list the top seven (who are in the “Elite” tier) is more important than the top ten.
10. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, 1993)
Like I said with the 1966 Batman analysis, even though this film is an extension with and is in continuity with a television show, this character is not being considered for anything in the TV show and is only being judged by the theatrically released film itself. I know a lot of you will probably think he should be higher because a lot of us think of Kevin Conroy's portrayal when they think of Batman, but when thinking about this entry try to distance yourself from the hours and hours of additional excellent work Conroy and the showrunners did in creating this character and realize that this is character is only being judged as if MotP existed and was being viewed without knowledge of any of the TV shows.
The fact that Mask of the Phantasm bombed at the box office really is a huge shame in terms of the history and potential of comic book movies. It pretty much killed the possibility of future animated superhero movies at the box office, which could have had a world of potential.
Without giving too much away about my upcoming Michael Keaton Batman analysis, I will say that one of the major attributes of this character is that he starred in the first theatrically released Batman film that actually felt like it was mostly about Batman.
As I said in my Val Kilmer Batman analysis ages ago, there are really only three possible stories you can tell about Batman/Bruce Wayne himself as a character. This portrayal combines the “origin story” story with the “Should I hang it up?” story by telling a story about whether Bruce should start a life as Batman or ignore his quest because of his potential for happiness and not start a more formalized vigilante quest altogether.
Out of the nine theatrically released Batman films, this is probably the film that best displays the fact that Batman is a detective. There is a mystery to solve here (the identity of the Phantasm), and while ultimately Batman draws the wrong conclusion (that the Phantasm is Andrea’s father instead of Andrea herself) we don’t lose respect for the character since all the clues we’ve had up until that point seem to agree with his analysis, and he isn’t that far off.
To be sure, this movie has some flaws (it’s pretty obvious from early on to the audience who the Phantasm is, how on earth did Andrea get her apparently supernatural skills, and why is she able to suddenly disappear better than Batman can despite having less experience?) but the character of Batman himself isn’t one of them.
In this film, Bruce is struggling between having a chance at happiness in real life by settling down with Andrea, or doing what he vowed to do by becoming a vigilante who stops crime. In real life, the death of relatives hurts less and less as time passes, and this movie addresses it in a fascinating fashion. Bruce visits his parent’s graves and asks if it’s okay to not fight crime because it “doesn’t hurt as much anymore.” In a world where several Batman adaptations completely ignore the reality of the situation of people eventually accepting or at least not being quite as broken up about the passing of relatives and able to move on with their lives, this is a fascinating issue to tackle.
Also, we clearly see and identify with the fact that the decision to become Batman comes in direct conflict with his own personal pursuit of happiness. In that graveyard scene, Bruce tells his parents’ graves that he “didn’t count on being happy.” In the end, he comes to accept his fate after Andrea leaves.
As the Burton Batman films began with Bruce already being Batman en media res (and this one does too, but shows flashbacks), this is also the first theatrically released film to show what is basically the “origin of Batman,” showing us the first moment where Bruce put on the costume and became Batman. This is illustrated brilliantly in the scene where Bruce first puts on the Batman mask and turns to Alfred – and Alfred trembles for a moment in fear. Is this a fear because of the fact that he is genuinely frightened of the mask and vision itself, or fear of the potential his surrogate son has established?
In any case, a brilliant moment in a great movie, and the fact that so much character development and depth was able to be established in a PG-rated animated movie speaks volumes.