The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Roger Ebert: Still in no mood about to apologize about hating 'Thor'

May 27, 2011 |  1:05 pm

Thor I just got off the phone with Kenneth Branagh for an upcoming story I'm doing--and he still sounds a bit amazed about what a career-changing experience it was directing "Thor." It's just a pleasure to hear all the ideas that are rattling around in his head -- and is it fun to hear him recite Shakespeare. Hoping to pump up his actors when they had to do a lot of green-screen work, he'd recite, as he did for me, a stirring speech from "Henry V" about what it's like to perform on an empty stage.

To prepare for my Branagh interview, I boned up on the "Thor" of it all. So now I know that the movie has made more than $400 million around the world, most of it overseas, where it's still going strong. I know that the movie scored an impressive 78 at Rotten Tomatoes, a surprisingly high score for the kind of studio franchise movie that critics usually hate. And now I also know that Roger Ebert has been in the midst of a comical psychodrama with his readership, who were up in arms over his dismissive review of the film.

After seeing the film, Ebert wrote that "Thor" is "a failure as a movie, but a success as marketing, an illustration of the ancient carnival tactic of telling the rubes anything to get them into the tent.... Nothing exciting happens, nothing of interest is said, and the special effects evoke not a place or a time but simply special effects." The reaction, among the "Thor" faithful, was not pretty. Ebert received such a mighty hammering that he's written a fascinating new non-apology, which neatly captures what goes on inside the mind of a critic when he is penning a pan.

Ebert acknowledges being a bit harsh in his review, saying that his tone was off: "I brought too much anger to a trivial entertainment. When I described [the movie] as 'a desolate vastation,' I went perhaps one hyperbole too far." But that was as far as the mea culping went. Even when admitting some minor factual errors in the review, Ebert managed to heap even more contempt on the film. For instance:

"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. I was eviscerated for not knowing that the robot is named the Destroyer, and that of course he attacked the town because that's where Thor was, you see, and Thor was in New Mexico in the first place because that's where the Portal from Asgard leads to. Well, obviously it led to New Mexico, because that's where it took him, but why did it lead there? Because it did in the comic books, I guess. If the name 'Destroyer' was used in the movie, and I suppose it must have been, it simply didn't register with me. With some films every frame seems to register. Others have a strange quality of slipping wraith-like through my mind without hitting any brain cells. If the robot was named Destroyer, the best reason for my failure to recall its name was that I just didn't give a damn."

Like a lot of critics who are forced to make a death march every summer through an ever-increasing assortment of comic book-based franchises, sequels and franchise reboots, Ebert seems more frustrated by the nature of Hollywood cookie-cutter creativity than the demerits of one individual movie. As he put it: "The reason we get so many comic book superhero movies is that they all share the same High Concept: 'Here is another one of those comic book superhero movies.' ... Hollywood lives in thrall to the concept of a Franchise."

As I mentioned before, a lot of critics and other observers, myself included, liked "Thor" more than Ebert did. But I get his point: Summer is a time of depressingly meager aspirations on the part of movie studios. Outside of the family-oriented animation films, which are often loaded with great visual ideas and sharp-eyed storytelling, our summer movies aim low--and still often miss the mark. Even those of us willing to give higher marks to "Thor" than Ebert know all too well that when it comes to summer movies, we're still always grading on a curve.

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Chris Hemsworth portraying the title character in  "Thor."  Credit: Zade Rosenthal/ Paramount Pictures-Marvel Studios