Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Off the Page (Thor: Tales of Asgard)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. But with that love of comics and the characters they feature comes an intense interest in the various adaptations that have been made of comic characters. Each month, in Off the Page, the Fanboys will take a look at a piece of comic-inspired media, whether that be a movie, television show, live performance or even a radio drama.

Nick: It’s been a little bit since we dropped a new Off the Page on you, but better late than never, right? That’s our unofficial motto. That not withstanding, we’re here this month to take a little look at the Marvel animated offering Thor: Tales of Asgard.

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As self-professed DC guys, we’ve often made the statement that as dominant as Marvel has been on the big screen, DC has been just as dominant when it comes to television and animation. To be frank, many of the Marvel efforts, especially their direct-to-video films, have been subpar at best. So, when we decided to take on Tales of Asgard, we weren’t sure quite what to expect.

And that may have helped because I think we’d both agree we were pleasantly surprised.

Greg: No question about that one. I came into this project with very low expectations. In fact, I kind of thought this would be bad, which would have gotten us back to the early theme of this particular column — reviewing really bad comic book adaptations.

Unfortunately (?) I was blown away when I actually watched the film. We actually chose to watch this over the rarely seen David Lynch-produced documentary “Rorschach: Whoreson,” and I have to say we made a good choice.

Coming soon to Off the Page.
Coming soon to Off the Page.

Nick: If only that was a real thing. In any event, Tales of Asgard tells the story of a young teenage Thor and his quest to gain respect from his father and fellow Asgardians. In order to do this, he, Loki and the Warriors Three set out on a quest to find the legendary sword of Surtur that is rumored to have gone missing in Jotunheim, the land of the Frost Giants.

Greg: And unlike Giants that might be found in San Francisco or New York (shout out to Todd Weber and Glenn Butler), these tall fellows don’t play games. Needless to say, they don’t take kindly to the actions of brash young Thor, and the Odinson’s poor decision making puts all of Asgard in danger.

Before going any further, we should probably explain our respective levels of Thor fandom. While I love the character and his mythology, my primary exposure to it has come from movies, cartoons and video games, with the occasional comic (such as Jason Aaron’s epic “Godbomb” and “The God Butcher” story arcs) thrown in. So, as is often the case with Thor projects, it can be a little intimidating to hear all these Norse terms thrown around so quickly. Very early, you hear about Surtur, Jotunheim, the Valkyries, Lady Sif, the Warriors Three (Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg), Odin, Loki and a vast array of side characters.

However, the movie was so engaging that I quickly powered through whatever elements I initially didn’t understand, and quickly was able to catch on to the story as it progressed.

Nick, of course, is in a whole other level of Asgardian knowledge.

Nick: Well, it’s not a PhD or anything, but rather a minor in Asgardian history. As such, there were a few times I found myself nitpicking certain things. For example, why are they seeking Surtur’s sword in Jotunheim when practically anyone who’s anyone knows that it would be most likely to be found in Muspelheim? Why are the Valkyries occupying their own realm and why are they so antagonistic towards the Asgardians? Where is Laufey in Jotunheim? Little things that I readily admit don’t really matter, but still things I thought about.

comic-book-guy-shrugsBut, that’s not to say I spent the entire time focused on inconsistencies. There were several aspects of the film that were damn near perfect. The Warriors Three play a major role in the story and each is written impeccably. Fandral, in particular, is a comedic virtuoso. I was left wondering why the live-action MCU hasn’t been able to nail the Warriors Three quite yet when an animated film did it so easily.

Loki was also perfect for me. If you’re expecting a Loki that’s going to do nothing but twirl his mustache and wait for his moment to turn on Thor, you’ll be majorly disappointing. Having read many tales of Thor and Loki’s respective childhoods, I find oftentimes the foreshadowing of Loki’s villainous future is laid on too thick. If Loki is portrayed as nothing but a manipulative jerk from Day 1, it takes away his personal connection to Thor because it makes it difficult to believe that there would ever have been a close bond between the two. Tales of Asgard instead keeps the two on the same side and without any real tension. We get to see why the two care for each other so much and how they each bring their own talents to tough situations. There are hints of what Loki might become one day, but viewers has to look a bit harder for them than they would in many other stories.

But, even better than Loki was another character I wish got more play in the comics and on the big screen — the Lady Sif. Sif, voiced by the incomparable Tara Strong here, is as perfect a representation of that character as I’ve seen. From straight up embarrassing Thor in their first hand-to-hand encounter to showing her support for him when all others think he’s nothing but a spoiled joke, it’s hard to find fault with anything related to Sif in this film. This is a great example of why I said from day one she shouldn’t be a candidate to be revealed as the new female Thor in the comics. Sif doesn’t want or need to be Thor — Sif is perfectly comfortable in her own skin. Thankfully, Jason Aaron seems to agree with me on that one. And I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the final Sif scene we see. “Shipping” is something we’ve discussed many times before, and when it comes to the Odinson, I’m a shameless Sif shipper. So, to see a rather touching moment between the two did my fanboy heart good.

The Lady Sif takes on avant-garde Japanese wrestler Ken the Box.
The Lady Sif takes on avant-garde Japanese wrestler Ken the Box.

Greg: Certainly that’s a glowing endorsement from one as steeped in the character’s mythology as you, but I think I liked the film even more, believe it or not.

This was, by a comfortable margin, the best Marvel animated film I’ve seen. The balance it strikes between light and dark, comedic and serious, is as well executed as any of the great DC animated features that (deservedly) get so much praise. As someone who admittedly has a less-than-stellar knowledge of the Nine Realms, I felt screenwriters Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle, and director Sam Liu, condensed many complex concepts into a digestible, engrossing narrative.

These are three-dimensional characters, not the cardboard cutouts seen in other Marvel features. Thor is brave and strong, but stubborn and impetuous. Sif is probably the greatest warrior in the realm, but her heart sometimes gets in the way. Loki cares deeply for his brother and father, but has a sinister power within. And then there’s Fandral, my favorite character in the movie. Like Dr. Evil’s father, he will womanize … he will drink. It’s his love of tall tales and corny attempts at seduction that provide much of the film’s potent comedy.
So noted are his lecherous ways that the Valkyries’ target dummies are all made in his image, which only makes it funnier when Sif aims at a dummy’s crotch rather than its chest.

Fandral will also make outlandish claims like he invented the question mark. Often he'll accuse chestnuts of being lazy. You know, the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
Fandral will also make outlandish claims like he invented the question mark. Often he’ll accuse chestnuts of being lazy. You know, the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.

SPOILERS AHOY!

Nick: Ok, so we’ve addressed most of the side characters, but have yet to really touch on the film’s villains. The Frost Giants are present throughout much of the film, but the film takes a little twist in the third act by revealing that the Dark Elf Algrim, who had served as Odin’s adviser throughout the opening and middle acts, had his own motivations for seeking Surtur’s sword.

This film’s Algrim is a heavily revised version of his comics counterpart. In the comics, Algrim is a dark elf enchanted with the power to become the mighty Kurse, a villain known mostly for brute strength rather than cunning or wit.

Here, Algrim is the last survivor of the dark elves. His people were destroyed by the Frost Giants when Odin refused to send Asgard’s army to the aid of Svartalfheim. Since then, he has served in the royal court seemingly biding his time. In the film’s early stages, it is shown that he and Thor have a close friendship. That friendship is what makes his ultimate betrayal all the more effective.

Greg: Truth be told, I’d never even heard of Algrim before this movie, and while I initially suspected him due to his Dark Elf nature (a bit of Norse profiling, perhaps, I admit), the writers and voice actor Ron Halder imbue Algrim early on with a trustworthy nature and, seemingly, a true love for Thor and Loki. By the end of the film, it’s still unclear to me whether Algrim was truly just biding his time or whether he’s driven mad by the power Surtur’s sword represents.

It’s an effective story that doesn’t show its hand too early. By waiting until well past the midway point of the story, Algrim’s quest for revenge is all the more effective, especially as it plays out against the backdrop of the political bickering between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants.

Not a member of the Sinestro Corps.
Not a member of the Sinestro Corps.

As is common with this movie, Algrim and the Frost Giants have clear motivations, goals that are driving them toward the actions they ultimately take. And only through the strength of characters like Sif and the Frost Giants’ king is an even bloodier conflict avoided.

Nick: And the film’s climactic action scene is a great one for everyone involved. The Warriors Three and Sif hold off the advance of the Frost Giants while Thor and Loki race to save Odin from Algrim. Thor is driven by rage at his friend’s betrayal, but is ultimately able to resist the urge to take his life. That urge, however, cannot be overcome by Loki, who takes up Surtur’s sword and slays the dark elf. However, rather than having Loki show joy or even satisfaction at Algrim’s death, we see him instantly regret it and seek comfort in the arms of his brother. Just another fine example of how this film gives us a more brotherly bond between the two.

END OF SPOILERS

Greg: All right, with all that out of the way, let’s get to the nuts and bolts — how successful is the movie as a whole? As I mentioned earlier, I feel it’s the most successful of Marvel and Lions Gate’s straight-to-video partnerships, a film that belongs on the same case as many of the great DC/Warner Bros. offerings.

Even if you’re not generally a fan of Thor, I think you’ll find enjoyment here. However, let me warn parents out there that this isn’t necessarily aimed at young children. While there isn’t anything here that I think would be inappropriate for a kid to watch, the target audience seems to be teens or older, more mature kids, with plenty for the adults to enjoy. Inf act, I’d argue adults may get more enjoyment out of this than even teens will.

Much mead is consumed.
Much mead is consumed.

Nick: Yes, there was plenty of innuendo-based humor, which might seem inappropriate for a younger audience. However, that doesn’t keep it from being placed atop the pantheon of Marvel’s animated efforts. That doesn’t place it in the realm of DC’s best work for me, but still a very fine showing.

For those who are largely unfamiliar with Thor, I’d say this is a decent introduction to the characters and concepts that make me love the God of Thunder so much.

Greg: And with that, we bring to an end another edition of Off the Page. We hope you stick with us next week as we come back with the wonderfully subjective Countdown!

Nick: Until then, you can give us your thoughts on Tales of Asgard through Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the new Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.