Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers Advance DVD Review

A movie review article by: Paul Brian McCoy

Directors: Joel Gibbs and Mark Cowart
Writer: Robert Rodi
Artist: Esad Ribic
Starring: David Blair, Daniel Thorn, and Elizabeth Diennet

The great halls of Asgard have fallen silent since a new king has overtaken the throne. His name is Loki, son of almighty Odin, brother to the Thunder God, Thor. Once a powerful trickster, the God of Mischief, Loki now rules a grand kingdom with little regard for its subjects. His only thoughts are focused inward, toward the origins of his own pain and suffering. To quell his torment and to gain the respect he feels he so rightfully deserves, Loki must now execute the prisoner chained deep within the dungeons of Asgard, the one man who has ever shown him love. His own brother.

Adapted from the acclaimed miniseries
Loki, from Robert Rodi and Esad Ribic, Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers takes a powerful look inside the minds of two legendary nemeses, shedding light, like never before, on the depths of Thor and Loki’s hatred, and love, for one another

DVD Special Features:
An exclusive look back with writer Robert Rodi and artist Esad Ribic
Behind the scenes of
Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers

DVD $14.97

I'm pretty sure the first time I saw Esad Ribic's art was when I picked up a copy of Loki #1, back in 2004. I mean, I had seen his cover work, of course, but this was an entire comic, fully painted, and it was gorgeous.

I've always been a fan of painted comics, going all the way back to the work of Jon J. Muth and Kent Williams in the Eighties, particularly Moonshadow and Blood: A Tale (both written by J.M. DeMatteis). Paired with the right story, painted art can elevate a work, making it accessible to a whole new audience of people with weird hang-ups about traditional comic book art.

It doesn't always work, but for Robert Rodi and Esad Ribic's Loki it certainly did.

In March of this year it was re-published with a new title, Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers in order to make it more market-friendly with a Thor movie due out just over a month later. At the same time, Marvel released a four-part motion comic adaptation of Loki with the new title, by the animation company Magnetic Dreams.

And now, on September 13, 2011, all four parts are collected and released as a single DVD, with two behind-the-scenes documentaries, the first comprised of interviews with Rodi and Ribic discussing the creation of the original comic and their impressions of the motion comic. The second goes in-depth into the creation of the animation with interviews with the directors, Joel Gibbs and Mark Cowart along with the President of Magnetic Dreams, Mike Halsey.

Being familiar with the story already, I watched the extras first, to get a feel for what I would be getting myself into. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of the whole motion comic experience. I'm not averse to the format, and did think the Spider Woman one was nice to look at, but I've yet to see one really come together as a complete piece of work.

For example, I thought Astonishing X-Men was practically unwatchable, and Iron Man: Extremis a step in the right direction, if way too stiff to make for enjoyable viewing. But the painted artwork in Extremis gave me hope. There was something a little more interesting about watching painted art move across the screen than the pen and ink work of something like Black Panther.

Both mini-documentaries are interesting, with Rodi and Ribic being the most entertaining. Rodi clearly loves the translation of his work to the screen, while Ribic is very careful not to trash what the animators did to his beautiful images.

Everyone involved in the making of Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers, while enthusiastic about the project, are also a little hesitant when discussing the visual translation. Halsey in particular is blunt in discussing Iron Man: Extremis' technical shortcomings and both he and the directors admit the animation still has a ways to go. Although the on-the-job learning process does make Thor and Loki look better as it goes on.

By Episode Four, the creative team had a better handle on how to turn Ribic's art into three-dimensional animation and the quality does improve as the story goes on.

I just didn't really expect the creators to admit it. That was refreshing and made me like them a little more than I think I would have otherwise.

With that said, visually, this is the strongest of the motion comics Marvel has released so far. Which doesn't make it perfect by any means, but it is a step in the right direction. Director Mark Cowart brought in the idea of shooting live-action reference footage for key shots and this usually helps.

At other times, though, the three-dimensional movement contrasts with the 2-D elements, creating a cognitive dissonance that takes you out of the experience. Not always, but often enough to make me wonder if the reference footage was worth the effort. Perhaps if the regular animation were more fluid, as in something Ralph Bakshi might have done in the Seventies, then it would work better together.

And as usual, the animation of mouths as characters speak leaves a lot to be desired.

But with those two nits nicely picked, I want to emphasize just how good this animation looks.

The animators have done a fantastic job capturing the colors and textures of Ribic's original artwork, expanding backgrounds believably and creating detailed three-dimensional sets for the characters to move through. Just the stunning use of light and shadows throughout, but particularly as Loki moves from daylight to the darkness of the Asgardian dungeons, or when Karnilla the Norn Queen is showing Loki visions of alternate realities, is a stylistic triumph.

The animation of cloth is another victory here. Cloaks look and feel heavy, and when the winds pick up, as in the flashback battle scenes, they look real. That takes effort and is very impressive. Small touches also bring the world to life, like the shimmering of the air above the fires on either side of Loki's throne, the swirling of water in the reflective pool in Loki's quarters, or the motes of dust floating through the beams of light in the dungeons.

The use of smoke with the appearances and disappearances of Hela also looked very good.

More often than not, these detail effects contributed to making the actual motion elements of the characters more effective. There are the normal problems here and there that you get with these motion comics, with some movements being more like sliding two-dimensional images across one another, but that didn't happen enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the material.

What did take me out of the production more than any visual shortcoming, was some of the voice acting. According to reports, the actors were taken from the Broadway theater community, and while there are real standouts here, when the actors are off, they're really off.

Daniel Thorn as Thor is particularly disappointing. He doesn't seem to have a feel for the character and hams it up without ever really committing. And for a character like Thor, that is devastating. His performance feels self-conscious and hamstrings the interactions between him and David Blair as Loki. Serena Merriman as Loki's mother, Farbauti, forces an accent that should have been left at the door. Rich Orlov as the Warden and Joe Teiger as Odin also miss the mark, but only just.

However, Elizabeth Diennet as Sif, Phoebe Stewart as Karnilla, and Katherine Chesterton as Hela all nail their performances. Each actress finds something in their characters to fix on and build believable performances that really stand out. Rodi wrote this with pseudo-Shakespearean rhythms and phrasings, and each of these performances seemed to get it without self-consciously distancing themselves from the material.

Whomever voices Balder also does a very impressive job, however, the performance isn't credited to anyone anywhere that I can find.

But the centerpiece is David Blair as Loki.

His vocal performance captures exactly the right tone for this piece. Rodi's script focuses on the tragic element in the relationship between Loki and Thor and how their destinies are set. They can't break out of their roles, even if they try.

However, of the two, only Loki, after some insightful taunting from Balder, realizes just how trapped they really are. Capturing that sense of weariness and ultimately transforming that into a believable, if brief, sense of possibility is something that Blair does perfectly. He moves from growling hostility to smooth flattery to exhausted despair with ease.

His Loki is played with confidence and a refusal to look down on the material. He treats Loki as he would any tragic character in classic drama, and in doing so elevates the entire animated work in the same way the painted art elevates the traditional comic medium.

The story itself is brilliant. I've thought so since I read it the first time and it continues to stand up to scrutiny after seven years. But this is not a story for children. Nor is it a story for those who are craving battles and adventure. This is a psychological piece, studying what makes Loki who and what he is. It questions whether or not Loki is actually evil or has been twisted by his surroundings and his upbringing.

The absolute inability of Odin, Sif, and Thor to take, or even see, any responsibility for the development of Loki's personality is more disturbing to me as a viewer, than Loki's twisted hostilities. The fact is, in the context of this story, we see that in his mind, Loki is a victim. It's not a rationalization or a denial of intent.

We see the flashbacks of Loki's childhood, his interactions with Thor and Sif, his mischief in general. And we get a context for it. Sif is right in sussing out the hidden motivations for Loki's cutting of her hair (in a sequence directly out of Norse mythology, but with a subtle homoerotic subtext), but Loki is oblivious to those motivations himself.

We see that he has always felt like an outsider and his psychological reactions are understandable, if not justifiable, by the end of this work. That's what makes this a success, even moreso than the strides forward the animation takes.

This is a helluva story. But it's not for everyone. For me, though, it was the first motion comic I've ever seen. This is the sort of subject matter that can bring more positive attention to this medium. Taking works with a higher standard of visual and narrative storytelling and recreating that complexity is the best thing Marvel can do to keep advancing the quality of future motion comics.

Have a look at the trailer and see some of this animation in action.

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.

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