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Thor (2011)

DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh

CAST:

Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Jaime Alexander, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Clark Gregg, Rene Russo, Colm Feore

REVIEW:

Like 2008’s Iron Man and 2010’s Iron Man 2, along with this summer’s upcoming Captain America, Thor is one of various comic book movie installments introducing the individual Marvel superheroes who will be finally united onscreen in 2012’s The Avengers, but as Jon Favreau did with Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh is able to make Thor stand on his own as a superhero rather than letting his intro feel like a two hours Avengers preview. It remains to be seen what Joe Johnston has done with Captain America, but thus far the Avengers are in good hands.

Thor is unique from the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, or Iron Man in that the comic series it is based on is itself based in turn on Norse mythology. Unlike mortal men such as Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, or Peter Parker, this superhero is literally a god come down to Earth. There’s an epic and mythological underpinning here that sets Thor apart from what we expect from a comic book movie, and the movie spends a sizable prologue giving the backstory of the gods and their relation to mankind. Many centuries ago, humanity was saved from the Frost Giants who sought to return Earth to a second Ice Age by Odin All-Father (Anthony Hopkins), god-king of the realm of Asgard, who has since maintained a ceasefire with the Frost Giant King Laufey (Colm Feore). While Odin and the Asgardians have allowed themselves to fade into myth and legend in the eyes of mankind, they continue to keep a watchful eye, but the gate between the two dimensions can only be crossed through its stoic guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). Odin’s first-born son and chosen heir Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a powerful but arrogant warrior, and when his thirst for battle reignites the hostilities between Asgard and the Frost Giants, his furious father strips him of his power, including his mighty hammer, and casts him down to Earth to learn humility. His hammer comes along, but, like the Sword in the Stone, Thor must prove himself worthy of it before he has the strength to pull it free. In the meantime, he runs into human scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who is investigating the storm he came down in. Her colleagues (Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings) think he’s a delusional homeless man, but Jane is fascinated, and agrees to help him. And back in Asgard, Thor’s jealous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) maneuvers himself onto the throne in his brother’s absence.

Kenneth Branagh, predominantly associated with Shakespeare, might seem a strange choice to direct a comic book superhero movie, but there is a little of the grandeur in the depiction of Asgard that he brought to his adaptation of Hamlet, and both that and the intrigue of Loki, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Shakespearean play, are likely aspects of Thor that he found attractive. There’s even a passing resemblance to Gladiator as the heroic warrior banished from the kingdom must make his way back to confront the usurper, and there’s more than a passing resemblance between Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus, both sons living enviously in another man’s shadow and motivated by bitterness, resentment, and hurt. While Thor is heavier on drama and spectacle than action, Branagh seems perfectly comfortable when it shifts into more traditional comic book summer movie territory, although there’s no big action sequence to compare with the train fight in Spider-Man 2 or the car chase in The Dark Knight. The closest to a signature action scene is when Thor defends his mortal friends against a destructive machine sent over from his world, but both that scene and the obligatory climactic Thor/Loki mano-a-mano are over fairly quickly and don’t generate more than perfunctory tension. That Thor is as engaging as it is even without a particularly high action quotient is a testament to its strengths in other areas (the same could be said of both Iron Man films). S.H.I.E.L.D., the secretive government organization which assembles The Avengers, pops up here, represented by our old friend from both Iron Mans Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who takes a keen interest in Thor and his hammer, but Branagh manages to integrate them into the plotline fluidly enough that the movie doesn’t feel like an advertisement for The Avengers. As in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, there’s an after-credits scene with a surprise cameo that further sets up The Avengers, but overall Thor tells a story that is perfectly capable of standing on its own.

Chris Hemsworth, an Australian actor whose previous claim to international fame was the father of James Kirk in the prologue of 2009’s Star Trek reboot, shows he has the screen presence and charisma to headline a big summer comic book movie, and isn’t stretched when he has to display a range of emotion. There’s nothing spectacular about Hemsworth’s performance, but there’s also nothing wrong with it. Also, the hunky Hemsworth’s impressively buffed physique ought to gain him a substantial fan following among female viewers. He is offset by classically-trained British actor Tom Hiddleston, who like Hemsworth is a new face to American audiences, and also like Hemsworth, might be about to make a name for himself. Instead of simply playing Loki as one-dimensionally evil, Hiddleston invests his underlying pain with conviction and passion and brings more depth and conflict to his character than your run-of-the-mill comic book villain. It’s possible to feel some measure of sympathy for Loki.

The other characters don’t get much meat on their bones, but everyone does what they can. Natalie Portman makes Jane a plucky and likable love interest. No one is going to consider this one of her standout roles, but there’s a breezy looseness to her here that she doesn’t always have, and perhaps like Branagh, she seems to look at this as a chance to relax and have some fun. Anthony Hopkins is suitably cast as Odin, but doesn’t have much to do besides alternate between sage and wise and thunderously angry, while Rene Russo hangs around and can probably count her lines on one hand. Idris Elba brings an authoritative presence to Heimdall, while Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings have some amusing lines and Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Josh Dallas, and Tadanobu Asano provide adequate support. The Frost Giant King is played by Colm Feore, but both his face and voice are unrecognizable.

As enjoyable as Thor is, it’s far from a perfect motion picture. While there’s some chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, their love story is given no more than perfunctory development and never feels more than the obligatory touch of romance. There’s effective comic relief from the fish out of water scenario as Thor mingles with the mortals, but his friends from Asgard coming to his rescue tips that brand of humor a little into the corny. Asgard is spectacularly rendered, but at times looks overly CGI and cartoony. It’s hard to visualize a character flying through the air without it looking silly, and Thor is not an exception. The movie struggles at times to find smooth transitions between the goings-on on Earth and switches back to the fantastical world and court intrigues of Asgard. Branagh obviously relishes the Shakespearean elements, principally the character of Loki, but exercises restraint and doesn’t beat the audience over the head with the allusions. All in all, Thor is a solid introduction for its title character; it’s not up to the level of The Dark Knight, but is easily as good as Iron Man and in some ways is a more ambitious film. Those with a working knowledge of the mythology may have a deeper appreciation for the film, but the movie should also have enough to satisfy those simply seeking summer comic book movie entertainment.

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