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Thor (2011)

May 5, 2011

written by: Ashley Edward MillerZack Stentz & Don Payne (screenplay) and J. Michael Straczynski & Mark Protosevich (story)
produced by: Kevin Feige
directed by: Kenneth Branagh
rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence)
119 min.
U.S. release date: May 6, 2011

After years of seeing other studios mishandle their properties on the big-screen, Marvel Comics formed Marvel Studios, giving them full control of the characters that were still available to them. The Spider-Man and the X-Men films started out great but they ended up as bloated duds, and then there’s what happened with the film adaptations of Daredevil and The Punisher. With the double-barrel blast of “Iron-Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” in 2008, the studio set out to deliver worthy big-screen representations of their comic creations. 
Last year’s “Iron Man 2” was more of the same (fun, yet possibly playing it safe), broadening the universe Marvel is building, leading towards next year’s “Avengers” movie. The success of those films point to a promising future for upcoming projects from the House of Ideas. Now, two of the most difficult Marvel heroes to see translated on the big-screen are coming out this summer: Captain America and Thor.
We’ll see about Cap come July, but I can assure you that Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” is the most fulfilling Marvel film since “Spider-man 2”. By all accounts, a magic hammer-wielding warrior from out of this world,  should not translate well. But it works in a mighty way, as Branagh excellently balances an otherworldly realm of gods and monsters with the hesitant and tentative human introduction to them. In doing so, he manages to emphasize characters over CGI, delivering a feature that has a head, a heart and a funny bone. These are foreign concepts to the comic book genre, much less any recent fantasy/adventure film, and it makes “Thor” are a welcome kickoff to the summer movie season.

THOR Anthony Hopkins

Cocky and confident, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the God of Thunder, a warrior who acts first and sorts everything out later. He resides in Asgard, a magical floating realm in space, home to a variety of Norse mythological beings. Raised under the watchful eye (literally) of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the All-father, ruler and protector of Asgard, Thor has received much praise while his spiteful half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has looked on with plotting jealousy. Knowing only one of his sons will eventually ascend to his throne, Odin hopes that his wisdom and experience have impacted both of them. 
His long-standing truce with Laufey (Colm Feore), leader of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, is an example of such peace-seeking wisdom. Such an agreement is at stake when an invasive move is made to extract the Casket of Winters, a coveted power source contained in Asgard guarded by the Destroyer, an indestructible robotic sentry. Thor goes against his father’s orders and confronts Laufey, persuading Loki and his warrior friends, Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), to join him in seeking retribution. 

As punishment for his brash actions and blatant disobedience, Odin strips Thor of his powers and exiles him to Earth, sending his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir, as well with a protective spell allowing only the worthy to lift it. Thor is struck (literally) by spirited astrophysicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) after landing in New Mexico, while his hammer is discovered not too far off by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), that familiar agent of S.H.I. E.L.D.
Vulnerable and humbled, Thor soon realizes he must rely on the help of mere mortals such as Jane and her research colleagues, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy (Kat Dennings), in order to retrieve his hammer and return to Asgard. Opening himself up to such help may also open the door to some mutual attraction with Jane, an added benefit to his humble banishment.


THOR Natalie Portman

With Thor gone, Loki has made a play for power as Odin rejuvenates, a move that doesn’t go over well with the other warriors, including Heimdall (Idris Elba), the guardian of the Bifröst Bridge, a rainbow connection to other worlds. Loki is determined to keep Thor as a permanent resident of Earth, as his twisted lies and betrayals cloud Asgard with uncertainty. Thor may need both help from above and from his newfound friends in order to restore Asgard, but first he must come to terms with who he is, who he wants to be and what he stands for.

That’s quite a bit of story for audiences to follow (or swallow) but Branagh does a heck of job condensing it all down to understandably cohesive storytelling. Of course, it helps to know what Marvel Comics has done with the character since 1962, yet any newbie could and will be pulled by what they see here.  From the vast beauty of Asgard, the complex and (at times) humorous characters and the Shakespearean drama, it’s all quite intoxicating. Like a throwback to those old sci-fi/fantasy matinée flicks, I found myself feeling like a kid again as I “oooed” and “awed”, gleefully watching a hero I grew up with come to life right before my eyes. 
Portraying all this is an ambitious task that requires a director that can helm such mythic drama, and Branagh is the man. Ordinarily exposition and backstory feels lazy or forced (respectively), but Branagh allows none of that. Any plot explanation that comes up is contextual; it makes sense, propelling the story forward instead of bogging it down. The backstory told serves more as essential history than it does needless flashback. While it would’ve been nice for the screenwriters to allow more time for Thor to get acquainted and in turn impacted by the humans he encounters, the story is spun in a manageable and tangible fashion. 

THOR Clark Gregg
As much as Branagh confidently maneuvers this tale, its success rests on the believability of Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth came to our awareness as Kirk’s father in 2009’s “Star Trek”, where he delivered a commanding and moving memorable role. After that, I wanted to know who he was and made sure to place him on my cinematic radar. Obviously, filmmakers felt the same way. Hemsworth has appropriately bulked up for the role of  the bearded hunk with flowing blonde hair, but most importantly, he embodies the right tone for this noticeable character arc. From bold arrogance to contrite humility, we see Thor come to his heroism through the truth that Hemsworth brings to the role. All that hammer swinging and funny “thou” speech could’ve easily been a joke, if it wasn’t for a charismatic actor who is completely present in every scene.  
It helps that Thor isn’t a jerk. I say that because we’ve been given a lot of them lately in superhero movies. Let’s face it Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are social misfits despite their vast wealth, but they can also be jerks. Thor does come across as vain and somewhat full of himself, but he means well. There’s a genuine selfless hero in there at the heart of this enthusiastic man of action. He’s also not out to bed the babe, another element we see far too often. This is a noble hero concerned more with the task at hand, yet will eagerly stop to dole out some chivalry.

It also helps that Hemsworth is supported by a cast that brings a wide range of talents and strengths. I had feared that Sir Anthony Hopkins would ooze cheesiness out of a role that required regal heft, but he turns in some of his best work in a while. His role is crucial to the father and son theme that anchors the film, and it’s good to see him reunite with his “Freejack” costar, Rene Russo, who plays his wife, Frigga, Thor’s strong mother. As for the rest of the Asgardians, Joshua Dallas is a standout as an appropriately swashbuckling Fandral. It’s a role that could’ve been neglected but instead, he and characters like Sif are there for a purpose, not just for fanboy recognition. 
Thor’s earthbound interactions are crucial to his development and also provide viewers with some of the movie’s funniest moments. Portman is enthusiastic as the cute scientist (a far cry from the demure nurse the comics started Jane out as), but the welcome humor comes from Skarsgård and Dennings. Skarsgård’s Dr. Selvig learns it’s unwise to test your liver with an Asgardian at a local tavern, while Denning deadpans some of the film’s funniest zingers.
I thought I was going to maintain my gripe about Thor not wearing his trademark winged helmet throughout the movie. Bag that. He does wear it when we first see him as an adult in Asgard, but thinking about it a little more, it’s a good decision to keep it off.  I couldn’t see him running around on earth with it on, at least not yet.  
THOR Chris Hemsworth
This is the first Marvel Studios film that boasts the most fully realized antagonists. Both Loki and Laufey pose a convincing yet unpredictable threat throughout the story. Credit most be given to both the writers and the actors, for offering characters that provide more layers than we would expect. Both Feore and Hiddleston give clever deliveries with nuanced inflections that elevate each scene they are in. Not relying completely on digital effects for the Frost Giants, allows actors to bring something more to their creature’s cold exterior. As Loki, a character who has long been one of Marvel’s master manipulators, Hiddleston has a great time gradually revealing his character’s intentions. Whether he’s portraying the child-in-the-man craving acceptance from his father or the decisive (and divisive) liar serving his own needs, Hiddleston is entertaining to watch. 

As for the action, “Thor” hammers a good variety of impressive surprises. The big melee between the Frost Giants and Thor and company toward the beginning is an awesome and intense battle, giving us a sample of Thor’s power.  Fans will want to know how powerful a live-action Thor is, well you will not be disappointed at what you see. You’ll actually want more, and find yourself looking forward to the “Avengers” movie. The best part of the action is that it never feels overwhelming or difficult to follow, and never overshadows the drama of the story. 
Just as the other Marvel films had geek in-jokes, cameos and end credit scenes, you’ll want to pay close attention throughout the film for some fun nuggets. Along with the requisite Stan Lee scene, other notable creators can be found (like J. Michael Straczyinski and Walt Simonson), if you look hard enough. There’s also an uncredited cool cameo by a certain archer that winds up being both a treat and a tease. Some may consider it as Marvel product-placing, but at least they’re doing it for their own upcoming movies. I see it as smart world-building. 

It’s unclear how well this movie will be received by those outside the geek community. I can see how there may be a hesitancy, a fear of possible cheese or an uncertainty as to who this superhero is. I get that. But I can’t see anyone open to fantasy, adventure or sci-fi, not getting into this. For a change, we have something unique here in that this isn’t an origin story but moreso a hero becoming a man. The unexpected result is the most satisfying, entertaining and fun movie-going experiences I’ve had so far this year.
NOTE: I didn’t mention the 3D aspect for a reason. It doesn’t really add a whole lot to the overall enjoyment of the picture. Most of the time, I didn’t even notice it was in 3D. Unless you’re seeing it in IMAX as well, save your money and opt for glorious 2D.
RATING: ****                    

16 Comments leave one →
  1. mATtHEw gRAmItH permalink
    May 18, 2011 10:19 pm

    I’m gonna go with with Roger Ebert (his review and blog comments) and A.O. Scott on this one. Nothing special.

    I read the Thor comics for years as a kid, but I actually don’t remember anything about it, except that he had a hammer. So I consider myself a newbie. As such, I just don’t think it was interesting or original…or even fun. It was a mostly adequate film, but these days anything less than great just doesn’t do it for me.

    There is something about the classic honorable heroism in movies like this. When I left the theatre I may have walked out a little taller, spoke a little clearer, felt a little stronger. Can’t complain about that.


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