Thor (2011)

27 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I shouldn’t be too surprised that Kenneth Branagh, the great cinematic adaptor of Shakespearean work, directed a movie based on a Marvel comic book series. I mean, after all, every director likes to try new territory. I mean, look at Ang Lee—he made a “Hulk” picture and then followed it up with “Brokeback Mountain.” And let’s not beat around the bush—Branagh’s “Thor” is a fast, energetic entertainment. It’s well-made, exciting, and features a charismatic new superhero brought from the page to the screen.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isn’t your ordinary superhero (boy, that’s a phrase I thought I’d never use). In the land of Asgard, within the “nine realms,” he’s the arrogant god of thunder with an all-powerful hammer. Ascending to the throne by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), his ceremony is interrupted by otherworldly beasts known as the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, who are at war with Asgard. In anger, Thor attempts to damage the land of the Frost Giants, which only risks further war.

This nearly-half-hour-long prologue is undoubtedly silly in its storytelling, but it is necessary in developing the continuing story, and it includes the expository rules-and-regulations of this world for us to watch out for. And I have to admit, the battle between Thor and his friends vs. the Frost Giants is well-edited and very riveting.

But the movie really picks up at the half-hour mark, as Thor is ridden of his godly powers (and his hammer) and banished to modern-day Earth for his egotism. There, he meets scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings).

This is the most interesting part of the movie because it shows Thor without his powers and having to deal with being in a strange world as a human. At first, he isn’t so accepting of it—and why wouldn’t he, after going from hero to zero? But what gives the story a breath of fresh air is that this arrogant, stubborn barbarian is willing to learn how to adapt. For example, he has a drink of coffee, he enjoys the drink, and he smashes the cup and yells for more. Jane tells him he can’t do that and Thor just accepts that.

Anyway, there’s a conflict back home involving the Frost Giants seeking to kill Odin, and Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) rising to power after Odin is suddenly in godly traction, I should say. (By the way, am I the only one confused that gods just slip into comas? But I digress.) And then there’s the matter of Thor seeking to gain his power pack, and his hammer held by the government who are trying to figure out what this is. And wouldn’t you know it—it’s the S.H.I.E.L.D. group that’s holding it. Who else would it be, right? Luckily, that annoying, ominous, eye-patch sporting Samuel L. Jackson only waits until after the end credits, for yet another setup to the upcoming superhero epic “The Avengers.”

The stuff with the Frost Giants and the war between Asgard and Jotunheim is pretty clustered and clumsily handled. While it does make some neatly-paced action scenes, I’m not sure I understand what’s really at stake. We start out believing that these Frost Giants are the bad guys and yet Thor grows to try and stop Loki from forming an annihilation of their land. I don’t know, maybe he’s figured out that all life is sacred.

Chris Hemsworth portrays an appealing Thor. He’s strong, but has a heart of gold. He’s arrogant, but knows when to focus. He’s wild at times, but he tries to make something out of himself. Hemsworth brings Thor more dimensions than you’d expect, especially if the character is going to change from a god to a mortal and having to learn from it.

The three people befriended by Thor are also well-cast. Natalie Portman is lovely and likable as always, although I probably could have used a stronger love story between her character and Thor. As it is, it seems rushed and forced, but it’s not Portman’s fault. Stellan Skarsgard is outstanding as Erik, who does more than deliver helpful advice. On hand for comic relief is Kat Dennings as deadpan cynic Darcy, who has some of the funniest lines in the movie (one of which is, “You know, for a crazy homeless guy, he’s pretty cut”).

Now, I want to talk about Thor’s brother Loki, who becomes the villain. When I first saw this movie, I didn’t find Loki to be a charismatic, or even interesting, arch-nemesis for Thor. Right from the get-go, I thought he might as well be walking around with a thought bubble hovering over his head, saying “Oh you’re so dead.” Don’t tell me I didn’t get it. I got it, alright? It’s the Shakespearean element of the jealous brother looking to be rid of his more skillful older brother so he can gain no more attention than him, and so he goes mad with power and decides to further declare war over these Nine Realms. And particularly, he’ll destroy the Earth. Of course.

The truth is, watching the film a second time, I see that I may have missed a few things with this character and realizing that, I can see the effective buildup to this character. You totally buy why he would do these things. But once he goes gain power, he’s still as disappointingly adequate as I remember.

So even if the villain isn’t that charismatic, the screenplay can be a little rushed, and elements from this other-world can seem ridiculous, “Thor” is still a grand production, as you’d expect from Kenneth Branagh’s films. You can tell that Branagh, and designer Bo Welch, went all out to make everything creatively huge—it’s more than notable that the sets and costumes really stand out. And Thor himself is how I imagined him to be, with credits going to his costume design and of course the performance by Chris Hemsworth. Add an interesting fish-out-of-water tale featuring Thor adapting to Earth, as well as some Shakespearean elements to be found here, and “Thor” is an entertaining superhero tale.

NOTE: I really hate to have to say that about Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, since he’s one of my favorite actors. But his coolness has worn out its welcome after the second time he’s brought up the Avengers project.

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