Review: Thor

Looking at the whole of the Marvel universe, Thor would have to be the black sheep. For one thing, he’s the Norse god of thunder. His world — the realm of Asgard — is completely foreign to us, as is most Norse mythology. Greek mythology, maybe, but definitely not Norse. As for the hero himself, similar to Superman, he possesses inherent power and immortality and wields as brute an arrogance as his mighty hammer. In other words: hard to identify with and hard to like. Yet under Kenneth Branagh’s direction, the worlds of magical legend and that of the contemporary superhero manage to find a common ground through humor and relatable themes of familial conflict. Channeled through Chris Hemsworth’s bravado and highly aware performance, “Thor” manages to stand tall as a hero’s journey among all else, a trait that serves as its saving grace.

Bouncing back and forth between Asgard and modern day New Mexico, “Thor” tells the story of how the young arrogant king-to-be of Asgard reignited a long-ended war between his people and the evil Frost Giants and was therefore banished to Earth by his father Odin (Hopkins). Now a mortal on Earth, Thor seeks to reclaim his power and the throne with the help of an astro-physicist (Portman), while his younger brother Loki (Hiddleston) plans to secure his own place as ruler.

Thor’s personal quest as well as the conflict between him, his father and Loki provide the film’s true lifeblood. The three give the film’s best performances, and though familial treachery rates far from original storytelling, there’s a reason these Shakespearean plots have been around forever. Hiddleston thrives here as the story’s most complex character, which is a title more often given to someone other than the villain in a superhero film. His transformation from untrustworthy worm to full-on bad guy feels complete thanks to the way Hiddleston seizes every moment of screen time.

But that doesn’t mean he overshadows our golden-maned hero. Hemsworth shows a definitive comfort as a leading man, happily commanding the attention that ought to be demanded of an actor playing a god. It helps that he’s 20 different kinds of jacked and therefore physically appropriate for the role, but he shows surprising depth. In the Jotunheim (Frost Giants’ planet) sequence, the one that gets Thor in trouble with Dad, he infuses a childish innocence into his untempered pride, and we become more apt to root for his predestined change of character rather than despise his arrogance. Although the writers give him one too many shouts of “Noooo!” during the film, he makes it convincing, especially when he comes to the realization that he simply cannot take back his hammer, Mjolnir, or his powers through simple use of force.

Speaking of force, it would be wrong of me to get too wrapped up in serious superhero film criticism as is all too common these days and forget that “Thor” is supposed to herald the coming of the summer blockbuster season. Hemsworth makes the grade as an ass-kicker without a doubt, yet the action sequences leave a bit of something to be desired in terms of excitement and creativity. But while Branagh might not be a student of action filmmaking, he never loses sight of what’s at stake. The writers have ensured that the action sequences feel necessary rather than like  needless fluff; the tension of the story keeps the fights engaging and Branagh retains focus on the characters involved.

The element of the script that will divide opinion the most will likely be its humor. Kat Dennings’ character carries the brunt of the comic relief as Darcy, an intern for Portman’s Jane Foster and Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig. Sometimes it goes a bit too far, but I would almost label her as crucial: she helps keep “Thor” from getting too serious to be taken seriously. “Thor” contains a lot of talk about magic, science and rainbow bridges; it helps to have a character that takes all of it lightly and also breaks the rhythm of what would be an all-too-typical “girl meets boy fallen from the sky” love story between Jane and Thor.

At the same time, Hemsworth ends up being the funniest of anyone. He doesn’t even flinch as he proclaims his enjoyment of a cup of coffee and smashes the mug on the floor demanding another. He doesn’t play it up for laughs or try and act confused by why it’s not acceptable behavior: he lets it be part of who he is. Branagh and the script also do a nice job using humor to break the awkwardness that occurs when the Warriors Three and Sif (Asgard’s best fighters) come to Earth looking for Thor. Their extravagant costumes look simply awful out of the context and  set design of Asgard that one of the film’s pivotal action sequences that follows would’ve lost all sense of credibility without some self-aware humor. Considering the potential for “Thor” to be a laughingstock in this manner, it’s actually impressive how well Branagh, cast and crew handled the clash of fantasy and reality this story calls for. Sure, the human characters embrace the world of the Asgardians a little too quickly, but the entertainment value covers up the obvious blemishes.

The only significant chunk of the film that didn’t quite hit was the love story. Despite being excellent in the role, Portman had no reason to take the part of Jane Foster. She’s criminally underused in the film and rather one-dimensional. She cares about her life’s work and is smitten with Thor. Their scenes together are nice, but hardly serve to up the stakes when Thor returns to Asgard for the final showdown. My curiosity for a “Thor” sequel definitely hinges more so on wanting to see Asgard and its realms more fully realized than wanting to know whether Thor and Jane can keep their flame alive despite being worlds apart.

Fortunately, convincing love stories don’t rank among the most needed ingredients for a successful action/adventure film or superhero film. “Thor” would have been better for it, but the other convincing main characters steal the show. No matter how many misfires you can find in certain aspects of the film, its devotion to its core conflict and character arcs helps make everything more entertaining. This is a lesson one too many superhero films forget. The difference between “Thor” and “Iron Man 2,” for example, is how the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. remains integral to the story, but not in need of its own screen time. The plot of “Thor” remains simple and pure; a lesson in humility that few summer blockbusters are ever willing to learn.

3.5/5 Stars

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne (screenplay), J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich (story), Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby (comic)
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston

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