Thor (2011) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and mild language
Running time: 114 min.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas
Cameo: Stan Lee, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne
Hard to call it a superhero film when it is about a Norse god, but given its comic book pedigree, that it's a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creation, and Thor's future inclusion in the Avengers no less, it will go down as one. But that doesn't exactly make the character interesting, as Norse mythology isn't exactly the kind of thing that makes for typical summer popcorn movies, and a god without many weaknesses isn't likely to generate enough peril to make his story truly compelling. Credit director Kenneth Branagh (Sleuth, The Magic Flute) for making this improbable story work as pure entertainment enough to satisfy those hoping that the momentum for the Avengers film wouldn't end with this potential weakest link. A gamble was made with relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek, complete with unshakable Aussie accent), and by nearly all accounts, he's what is called for -- imposing, good looking, charismatic, and formidable. And funny as well, which helps keep the rather boring plotline buoyant and lively at just the right intervals.
The film doesn't kick off with the humor and energy I'm crediting it with. Many of the scenes set in Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods, aren't terribly interesting. They do offer a grand, Flash Gordon-ish visual splendor, though, and are somewhat necessary to explain who Thor is, where he comes from, and to offer some foes for him to try to thwart throughout the film. After all, when you have a god on Earth, he shouldn't spend time catching thieves and two-bit hoods. Branagh, whose Shakespearean background proves useful in setting up the devious crosses and double-crosses for the power of the throne, is a natural fit for the immortals and their stagy dialogue, but he does surprise nonetheless with his competent handling of the special effects smorgasbords, especially in the action battles set on Earth. It isn't ever fever-pitch thrilling, but it doesn't fumble as much as it might in less sure hands.
Thor is the god of Thunder, and heir to the throne as the leader of the gods, so long as his father, Odin (Hopkins, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), considers him ready and worthy for ascension. The role appears all but his, but a last second raid on Asgard from the deadly Frost Giants causes the impulsive Thor to call for a war to frighten the humanoid behemoths from attempting such a thing in the future. Alas, his rash decision proves to cause Odin's displeasure, as he banishes him from the realm to Earth, where he not only finds himself in a mortal human body, he no longer has his trusty war hammer, Mjolnir, to provide his protection. Luckily, he runs into (literally), three astrophysicists studying the possibility of wormholes in the New Mexico desert who, though they think him a crazy homeless man, are willing to help him in what seems to be his mad quest for finding his hammer and returning home. Meanwhile, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. led by agent Phil Coulsen (Gregg, Iron Man, the one from the other "Avengers" Marvel films) are in the area, and they are quite tenacious in their pursuit of knowledge regarding the craterous presence of a giant, immovable hammer in the desert and the presence of a large, golden-locked man in their midst.
The supporting cast is fine, though Hiddleston (Conspiracy, The Gathering Storm) barely registers as Loki, who is so formidable in the comic book, though it is interesting how they downplay his character. Portman (No Strings Attached, Black Swan) is just a big name just to have one as Thor's would-be love interest, Jane Foster, in a role underwritten for someone of her stature. In fact, nearly all roles, including Thor's, aren't fleshed out save for what the plot or comic relief moments necessitate (Kat Dennings' (The House Bunny, Big Momma's House 2) entire role as Jane's best friend services laughs and nothing else). Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later) makes a cameo appearance here as the future Avenger, the impeccable bow-and-arrow marksman Hawkeye, but wisely, unlike the distracting use of Black Widow in Iron Man 2, it is kept to the bare minimum necessary.
Even in comic book form, Thor has always been a bit hokey in its dialogue and characterizations, and it's no different here. Branagh does see the humor in the situation, playing for mild in-jokes (Thor walks into a pet store and requests a steed) and allowing us to laugh at the differences between the mundane Earth folk and the preposterous and larger-than-life Asgardians. As we see Sif (Alexander, Rest Stop) and the Warriors Three, Thor's cronies, walk among the streets of rural New Mexico, we can only laugh at their pompous posturing and other-worldly appearance as it contrasts with the environment of small town U.S.A. It's reminiscent in a way that can't be coincidence with the similar scene of General Zod and his sidekicks as they did the same walk down the town streets in Superman II.
Thor feels more like an appetizer than a meal, not really a complete story so much as an introduction to the character for the purpose of a future film (or films, should this prove lucrative). It does succeed in giving us a character that makes us want to see more of him, at least as he is on Earth with its comic contrasts and fish-out-of-water bits of humor. There is a relative shorthand to this film that caters tot he built-in audience who knows how superhero films conventionally run, as the origin is nonexistent, and there is a shorthand to how it plays out that eschews explanations that would ordinarily exist in a self-contained universe. For instance, the Asgardians all speak English, which one assumes is translated to English for our benefit, until we see Thor arrive on Earth and instantly speak English in the same manner he speaks it in his native plane.
Like its namesake, Thor is headstrong, flashy, and is brimming with self-confidence. What Thor lacks in complexity or originality it makes up just enough with vim and vigor.
As with the other Marvel Avengers flicks, stick through the end credits for a teaser of things to come.
-- Followed by The Avengers (2012)
©2011 Vince Leo