Thor (USA, 2011)

Name: Thor
Release Date: 2011
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zac Stentz and Don Payne (screenplay); J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich (story); and Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby (comic book).
Director: Kenneth Branagh

Chris Hemsworth: Thor
Natalie Portman: Jane Foster
Tom Hiddleston: Loki
Anthony Hopkins: Odin
Stellan Skarsgård: Erik Selvig
Kat Dennings: Darcy Lewis
Clark Gregg : Agent Coulson
Idris Elba: Heimdall
Colm Feore: King Laufey
Ray Stevenson: Volstagg
Tadanobu Asano: Hogun
Josh Dallas: Fandral
Jaimie Alexander: Sif
Rene Russo: Frigga
Adriana Barraza: Isabel Alvarez
Maximiliano Hernández: Agent Sitwell

With the summer movie season officially upon us, and with super heroes officially at the center of the mythology of American cinema, it’s only fitting that the filmed adventures of a musclebound Norse god take the first bow at the box office.

Of all the superheroes in the Marvel Comics pantheon, bringing Thor to life on the big screen presents one of the biggest challenges: Namely, how does a mortal audience relate to an invulnerable, immortal, exceptionally good-looking divinity?

Unlike the Spiderman franchise, Thor doesn’t have a secret identity as a bumbling everyman from Queens. Unlike Batman, from Marvel’s industry rivals DC, there’s no formative moment of tragedy firing his desire to slip into spandex and rubber and fight crime.

And of all the costumed do-gooders competing for an ever-shrinking share of readers’ attention, Thor remains one of the hardest characters for readers to build a relationship with. Most of his adventures take place in fantasy realms, and since his debut in the early 1960s, he’s spent much of his career speaking in a Yoda-esque Middle English replete with Thees, thines and thous.

So it’s unsurprising that director Kenneth Branagh and a team of writers that includes the respected comics writer, J. Michael Straczynski, turn to a cinematic trope that’s underlined countless Hollywood classics: the big-shot getting taken out of his element to learn a little humility.

Few of us will ever be so lucky to be cast out of Heaven (In this case, the Norse realm of Asgard, which is brought to CGI life looking like the cover to every fantasy novel you’ve ever read) only to wake up to the finely boned features of Natalie Portman. If this be penance, sign me up for the long course.

In this particular case, Thor’s sin is an ill-timed attack against a race known as The Frost Giants (who are exceedingly cranky and apparently live in a world without central heating) that risks war with Asgard and the lives of countless innocents.

To teach his beach-blonde tressed son some humility before he ascends to the CGI throne, Thor’s father Odin (Hopkins, whose presence in any film ups its class quotient by a factor of 10) strips Thor of his power and sends him down to Earth.

As an added bonus, he traps Thor’s all-powerful hammer in a chunk of stone where, like King Arthur’s famed sword Excalibur, he won’t be able to withdraw it until he proves himself worthy. Attention trivia fans, Thor’s hammer is called Mjolinir and you will only be able to pronounce it if you have spent a considerable amount of time purchasing tastefully appointed, assemble-it-yourself furniture.

Thus, it comes to pass that our hero (affably played by Australian newcomer Hemsworth) lands in New Mexico. That’s where we find Portman’s Jane, an astronomer, racing around the desert conducting Very Important Experiments whose nature does not become clear until later in the film when the Earthbound Thor explains them to us.

In comparison to the scenes in Asgard, where every word is spoken portentiously and is fraught with Shakespearean levels of meaning, the scenes in New Mexico are light and deftly handled.

Branagh, who’s made a career of exposing Shakespeare to the masses, seems the most comfortable handling these scenes of light comedy.

These include some nice moments for Skarsgard’spaternal Erik Selvig, who works out early on that the Norse myths of his childhood have come to life before his eyes.

Hemsworth also seems to realize that there’s no way to play it straight when you’re an omnipotent, six-and-a-half-foot tall immortal with matinee idol good looks. There’s a hint of mischief about his blue eyes as he smashes a coffee cup against a diner floor and bellows “Another!” or as he strolls into a pet shop and casually asks for a horse.

Portman, as ever, is luminous, and may get the best moment of screentime with one particularly lovely outburst in the film’s final act.

Dennings, as Jane’s slacker intern, is criminally underused and it’s not a stretch to say that the role could have been played by anyone.

And you don’t have to go see Thor to know that the film ends as you expect it might: With the balance between good and evil restored, the hero learning humility, the inevitable chaste, yet passionate kiss with the heroine and reconciliation between prodigal son and estranged father.

To be sure, there are a few legitimate grievances to lodge against Branagh and the filmmakers.

The romance between Thor and Jane seems shoehorned into the story. The audience is meant to believe that the two have fallen passionately in love after a romance that lasts barely (by my reckoning) 36 hours.

The attraction between these two admittedly attractive actors seems based entirely on Hemsworth doffing his shirt at the appropriate moment, exposing a vast expanse of well-tanned and muscled torso. Though I’m sure I’d have been similarly afflicted had the elfin Portman doffed her shirt at exactly the right moment as well.

And I’m still mildly irritated at the filmmakers’ decision to slap a coat of 3D on the movie during post-production. I counted maybe two or three instances of 3D action that contributed anything to plot development or action (Hey, look! It’s Thor’s hammer flying straight at you!). Otherwise, the decision to separately market the film in 3D seems mostly a cynical calculation to get the audience to part with a few extra shekels.

If you’ve paid even a scrap of attention to the entertainment shows this spring, then you already know that Thor, along with this summer’s still-to-come Captain America vehicle, is intended to set up a full-on Avengers film also featuring Iron Man and The Hulk.

As a result, there are plenty of Easter eggs sprinkled throughout “Thor” to keep the fanboys happy until The Avengers is released. I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say, the faithful will recognize a certain eye-patch wearing super-spy and a hero who has a way with a bow.

Despite the string of cinematic cliches that unite the movie, Thor functions as it is supposed to, not as deathless art, but as an enjoyable two hours of old-fashioned swashbuckling and derring-do.

About jlmicek

I'm an award-winning journalist in Harrisburg, Pa. I also run and cook all the things.
This entry was posted in Sci-Fi, Summer Blockbusters, Superhero Cinema. Bookmark the permalink.

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