Film review by: Witney Seibold

Thor resembles Superman in many ways, in that he seems to be a superpowered space alien, perhaps from another dimension entirely, living on Earth, trying to adjust to human society. The New Mexico of Thor’s experiences, though, is a lot more utilitarian than the Norman Rockwell experience of Smallville, KS; he is not living the American experience, necessarily, but he does know to sneak into secret government bases to steal stuff and beat up masked guys in black outfits. Thor also has a few ambassadors to Earth, in the form of young women who look like they’re still in college, but somehow have years of extensive and specialist research under their belts. They’re researching spacial phenomenon, but it’s never quite explained what they’re looking for or why.

Kenneth Branagh‘s “Thor” is poised as a summer blockbuster, giving star treatment to one of the lesser heroes in the Marvel canon. Thor is the Norse God of Thunder, but in this universe, he is merely a space alien from a dimension called Asgard, who was once mistaken for the Norse God of Thunder. You would think with the presence of multi-dimensional space aliens with god-like powers, the constant use of a noisy teleporting machine, and rule by a purportedly classical monarchy, that “Thor” would be especially suited to Branagh’s usual sense of over-the-top Shakespearean bombast, lending a shining classical weight to the proceedings. “Thor” feels more like a typical superhero flick (as the genre is so common these days), complete with noisy CGI battles and fake-looking backgrounds clearly shot on small sets coated with blue screens.

I have to admit, I was fully prepared to laugh at “Thor.” Its mixture of magical god-like being on one side of the universe, mixing with hi-tech sci-fi CIA spooks on the other immediately brought to mind the notorious genre jumbles of 1980s fantasy films like “Krull,” “Yor, The Hunter from The Future,” and “Masters of the Universe.” Branagh, however, perhaps humbled by his command of such a large budget, flattens out his film to a level of mild interest and adequate excitement. What could have been a glorious exercise in the verse-laden old-timey opulence of an old world godhead, becomes a thriller on par with some of the second-tier superhero movies of recent years. Not as good as “Spider-Man 2,” better than “The Incredible Hulk,” bigger production design than “Iron Man 2,” about as good as “Daredevil.” To translate for those who don’t religiously follow superhero movies: It’s a perfectly entertaining movie.

Thor (Aussie superhunk Chris Hemsworth) lives in Asgard, an Oz-looking collection of sweeping CGI landscapes. Asgard is ruled by the infinitely wise Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and his queen Frigga (Rene Russo), who are Thor’s parents. Asgard itself is made up of large royal chambers and a few secret back corridors. Across town, across the Rainbow Bridge, is a large teleporting machine that allows Asgardians to travel freely between dimensions. The machine is guarded by Heimdall (Idris Elba), a stoic security man of the gods. We don’t get any real peeks as to what life is like for the average citizen of Asgard, nor do we spend any time with any characters other than our main three or four. Thor has a brother named Loki (a rather good Tom Hiddleston, a little known British TV actor, catching his big break), who is pleased not to be next in line for the throne. Anyone who knows the comics, or old Norwegian lore, knows that Loki will eventually become a scheming bad guy, even though he’s kind of a milquetoast wimp at the outset.

Thor, in order to impress his father, and to cement his upcoming coronation as the next king of Asgard, gathers together his band of merry men (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, and the supernaturally attractive Jaimie Alexander), and invades the dimension of The Frost Giants, an old-time enemy of the Asgardians. The Frost Giants are twelve-foot tall, blue-skinned ghouls who live in a wasted tundra, and have powers like Mr. Freeze in the Batman comics. When Odin learns of Thor’s covert invasion, he strips Thor of his superpowers and his trademark hammer, and sends him to Earth to learn humility.

Thor lands in front of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and her research team (Stellan Skarsgård, the only Scandinavian actor in the film,and Kat Dennings), a trio of scientists who are researching something or other, but are resolute in their studies. Natalie Portman can be grand, given the right role; I was fond of her wispy skittishness in “Black Swan,” but when asked to behave like a grown scientist, she comes across as a teenage hobbyist. I would have loved to have seen someone older in the role. Thor is taken under their wing, and they teach one another about each other’s respective home planets. In the one scene where Thor reveals that he is from outer space, Jane takes it entirely in stride, and ends up having a warm, non-sexual sleepover with Thor on the roof of her lab. When Thor appears later in his god-like cape, wielding his mighty hammer, she growls at him like a horny adolescent. Perhaps her girlishness is appropriate after all.

There are some other plot twists back on Asgard, as Odin falls ill, and Loki takes over the throne, all as part of a jealous conspiracy with the Frost Giants. The constant switching back-and-forth between the dusty location shoots in New Mexico, and the constructed plastic, CGI-designed world of Asgard is less jarring that you’d think. Branagh, thanks to his deftness as a director, and to his use of Patrick Doyle‘s wonderfully theatrical score, keeps the disparate worlds mercifully close. He also keeps his film’s pace light and brisk, speeding through great swaths of information with a light hand that will keep the comic book fans involved. I was a little frustrated by how quickly a lot of information was glossed over, and how little time was taken for slow, personal moments (what is life like in Asgard, f’rinstance?), but I suspect that my concerns will be swallowed by the mainstream comic book lovers that are the film’s intended core audience.

Thor” is also intended as another building block in the upcoming superhero orgy that is 2012’s “The Avengers,” arranged to be directed by cult TV director Joss Whedon. Fans of the genre will note the presence of Clark Greggas the CIA spook, as he has already appeared in “Iron Man,” and “Iron Man 2.” Some will also wonder why the fantastic Jeremy Rennerhas a cameo as an army stooge, until one realizes that he is merely being set up for other feature films. “Thor” does give into its brief moments of fanboy placating, but can mercifully stand on its own as an entertaining fantasy film with some exciting fights, fun characters, and impressive special effects.

Published in: on May 4, 2011 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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