Sunday, May 08, 2011

In Theaters: Thor

Thor one-sheet and IMPAwards link
As comic book adaptations go, Thor must have been a tall order from the start. The original Marvel comic’s complex revision of Norse mythology, coupled with the traditional superheroics and a story of a god living on Earth due to family disputes, called for an expensive and elaborate epic about a character who doesn’t have a lot of recognition value for the average moviegoer. (Unless said moviegoer is a fan of Adventures in Babysitting.) There was a lot of skepticism about this film, and even I wasn’t quite prepared for how much I would enjoy it. Kenneth Branagh and a host of writers have managed a warm, funny, and engaging spectacle, and despite its purpose to build up to the eventual big screen debut of Marvel’s Avengers, there’s not a cynical bone in its body.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruler of the Asgardians, an advanced, godlike race of beings who once saved Earth from an invasion of frost giants, and so inspired the myths of the Norse pantheon. As Odin ages, Thor is to be named king (over the objections of his brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston), but the ceremony is disrupted by an attempt by the frost giants to break into Asgard and steal a precious artifact. Though the attempt fails, Thor is outraged and over his father’s objections leads his friends to the frost giant’s homeworld, trying unsuccessfully to discover the secret of how the giants were able to reach Asgard to begin with. For his act of aggression, Thor is stripped of his godlike powers and exiled to Earth, where he is discovered by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a young scientist researching the gates between worlds that the Asgardians use for travel. She’s not sure who he is at first, but when government agents start confiscating her work and constructing a base around a mysterious hammer which fell from the sky the same time Thor did, she starts to have her suspicions. Meanwhile, Odin falls into a deathly slumber from the stress of his actions, and Loki seizes power, putting dark designs into practice.

One of the benefits of the superhero genre’s popularity is that filmmakers now don’t seem afraid to embrace the wild and crazy aspects of the comics they’re adapting. Marvel’s version of the Norse gods was a blend of high fantasy and science fiction aided to no end by the wild visual imagination of Jack Kirby, the sort of thing that might get toned down, but then again this is a Kenneth Branagh film. He’s never worked with a picture quite this size before, but he’s never one to hold anything back, and we get Asgard in all its colorful glory, an at times downright breathtaking metropolis, populated by actors who were somehow persuaded to take their job of playing comic book space gods with the utmost seriousness.

Which is not to say the film lacks humor. Both in Asgard and on Earth, there are a lots of moments of realistic comic relief which somehow lend the more ridiculous plot events more credibility. Thor has a nice rapport with his friends, the Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, and Josh Dallas as Fandral)- fearsome fighters all, but also a lot of fun. Portman is warm and charming as Jane, and is aided by the amazing Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings as the loveliest comic relief I’ve seen in a while. The script has a lot of good banter, something which has served the Iron Man films exceedingly well and which I hope catches on.

There’s a surprising believability to the characters, aided no doubt by Branagh being very good with actors- Loki in particular becomes a complex villain, devastated by Odin’s revelation that he is actually born of the frost giants and thus driven by emotions that don’t become entirely clear until the film’s climax. Hiddleston and Hemsworth both play their roles very well despite being among the freshest faces in the cast. Hopkins is, well, Hopkins, and Idris Elba as the gatekeeper Hemdall has some wonderful scenes. The action is grand and imaginative without being overly contrived, and the 3-D effect is well done for the most part, though you could probably get the same impact from a 2-D screening.

The proliferation of writers on this film (the plague of big budget filmmaking is that coherent voices often get lost) does result in a story that’s not entirely seamless. Some thematic elements aren’t hit as strongly as they should be and some character movements are a touch too fast or too slow. None of these are really glaring, but they do add a bit of sloppiness to what is otherwise a well-crafted production.

Thor is just plain fun in a way that many blockbusters aspire to but often miss because they’ve thrown character and emotion under the bus. It’s technically possible for a film to get by without these things, but the ones that stay with me are the ones that try to have it all, that try to be clever and funny and sincere despite the best efforts of studios to breed out these characteristics. Of the Avengers set-up pictures, Thor may actually be the best, or at least my favorite, and while he’s guaranteed a return to the big screen there, I hope the god of thunder has another solo outing or two in him.

Based on the comic book character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby
Story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich
Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stewart, and Don Payne
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Grade: B+

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