Review by Mark Tucci

Kicking the summer movie season off with a bang, or perhaps a clap of thunder, THOR hammers his way onto the big screen in the latest Marvel Comics superhero adaptation. Like most debut superhero movies, the filmmakers are tasked with setting up some kind origin story in order to provide character background as well as the hero’s motivations, powers, and whatever weaknesses that will invariably be exploited throughout the movie franchise (and let’s face it, almost every superhero movie released today is marketed as a franchise).

In the case of THOR, we’re faced with a bit of a challenge as far as his origin and background are concerned. Unlike most of the other heroes that make up the Marvel universe, Thor’s powers are not derived from advanced technology, mutation, genetic meddling, cosmic radiation, or radioactive bug bites. No, Thor is quite literally a god. What’s more, he’s a god borne out of ancient mythology. Had creator Stan Lee chosen to take his character from the Greek or Roman myths as opposed to Norse, we might just as easily have been blessed with a movie about Zeus or Jupiter.

The fact that we did endure a movie about Zeus, and several other Greek gods, in last year’s CLASH OF THE TITANS puts this year’s THOR in a delicate position. How do you make a superhero film whose main protagonist is the personification of a mythological character from ancient folklore? What’s more, how do you reflect on the origin story of this historic character, make it believable to today’s world, and pull it all off without seeming cheesy or over-the-top? The answer in THOR’s case was to hand the director’s job to Kenneth Branagh.

Branagh was the perfect choice to take a film with such fantastic challenges and mold it into a credible story that not only grounds the myth in plausible reality, but manages to fit it nicely within the film-based Marvel Universe brand that Marvel Studios has been building ever since the release of IRON MAN.

The fact that Thor’s back story is rather Shakespearian plays well in the hands of Branagh, whom you may recall as having helmed film adaptations of HAMLET, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and HENRY V, along with several others of the Bard’s work. Branagh does a good job of balancing the work of his actors with all the glitz, glitter and action sequences that abound in Asgard, the fantastic realm where Thor and the other members of his family and friends reside, while injecting humor, emotion and humble humanity among his characters throughout the Earth-based scenes.

Chris Hemsworth plays the lead role with just the right mixture of bravado and humor. An almost unrecognizable but always fantastic Anthony Hopkins portrays Thor’s father, Odin, while Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and ultimately the movie’s main antagonist. I think Hiddleston has one of the more difficult roles in the movie, having to make the arc from beloved brother to backstabbing villain. He manages to do it in a way that’s both subtle and restrained, yet very effective.
It would have been very easy to lose sight of the story and the characters these fine actors create among all the CGI and special effects within the Asgard realm. Fortunately Branagh is even-handed enough to know when to pause and let the story take shape.

Have no allusions though, on paper the story does sound rather fantastic and much more far-fetched than most other superhero movies. The fact that Branagh and writer Ashley Miller (who also penned the upcoming X-MEN: FIRST CLASS as well as several episodes of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES) were able to get us through it all without devolving into the ridiculous is a fine credit. I was skeptical as to how they’d pull it off. I was happy to see they were successful.

Equally as challenging though was the fact that THOR maintains two separate story lines, each within their own world. There’s the fantastic other-worldly realm of Asgard where Thor battles the Frost Giants and becomes embroiled with his brother Loki and his father Odin over the rightful heir to the throne; and then there’s the Earth realm, where scientists played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings struggle to make sense of several strange weather anomalies and the mysterious man they encounter in the New Mexico desert. The film bounces back and forth between the two realms, sometimes through flashback, sometimes real time, but I never felt lost as to where we were or what the focus was.

For me though, the movie was much more entertaining once things got grounded (quite literally) on Earth. I didn’t mind the scenes that took place on Asgard, but the Earth story line, since, you know, is on Earth, seemed more familiar. Indeed, some of the film’s better moments of humor came during these scenes, as did quite a number of cross-over references to other Marvel properties and even a few inside nods to other Marvel films currently in the works. One nice juxtaposition was the fact that the Earth scenes took place in a sparsely populated New Mexico town, contrasting nicely with the large, glittering cityscapes of Asgard. Had they plopped our hero in downtown New York or Chicago, I don’t think it would have worked as nicely.

Yes, the love interest between Hemsworth’s Thor and Portman’s Jane Foster seemed like one of convenience (if Thor had really been kicking around Asgard since 900-something A.D., wouldn’t he have managed to find a wife or at least a girlfriend or two in all that time?) And unlike Hulk, Iron Man or Spider-Man, Thor is never really faced with a marquee villain equal to him in power in this film. Loki has a lot of potential, but he’s really just getting warmed up here. Had Thor not been stripped of his powers while in exile, he would have barely broken a sweat at all in the film. Such is the case when creating a hero that is truly a god. It will be interesting to see how they deal with this in subsequent films, though I have a hunch it won’t be much of an issue in THE AVENGERS movie due out next year (can you say HULK SMASH?)

I’ll admit that I have never been a big follower of Thor in comics, nor have I ever done due diligence toward familiarizing myself with him as a character in the Marvel Comics Universe. Purists and die-hard Thor fans may be quick to point out ways in which this movie took liberties with the origin or deviates from the comics insofar as his character traits or supporting cast is concerned. If this is the case, please forgive me for not spending time covering that in this review. My bet is that diehard Thor fans will see the movie regardless, and the rest will just want to know if the movie is worth seeing or not.

As far as the latter is concerned, I say yes – go get hammered. THOR is a fun mixture of fantasy and superhero action that further proves Marvel did the right thing by creating its own studio to better protect their characters.

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: May 6, 2010
Run Time: 115 Minutes
Country: USA
Rated: PG-13
Distributor: Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios


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