Hot on the heels of Fast Five, Marvel's latest superhero entry continues the momentum of Summer 2011. Kenneth Branagh's Thor is a notable departure from the more reality-based Iron Man franchise; this movie spends half of its duration on Earth, but also introduces audiences to the Norse realm of Asgard. A star-making performance from Chris Hemsworth, a nicely balanced script, and an organic blending of S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology make Thor a blast to watch and one of the best films Marvel has made to date.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Clark Gregg
Who would have thought the guy from the opening scene of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek had the ability to carry an entire film? But Chris Hemsworth has insane screen presence, easily holding his own against the gravitas of veterans like Anthony Hopkins as Odin, king of Asgard. Hemsworth is jacked, absolutely believable as a badass warrior with a terrible temper. Tom Hiddleston plays Thor's younger brother Loki*, a jealous conniving trickster competing for their father's affection. He does a great job as the villain here, and (SMALL SPOILER ALERT) he'll be interesting to watch as an evil force in Joss Whedon's The Avengers. I'll go ahead and get my biggest complaint with the film over with now: Thor's transition from hot-headed blowhard to humble servant struck me as rushed, with the screenwriters clearly trying to pick up the pace and get the action rolling again about halfway through the film.
Thor is important because it beats WB's Green Lantern to the punch when it comes to epic space-themed superhero movies this summer. Asgard is a fantasy world, to be sure, but Branagh applies his Shakespearean experience to that world and grounds it with universal paradigms as old as storytelling itself: a king passing down his throne, betrayal between brothers, loyalty among warriors, and much more. These are themes we've seen countless times, and make it much easier to relate to relate to these events as they're surrounded in otherworldly visuals. The production design of Asgard is fittingly regal, a vast empire filled with towering structures and CGI crowds. Alternating between impressive and slightly cheesy, the look of the movie is ultimately effective enough for an audience to accept the characters riding across a rainbow bridge and fighting Frost Giants.
But that's only half of it. Once Thor is banished to Earth, he becomes a point of interest for Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, a scientist searching for a link between worlds. There's something of a love story tossed in, but Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson this ain't. Portman works just fine, but this is not a standout performance for her. She's gorgeous - no surprise there - so it's easy to see why the god of thunder would fall for her. Kat Dennings plays Darcy, an intern seemingly more concerned with making quips than contributing to Jane's research. Thankfully, even as a character so blatantly written as comic relief, Dennings never strays into annoying territory. She's given just the right amount of one-liners, and her quippy delivery and cutesy persona is exactly what the movie needs to balance out the sometimes overly serious drama going on back on Asgard. The success of the film is largely dependent on how believably it transitions between the two worlds, and even though the love story isn't the most compelling aspect of this movie, the film is equally effective regardless of the setting. Stellan Skarsgard is also a fantastic addition to the cast, playing Dr. Erik Selvig, the veteran father figure on this side of the universe.
One of the things this movie does best is incorporate the characters and elements of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the story in an organic way. Katey Rich wrote a solid piece at CinemaBlend detailing the things Thor does better than Iron Man 2, and its treatment of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the standout achievement in my opinion. Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson discovers Mjolnir (Thor's hammer, which Darcy hilariously mispronounces continuously throughout the movie) and forms a compound around it, setting up for a confrontation with Thor when he comes to retrieve it. Personally, I'm glad the actor has a bit more to work with here than in previous films. The only slightly negative S.H.I.E.L.D. comment I have was the totally unnecessary cameo of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who not only has about three lines and never fires a single shot, but basically just appears so audiences will recognize him when he shows up in the upcoming SuperTeamUp movie The Avengers in 2012.
Though the film is well balanced, the action is a bit uneven. The battle scenes on and around Asgard are much more cartoonish and outlandish than the ones set on Earth; I'll take the practical effects used in the explosions in the Destroyer sequences over the digital effects used during fights with Frost Giants any time. The graphics are decent overall, but the crazy color scheme of the world of the gods got a little too outrageous for my tastes as the movie progressed. Also, the 3D is pretty worthless, so save your money and see the 2D version if one's available in your area.
Marvel has accomplished their goal with Thor: the film hasn't even hit American theaters yet and it's already made nearly $100 million overseas, seemingly assuring a direct sequel. But more importantly for Marvel, Thor will serve as a gateway for its lesser known "magic-based" characters to find a home on film. After watching a movie about Norse gods, it should theoretically be easier for audiences to digest a movie about a powerful sorcerer like Dr. Strange, for example. But in the meantime, we can be content that Thor is a well-directed, visually interesting (far of those canted angles, eh Branagh?), exciting entry into Marvel's quickly-expanding film library. Until next time...
*I'm just going to go ahead and assume Thor is a prequel to The Mask, since Loki is the spirit locked in the mask that gives Jim Carrey his crazy powers in that movie.