May 6, 2011

Thor (05/06/2011)

Lettergrade: B

My wife called this afternoon from work, and I excitedly told her that I had gotten tickets for Thor at 7:30.


"The trailers look really bad," she pleaded. I had seen the same ones, of course, and deep down I agreed. But despite the fact that Thor himself seemed to be a 3rd rate Marvel superhero at best, of whom I had never even heard until it was announced that Paramount's film about him was going into production, other aspects of the movie seemed intriguing: Most of all that Kenneth Branagh, best known (as a director) for his excellent adaptations of Shakespeare's Henry V and the 1996 Hamlet, among others, had been hired to make it. And then, of course, there were the early reviews that seemed to agree that Thor is a much better made and more entertaining film than you might expect, constituting an 80% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes the morning of its release.

Briefly, I contemplated trying to convince Laura that I was not talking about the dopey superhero movie she was thinking of, but instead of the breakout foreign-language Norwegian smash about clergy abuse that was well regarded on the art-house circuit. By the time we got to the theater, I reasoned, it would be too late for her to back out. Ultimately, though, I went for the honest approach and talked her into it by saying that it's a big summer popcorn flick, and it might be fun.

And you know... the picture is a little hammy, and the backstory behind who Thor and his race of beings are is beyond convoluted and patently ludicrous, but in spite of it all, the movie is indeed a lot of fun, and one that I would not mind recommending to another person and/or catching again on cable in a year or two.

As the movie opens, formerly respected actor Anthony Hopkins is King Odin, ruler of a far off planet called Asgard that resembles ancient Greece by way of the Emerald City. It's one of nine in the entire universe that has intelligent life, I think the film was trying to say, another of which is Earth. Odin and his people used to visit Iceland and Scandinavia every so often, and the people of the past would mistake them for Gods, hence Norse mythology as we know it.

Odin has two sons: Thor and Loki, only one of whom can be heir to the throne. Thor, played by the charismatic Chris Hemsworth, is favored above his skeevy brother, a scene-stealing Tom Hiddleston, despite the fact that Odin does not hide his displeasure with his elder son's arrogance and vanity. On the day Thor is to be named King (or something), a few dudes from another planet where everyone looks like the Snow Miser from The Year Without Santa Claus (and even seem to have the same powers) mysteriously appear in Assguard and make some trouble, after which Thor defies his father's order to let it go and chillax, and leads a team over to the other planet to kick some serious ass.

For his disobedience, Odin banishes him to Earth, utilizing the same technology that brought Howard to earth in the 1986 science fiction classic Howard The Duck. There he meets an utterly unconvincing astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman, in what might be the worst performance of her career, as well as an older scientist she works with (Stellan SkarsgÄrd, who must have needed the money), and a wise-crackin' intern played by Kat Dennings, a rare female substitute for a role that you would think would be taylor-made for Jay Baruchel. Much like He-Man in Masters Of The Universe, Thor must learn lessons about humility during his time on our planet before he can rightfully return home and participate in the film's big green-screen finale.

Branagh was probably the right choice for this material. The action scenes are exciting and feature a lot of stunt men duking it out (as opposed to the modern standard of one big CG army squaring off against another), and the picture has several expertly staged dramatic scenes where even two-dimensional characters are required to show an interesting range of complex emotions that frankly surprised me. I thought the weakest parts of the film were the opening and closing segments on Assguard. The middle part where Thor is on Earth (the "Crocodile Dundee" section, if you will) is surprisingly funny and has a lot of good character growth and heart.

Indeed, the picture has echos of several Shakespearian tragedies infused in its DNA. According to the trivia section on IMDB, Branagh thought of the film as a comic-book twist on "Henry V," which was about a young king undergoing various trials and tribulations: fighting a war, courting a girl from another land, and overcoming character flaws in order to learn to be a wise and just leader. Add to that a little "Richard III" (in that Loki shrewdly misdirects and confuses his enemies for his own underhanded purposes), with a dash or two of "King Lear" for good measure. Such influences might feel thin or mishandled in other hands, but Branagh is certainly in familiar territory, and he spends a lot of time making sure that the relationship stuff between Assguardians is all well nourished and effective. When Thor actually contemplates his failings and makes personal sacrifices that show how his character has developed, it's a little cheesy, yes, but at the same time, it's moving and you believe it.

Now, all that said, the film doesn't entirely survive the terrible scenes that come courtesy of Natalie Portman's character, and in spite of some of the virtues I saw in it, I think my wife walked out of the theater still thinking the movie was sorta shitty. I contend, however, that Thor has a lot more going for it than last summer's leaden Iron Man 2 did, and even if it is primarily a interstitial installment leading up to next summer's Marvel superhero gang-bang, The Avengers, at least it's an engaging one.

Other Marvel movies I've reviewed:
Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man 2

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