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Movie Review: Thor

Nice hammer

Of all the properties Marvel Studios has put into production, Thor has the potential to be the most problematic. In film, comic book adaptations tend to do well with a certain degree of realism and seriousness that is at least higher than that of the comic being adapted. Marvel Studios used this lesson right out of the gate with its first independent production, Iron Man. Iron Man was the biggest surprise hit of 2008 and a movie that, while still honoring the comic books, placed an over-the-top, unreal character into a real world with real world rules. Marvel Studios did the same thing with The Incredible Hulk a few months later. However, there is a big difference between the characters of Tony Stark (or Bruce Banner) and Thor, because Thor is rooted in some of Marvel's most fantastical lore. The general idea is that the Norse gods are real and Thor, the God of Thunder, has been banished to Earth by his father Odin to live among mortals.

Despite this difficult--and arguably silly--premise, Marvel Studios was determined to take it seriously and bet that Thor, along with July's Captain America: The First Avenger, will be successful enough to ensure a big hit in their much-hyped hero ensemble, The Avengers. Early in pre-production, they proved their seriousness by hiring Kenneth Branagh, a well-respected Shakespearean, to direct, despite the howls of protest of many of his British fans. Early casting announcements were loaded with top tier actors, including Academy Award winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins. With all this talent behind the scenes and Marvel's winning streak on the line, expectations for Thor are high.

While it probably won't be remembered with the same sense of stratospheric success as Iron Man, the final film delivers in all the right ways. It doesn't shy away from the fantasy, choosing instead to embrace it, but it still maintains a focus on realistically motivated characters and some--though not many--real world rules. Marvel fans will be thrilled by how the movie honors their beloved universe, action fans will love the many fights and explosions, and Branagh fans shouldn't be disheartened as his obvious fingerprints lend gravitas to something that would otherwise be dismissable fluff. Though I would personally love to see him continue his Shakespeare films with something like Macbeth or Julius Caesar (neither of which has had a good movie version in over fifty years), Thor is certainly a better use of Branagh's talents than the dreadful remake of Sleuth or the patently awful post-modern adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost.

Odin and sons
The Shakespearean influence is hard to miss in Anthony Hopkins' Odin and Tom Hiddleson's Loki

Branagh's influence is most apparent in the acting. Anthony Hopkins could easily ham up his role as Odin, but he approaches it with personal resonance and "a bit of Shakespeare thrown in," with a final result that is akin to his role as Titus Andronicus. Similarly, there's the film's primary antagonist, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleson), who was encouraged by Branagh to be part Edmund in King Lear, part Cassius in Julius Caesar, and part Prince Henry in The Lion in Winter. Indeed, Loki is perhaps the most nuanced and interesting character, though in the hands of a less acting-oriented director, he might have been relegated to a more cliché megalomaniacal villain role. Then there's Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, a real world scientist and Thor's love interest. Jane is the most human character in the movie, and it is a testament to Portman's acting ability that you could easily imagine running into Jane Foster in the real world.

There are other acceptable performances, including Chris Helmsworth as Thor, Colm Feore as Laufey (King of the Frost Giants), and Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig, but a few characters aren't as engaging. Idris Elba spends his scenes as Heimdall acting robotic and stilted, Ray Stevenson continues to play Titus Pullo despite the fact that he's supposed to be playing Volstagg (not that we don't all love Titus Pullo), and Rene Russo as Frigga is so much in the background most people will probably forget she is even in the film. Most unforgivable are Thor's other friends, Hogun, Fandral, and Sif, all of whom are one-dimensional distractions that constantly remind you of the story's comic book silliness.

Agent Coulson in Thor
Agent Coulson gets plenty more to do

The extended Marvel characters this time around include an expanded role for S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, with his trademark smirk and coolness, and a good cameo from Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. Samuel Jackson shows up in the teaser after the credits as well. In addition to those, there are a few hints dropped here and there about how the stories fit together, whether it's an offhand comment about a scientist interested in gamma radiation research or S.H.I.E.L.D. agents wondering if Tony Stark is responsible for one of the film's baddies. Therefore, even though Thor's backstory is rooted on the precipice of the ridiculous, the film sells you on the possibility that he can fit into the same consistent, pseudo-realistic universe as Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America. In that sense, Thor is a rousing success.

As its own film, however, Thor is more flawed than its predecessors. While the first two acts do a surprisingly effective job lulling the audience into a suspension of disbelief despite its most ludicrous moments--helped in large part by the awesome visual and special effects--the climax exposes the all-too-apparent cracks. Much hinges on the relationship between Thor and Jane, but the film leaves very little time for the characters to develop any chemistry. Natalie Portman sells her restrained lust for the hunky hero, but she can't quite find a reason to fall in love with him, nor can Chris Helmsworth muster more for Thor than a passing fancy in her. Without spoiling much, there is also a triumphant turning point during the final act, but it is so telegraphed and predictable that you are unlikely to feel as thrilled by it as the film emphatically insists you should. The problem is in the melding of Thor's fantasy universe of Asgard with the real world, and though the film succeeds for most of the movie in selling the connection, its weakest moments are when they clash, when Thor and his Asgardian allies must fight on Earth. When the action takes place in the fantasy universe of Asgard or Jotunheim, it is riveting and exciting, and when it takes place wholly in the real world, with only Thor as an intrusion, it is equally exceptional. Still, there is an undeniable dischordance between them that is troublesome at best.

Thor and Jane
Thor and Jane: Not the most believable love story to span multiple alien dimensions

Thor, as a character, is one of the stronger points in minimalizing that dischordance. His dialogue is handled gracefully, striking a difficult balance between talking like a stereotypical Nordic god--full of thees and thous and by the power of Mjölnirs--and talking like an ordinary human being. He is just believable enough for regular characters to assume he's only a little crazy, but he is grandiose enough to belong with the likes of Odin and Heimdall. The film also doesn't waste too much time with questioning Thor's sanity, which would have been tiresome, but it is careful to emphasize that not many people take his story at face value. This is also a source of much of the film's humor, like when Thor finishes a cup of coffee, exclaims that it is a manly drink, and then smashes the cup against the floor. In short, Thor is a well-written character, even though he has little in the way of subtlety.

In the final accounting, if you want to see an entertaining comic book movie, you can do a lot worse than Thor. It is well-made, respectful of its audience, fun, and visually stunning. However, if you are looking for a deep and poignant experience, you probably won't find what you're looking for. Marvel Studios has done better with the property than most thought was even possible, and the hype train for their future adaptations is still chugging along at a good clip. It's a great time to be a comic book movie fan.


Thor is arguably just as good as other Marvel successes, but you should still keep your expectations in check.

-e. magill 5/11/2011

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