Thursday, May 3, 2012

THE AVENGERS MOVIE COUNTDOWN: #2, Thor

The following is my review of Thor from last May...

THOR: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins (105 min.)

I’ve always contested that Thor would be the toughest sell for the Marvel Universe and the upcoming Avengers. Here is a character from another planet, not simply a man who has discovered a power or a suit. The celestial background of Thor adds an element to the story that is unfamiliar to most superheroes, and all other superheroes in The Avengers, so the film will have to carry a certain amount of dedication and weight in order to come across as anything more than silliness. Director Kenneth Branagh is the perfect answer for this dilemma, a director of certain seriousness and weight, classically trained in Shakespeare and able to balance a story between Earth and the extravagance of a mythological realm. Most of the time, Thor works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

Chris Hemsworth, a gigantic specimen who seems to have been born to play this character, is Thor. Thor is the son of Odin, the great king of Asgard played by Anthony Hopkins, and as the film opens Thor is about to be handed the throne. But the villainous, cool-looking Frost Giants return to Asgard and threaten the peace of this world. Against Odin’s orders, Thor travels to the land of the Frost Giants (I realize this sounds corny, but as I said this film requires greater suspension of disbelief than most superhero films) to destroy their ruler. A battle ensues and Thor must be rescued by Odin, who is furious at his son’s arrogance and careless nature. Odin strips Thor of his power and casts him out of Asgard and down to Earth through a wormhole. His source of power, a hammer, is sent through the wormhole behind him and crashes into the New Mexico desert.

All of this is to be simply understood by the audience. The people on Asgard can travel through wormholes and over rainbow bridges and they can fly and do really whatever they need to do at the moment. There is a certain lack of rules in the celestial world, elements of these characters’ power we are simply supposed to accept, and this is a bit troublesome. When Thor falls to Earth, however, the picture really gets its footing.

Thor is the fish out of water in New Mexico, discovered by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgard), and her assistant/comic relief Darcy (the wry Kat Dennings). They take him to eat where he “demands sustenance” and throws his coffee cup to the ground. There are some comedic moments early on here, and it allows Jane and Thor to develop their flirtatious relationship. Hemsworth and Portman thankfully have quite a bit of chemistry, a subtle and quiet chemistry that is never overplayed. Thor attempts to reclaim his hammer, and this is where we meet Agent Coulsen (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Avengers storyline begins to interweave. Pay close attention to the cameo of Jeremy Renner; there will be a test later.

Where Thor falters is in the intercut story taking place back on Asgard, where Thor’s jealous brother Loki has taken control of Asgard and tries to keep Thor on Earth. Loki is played by Tom Hiddleston and is quite good as the villain, but the scenes on Asgard are murky and dark and stop any momentum generated by the time on Earth. I enjoyed the opening battle sequence and the climax on Asgard, but those brief scenes throughout the meat of the film are dull. Of course, I don’t see how anything could be changed because the story on Asgard is pivotal. I just wish someone would turn on the lights.

Thor is a solid entry into the Marvel film train that is rolling right along to the Avengers film next summer. I enjoy the tie-ins and the references to other characters. Thor is about as good as The Incredible Hulk, much better than Iron Man 2, not quite as solid as the original Iron Man. This was the toughest character to tackle in this universe and for the most part Branagh has served the story well. Although the rules of Asgard are a bit rushed, and the scenes on Asgard in the middle of the picture are forgettable, Hemsworth is a fantastic leading man here. He oozes charisma as Thor. The performances here are all good because everyone here takes it seriously. Had there been a wink from anyone in the other direction, the entire thing might have fallen apart.

B