With Thor, Marvel Studios had their work cut out for them. They needed to sell a film about an unlikeable, arrogant Norse God from a shiny cosmic kingdom to a mainstream movie audience whose patience and suspension of disbelief was already beginning to be stretched thin by a glut of capes and high-tech suits of armor crowding the multiplexes.  And oh, by the way, the production team also faced the challenge of ensuring Thor fit in the same universe as the more reality-based Iron Man films, while continuing to plant the seeds for the upcoming epic superhero team-up blockbuster, The Avengers in Summer 2012. If it failed to resonate with an audience, all of Marvel’s plans could have come crashing to Earth with the force of the mighty hammer Mjolnir. Fortunately for everyone involved, Thor is a very solid movie — delivering a lighthearted and fun superhero spectacle to kick off the Summer 2011 blockbuster movie season.

Thor opens with a very traditional superhero film set up, in which the fish-out-of-water hero is discovered in the middle of nowhere by the human characters who will represent the audience — namely, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and her team-members Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). After this brief encounter, In a well-paced and compelling 20-minute prologue/flashback, director Kenneth Branagh introduces the kingdom of Asgard, it’s leader and lord of the Gods Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and his two sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in an efficient, but compelling way that doesn’t waste a lot of precious screen time trying to explain every single character, location, or concept to the audience. They are simply plopped down into the midst of a dazzling, opulent kingdom of gleaming gold and silver-armored space Gods who battle Frost Giants and travel throughout the universe via Rainbow Bridge, and are told to deal with it…something I really appreciated. In a narration by Hopkins, we are told of a great war between the Asgardians and the terrible Frost Giants, whose source of power is an artifact called the Casket of Ancient Winters. In the age of Vikings, the Asgardians defend the Earth from the Frost Giants (cementing them as the Gods of Norse mythology), and later bring the war to the Frost Giants’ home world of Jotunheim where Odin finally defeats their king, Laufey. A truce is arranged, with the Casket of Ancient winters taken back to Asgard to ensure that peace between the two races endures.

Years later, we are transported to Asgard’s great hall for what appears to be the passing of the torch of kingship from Odin to his arrogant, hot-headed son Thor, much to he chagrin of Loki, Thor’s mischievous, magic-wielding brother. The ceremony is interrupted by some Frost Giants who storm the castle looking for the Casket, but are quickly annihilated by a sentient suit of spiked armor known as the Destroyer. Thor, enraged at the interruption, wants to immediately seek revenge on the Frost Giants, but Odin squashes the idea to preserve the truce. In an act of defiance, Thor enlists the aid of his brother as well as his warrior allies Fandral (Josh Dallas), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson in a fat suit), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Sif (Jamie Alexander) for a mission to strike at the heart of the Frost Giants on their home world. After traveling to Jotunheim via the Bifrost (a sort of inter-dimensional transporter) and an epic battle with the Frost Giants that looks to end in disastrous fashion, Odin appears and tries to intervene, but Laufey once again declares war on the Asgardians for a violation of the truce. Infuriated by his son’s insolence, Odin strips Thor of his weapon (The mighty hammer, Mjolnir), his powers as the Thunder God, and banishes him to Earth. We return to the film’s opening scene, and the plot continues from there as Thor must cope with the loss of his powers, figure out a way to return to Asgard, and stop the impending war between the Frost Giants and Asgard.

Superhero origin movies are often hampered by a smaller budget and an narratives burdened by exposition. In the hands of lesser director, these issues may have derailed Thor, but Kenneth Branagh imbues the film with a real sense of epic scope and enough action to propel the film deftly through treacherous expository waters. Every dime of the budget is well spent and well-represented on screen, as the visual effects work, set design, and costuming are all excellent. In particular, the glimmering kingdom of Asgard, with its towering spires, majestic throne rooms,and mystical rainbrow bridge, looks lavish and vibrant (though the overhead pans of the cities may invoke memories of Naboo and Coruscant from the Star Wars prequels). The costumes, with their ornate breastplates and horned helmets looked cheap and plasticky in early production photos, but on screen they were downright regal.  Action moviegoers and longtime Thor comic book fans alike will delight in the sequences where we see Thor wielding the awesome power of Mjolnir. Hemsworth beams gleefully as he uses the hammer to decimate enemies with crushing swings, mighty throws, and the comic’s trademark twirling action to unleash thunderous storms that rain destruction down upon the earth and rock.

However, all of that flash would be meaningless if there was no acting to back it up, or no characters to care about. Thankfully, Branagh enlisted a fantastic ensemble cast to handle the both the Shakespearian theatrics of the Asgardians and the lighter human interactions. Anthony Hopkins, as always, owns the screen. His commanding and royal presence leaves no doubt that he is the Allfather, the Lord and ruler of Asgard.  It all hinges on the hero himself, though, and in just two films, Chris Hemsworth has solidified himself as a bona-fide genre superstar. He transitions seamlessly (if perhaps a little too quickly) from arrogant, hot-headed son of a God, to humbled stranger in a strange land, and ultimately, a redeemed and noble hero. Tom Hiddleston  has set the bar high for Summer 2011 movie villains with his nuanced, complex performance as the Trickster God, Loki. He isn’t simply a sneering, cackling caricature, but a conflicted character whose motivations and machinations are born out of familial strife and events that unfold beyond his control. Rounding out the list of terrific actors in Thor is  Idris Elba’s Heimdall, guardian of the Bifrost.  He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he creates a huge impact with what he’s given; creating a character  that is powerful, enigmatic and noble.

Does ‘Thor’ have glaring problems? Of course it does. The Earth-bound sequences, in particular, threatened to send the film careening off a cliff quite a few times early on with a muddled tone that engaged hokey slapstick with deathly serious drama in a strange tug-of-war. The small New Mexico town seemed like a backlot stunt-show set that was only there for the Destroyer to come and lay waste to with his shrieking laser blasts. Jane Foster and her “star-chasing” team of astrophysicists spout techno-babble and do highly illogical things simply to push the plot along, but Portman and Skarsgard – both Oscar caliber actors – have enough charisma to make you forget all that contrivance long enough to relax and enjoy their interactions with the Thunder God.  Kat Dennings character is utterly superfluous – existing solely as a youthful reactionary device to Thor for the audience, spouting cultural touchstone jargon like ‘iPod’ and cutely mis-pronouncing ‘Mjolnir’ as ‘meow-meow’ for the benefit of the 14-16 year old girls dragged to the theater by their comic-loving boyfriends. The musical score by Patrick Doyle was also bland and generic, the only high point coming during the climactic battle sequence with the Destroyer armor.

Despite these flaws, Thor returns good old-fashioned superhero fun to the cineplexes. Hemsworth makes a great superhero – he’s got the chops and the looks to be an onscreen action/adventure star for years to come. You won’t find many surprises in Thor’s straight-ahead “hero must overcome his pride, and learn the value of humilty and true valor before overcoming great difficulty” theme, but the tone of the film never feels too dark and heavy, or too light and airy. It’s a great balance of Hamlet-esque dramatics, lighthearted humor, and spectacular superhero battles. It’s also a film that manges to be suitable for the entire family without feeling cheesey, a rarity in today’s film climate.


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