The latest stop on the superhero train to 2012’s Avengers is Marvel’s Thor, perhaps the first of it’s genre to take on a story of heavenly proportions. Although it’s lacking in some parts, Kenneth Branagh weaves an excellent tale of the God who learns to be a hero.
Despite being arguably the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe, Thor has been relegated to being a bit player or ensemble piece when away from his comic book home. With a $150 million budget, the standard merchandise tie-ins and a quality pedigree in front and behind the camera, “Thor” picks up where the tease in “Iron Man 2” leaves off.
Spidey was bitten by a spider. Cap was injected with a super solder serum. Even the Hulk was the Hulk due to experimentation with gamma radiation. However, Thor got his powers the old fashioned way: he was born into it. The writing trio of Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne sagely covers it’s mythological bases in the first half hour. Scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and non-scientific Darcy (Kat Dennings) investigate the latest in a series of freak electrical storms and finds the latest one has left behind a certain de-powered Thor, whom they promptly hit with their RV.
How Thor landed in a desert of New Mexico is seen in flashbacks to the majestic Asgard, ruled by the wise and aged Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Moments before Thor’s official ascension to the throne over his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Asgardians enemies, the Frost Giants, breach their security. Thor decides some vigilante justice is in order and takes his BFFs Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Fandral (Josh Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) to Jotunheim, home of the Frost Giants. Just as the Frost Giant’s leader Laufey is about to end Thor’s story before the story, Odin rescues him.
Thor’s unauthorized road trip doesn’t go unpunished as Odin strips of him of his power and banishes him to Midgard (Earth) sans friends or his trusty magical hammer Mjolnir (pronounced myawl-nir), where’s he’s seen again being hit by a certain RV. It’s not long before our friendly neighborhood God of Thunder is noticed by (and beats up a good deal of) the military led by Iron Man veteran Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of SHIELD . Everyone from Foster to the military isn’t sure what to make of Thor. He’s definitely a fish out of water as he learns to deal with his new limits and new surroundings. Meanwhile, Loki takes the throne as Odin enters a type of hibernation and sets out to make sure that Thor’s exile remains permanent.
Director Kenneth Branagh supersizes the superhero genre as he blows us away with the beautiful, celestial utopia that is Asgard. Shiny golden landscapes accented by a quartzlike rainbow bridge used to connect the nine mythical planes are nothing short of fantastic, only matched in majesty by 1978’s “Superman”‘s Krypton in pure scale. As brilliant as the shiny Asgard is, equally moving is the land of the Frost Giants realm. Dark, cold and coming apart at the seams, the deteriorating glacial structures make you fear and pity the frost giants as their world comes apart. Branagh takes the story away from the comics to create a world of conflict where everyone trades the hats of hero and villain. Thor onscreen as in historical text begins as a bit of jerk with his punch first as questions later credo. His battle against the Frost Giants pales to that against his father or his brother, Loki. The tension in the pivotal exchange between Odin and Thor has a Shakespearean feel that resonates long after the end credits. Branagh, a veteran of big screen Shakespeare films such as “Hamlet” and “Henry V”, quickly convinces the audience to look beyond the cape and muscles to see the true strength and weakness of Thor.
Just as it takes a Shakespeare veteran behind the camera to pull this story of royalty gone wild off on the big screen, it also took some royalty in front. Sir Anthony Hopkins had endless praise for how Branagh was able to get the best out of him by challenging him, something the veteran actor admits hasn’t been done so much lately. Odin’s exalted title of all-father is masterfully shown as he goes from tender to stern with a royal presence that William and Kate could learn from. Chris Hemsworth had to beat out several actors including his own brother for the role and with all due respect to Liam, we’re glad he did. The little known Aussie soap star is equally likable as the newly mortal “Don Blake” (a nod to the Thor’s Marvel alter ego) and as the arrogant, spiteful demigod. Tom Hiddleston also tried out for the role of Thor, but is awesome as the jealous brother Loki? Is his jealousy justified or does the god of mischief hold the key to all things Asgard? Hiddleston answers those questions and more while resisting the urge to ham it up, which in the helmet he wears is no small feat.
Although fresh off her Oscar winning performance in “Black Swan”, Natalie Portman is less than convincing as the astrophysicist Jane Foster. Portman seems to say the right things, but lacks the physical presence of a Sigourney Weaver in “Avatar” or even “Alien” to be taken seriously. In one of the brightest bits of casting, Kat Dennings seems to steal nearly every scene she’s in as the wisecracking Darcy. Her comic delivery helps audience and cast alike to not take themselves too seriously.
Thor’s path to redemption could use better paving as we’re forced to believe that his sometimes forced romance with Jane has led to a softening of his heart. Portman’s unfortunate casting aside, “Thor” serves more than just another link in the upcoming “Avengers” chain but as a way of further legitimizing a genre through quality performances, great writing and less is more special effects.
Don’t forget to stay after the credits or you’ll kick yourself (hint, hint)