directed by Kenneth Branagh
(Paramount, 2011)

Thor is, first and foremost, an awful lot of fun, and it's probably a serious mistake to approach it any other way. Basically, it's an old-fashioned epic adventure with lots of human drama, great performances, classical contests of good vs. evil and bold, well-done special effects.

The stakes in the film are established fairly quickly. Thor, the god of thunder, is a great warrior; however, being arrogant and overly confident, he needs to be taken down a peg or three after starting a war with the frost giants that inhabit the realm of Jotunheim. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), casts him and his hammer, Mjolnir, down from Asgard to Earth in order to teach him a lesson in humility. The story that unfolds is fairly simple: Thor must prove himself worthy of being a true leader.

Fortunately, his relationship with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) helps him accomplish just that. Foster's assistant, the scene-stealing Kat Dennings, and Foster's father, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) compose Thor's new family, teaching him about life on Earth while helping him locate Mjolnir, which is the source of his power, all while engaging in a very delicate dance with the shadow organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. Back in Asgard, Thor's brother Loki is up to no good, drumming up a plot to keep Thor on Earth forever.

The action switches back and forth between the majestic home of the immortals and the deserts of New Mexico, which couldn't be more different from one another, but the constant changes of scenery are well-handled. Also, there are giant, fire-breathing robots, lots of wit, enough action to keep videogame lovers happy, loads of neat Marvel references and a great finale. Suffice it to say that Thor the god learns what it means to be Thor the hero, leaving plenty of room for a sequel while still having a happy ending.

Luckily, the two best things about the movie are its hero and villain. It's awfully hard to make a movie work if the star doesn't match the script, but Thor's brawny charm is well done by Chris Hemsworth, while his opposite, Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, is an interesting study in emotional conflict. Hemsworth isn't just a bodybuilder in a cool suit with a neat toy and Hiddleston isn't a phone-it-in villain. The actors are well suited to their roles, both of them clearly enjoying the heck out themselves as they deliver up age-old lines about age-old problems: arrogance vs. humility, pride going before a major fall, and love being the saving grace that civilizes the soul.

Hemsworth is quite convincing as the fish-out-of-water earthbound god, trying to grapple with newfound insights into what it means to think more than three minutes into the future. Hiddleston presents Loki as a character with rather subtle nuances. Everyone else, from Hopkins' cool Odin to Portman's confused-about-her-feelings scientist, is played perfectly, not a touch over or underdone. The excellent casting is a good part of the reason why Thor is so enjoyable.

There were a lot of ways for this to go wrong but Thor ends up translating to the screen very well in the hands of Shakespearean pro Kenneth Branagh. It's easy to like and does well by the Marvel franchise. Note to geeks: as with Iron Man, look as usual to the part at the end of the credits for an appearance by Nick Fury and a nod to the upcoming Avengers movie.

by Mary Harvey
21 May 2011

When I first heard that the comic-book Thor was in line for cinematic treatment, I shuddered to think how truly awful that film would be. I assumed it would be hokey beyond compare, as the comic itself often is, and the announcement of Kenneth Branagh as director mollified my fears only slightly.

So I was beyond pleased to see a film that actually took itself seriously, rose above its source material and gave us a story -- with all-around good performances from the cast -- that we could believe in.

It's a shame, then, that the overall success had to be marred by an overabundance of cheesy special effects and a 3D transference that distracted more than it improved.

From the start -- after a brief prelude that gave us a touch of humanity -- the movie presented well the arrogance of Thor, the nobility of Odin and the secretiveness of Loki ... and it looked more like a video game than a film. And it was good -- if I was talking about a video game, I'm be impressed and singing its praises. But as a movie -- the look was disappointing.

For our pan-dimensional Norse gods, the beginning of the movie involves a host of fighting on a very large scale. First, there's a war on Earth, then Thor's ill-conceived journey to Jotunheim, with six gods against the full might of the frost giants. Then Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who's been working out since his memorable appearance on Star Trek) oversteps his bounds and is hurled to Earth for his hubris -- stripped of his powers and his magical hammer Mjolnir -- to learn humility.

Then Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is incapacitated, leaving his dark son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to rule in his place. And Loki, who was second choice to succeed the All-Father, wants to be sure Thor is never coming home.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Thor makes the abrupt, bruising acquaintance of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her storm-chasing team, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). But when mystical hammers fall from the sky and imbed themselves, Excalibur-like, in the rock, you can be sure government spooks will soon be involved. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) follows up his abrupt departure from Iron Man 2 to lead the operation here.

He probably wasn't expecting to encounter a mindless Norse simulacrum that belches flame.

Hemsworth has the difficult task of embodying a deity, and he handles the arrogance and power of his position well. Some might think he adapts too well and too easily to the modern human world he finds himself in, but I guess some guys will do just about anything for Portman. Sadly, although she too displays her usual skill, the romance between them feels flat, motivated by little more than, well, they're both hot, they're both there and there's not much else to do in a small New Mexico town.

Too, there's so much time spent on back story, there's very little Thor. Perhaps they're saving him for The Avengers in 2012. (When he does finally make his reappearance in full regalia, it's a good, "Oh My God" kind of moment.)

Back in Asgard, Hiddleston plays Loki as coolly, deliciously evil. The rest of the godly cast fares well: Idris Elba, as the far-seeing Heimdall, Jaimie Alexander, as the warrior goddess Sif (another potential love interest for Thor, and his wife in Norse mythology), and the Warriors Three Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Colm Feore is a bit two-dimensional as the frost giant's King Laufey -- but it's a creepy and ominous performance all the same.

The big battle we all know is coming at the end looks and feels fake. Again, we're back to Thor's video-game world, and it throws the audience right out of the film.

All in all, Thor succeeds more when it's working on a human level -- less flash, more substance. Still, the movie works simply because it's fun, and sometimes that's all you need in a comic-book movie. Score another one for Marvel.

by Tom Knapp
21 May 2011