A film review by Craig J. Koban May 10, 2011

THOR jjj
˝ 

2011, PG-13, 116 mins.

Chris Hemsworth: Thor / Natalie Portman: Jane / Tom Hiddleston: Loki / Stellan Skarsgard: Dr. Selvig / Kat Dennings: Darcy / Clark Gregg: Agent Coulson / Colm Feore: Laufey / Idris Elba: Heimdall / Anthony Hopkins: Odin / Rene Russo: Frigga / Jaimie Alexander: Sif

Directed by Kenneth Branagh / Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne

SCREENED IN
3D

One of my all-time favourite comic book artists growing up was certainly Jack Kirby, who single-handedly envisioned a whole new sense of visual grammar and syntax to the medium.  Whereas super heroes seemed to permanently sport stiff and lifeless poses before his time, Kirby unleashed a new dynamism to the comic book form: characters seemed alive and full of teeth-clenched vitality, the action was propulsive and bursting with volcanic energy, and traditional panel compositions became altogether more full-blooded and exhilarating.  Kirby’s penciled heroes just seemed to leap right off the page. 

Watching the film adaptation of Marvel Comics’ THOR – who first appeared in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #83 in August of 1962 – made me think of Kirby’s aesthetic all the way through it.  Just like “The King’s” renderings from yesteryear (he created the character alongside Stan Lee) THOR is a thrillingly robust thoroughbred of an action fantasy that pulsates out with a nostrils snarling, fists-clenched, and white knuckled spectacle.  Perhaps more than any of the recent Marvel super hero film, it feels more like a comic book come lovingly to life.  In an age of decidedly dark, somber, and intensely moody super-hero extravaganzas (like the recent BATMAN films), THOR reminds viewers that comic book adaptations can still be frivolously enjoyable, boisterously colorful, and not take themselves too seriously. 

Kenneth Branagh, on paper at least, seems like the least likely candidate to helm a lavish scaled, effects-heavy, super hero summer blockbuster, but he is actually more than adept for this kind of material.  THOR is a delightfully offbeat amalgam of the fantasy/sci-fi epic, Norse mythology, Tolkien-esque chivalry and derring-do, father/son motifs, and, yes, comic book action and intrigue.   There is also, of course, some obvious Shakespearean overtones to the whole story of a father and son clashing over ideals and the scheming and manipulative sibling waiting patiently in the wings to strike when the opportunity suits him the best.   

Branagh, no doubt, does not have to prove his cinematic street cred as both a director and a Shakespearean thespian and aficionado (he made the greatest screen portrayal of HAMLET ever in 1996) and he has always had a keen eye for capturing the regal pageantry of his Shakespearean films.  He is more than up to the task of creating a tour de force display of sight, sound, and fury in THOR, but he also manages to find the always-difficult balance between solemnity and outright silliness in the film: too ludicrous and THOR would have been a camp-filled annoyance and too self-righteously serious and it would have been unintentionally funny.  What Branagh does is find a pitch-perfect tone for THOR, which could have been disastrously all-over-the-map under a less auspicious directorial mind. 

The film’s narrative strays very little from its printed page roots.  We have a prologue that introduces us to the citizens of Asgard that has a king, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who knows precisely how to ham it up just enough while coming off as regal and authoritative) and his two sons, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth, more on him in a bit).  Thor is, yup, a mighty Norse God that can summon up lightning at free will, fly far into the heavens, has unrivalled strength, and possesses a magical war hammer that only he can lift and wield (insert your infantile sex joke there).  On top of being a testosterone-raging supergod to his people, Thor still has faults: he's one arrogant dude who freely throws caution to the wind and disobeys his papa without even thinking of the consequences. 

Thor has dangerous enemies in the Frost Giants of Jutonheim (why does that sound like the product of a random fantasy film name generator?) and he desperately wants to plan a strike to cripple them once and for all, but Odin vetoes Thor’s plans fearing that it would end a long peace between the races.  Angry at his father’s lack of action, Thor goes on his mission anyway and Odin, in a monstrous fit of rage, decides to cast his first-born out of Asgard and exiles him to…Earth (New Mexico to be precise), where he is stripped of his powers and his hammer.  He is befriended by scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), even though they meet under incredibly odd circumstances.  As Thor attempts – pathetically at first – to acclimatize himself to his alien surroundings, he becomes a person of interest for S.H.I.E.L.D agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) as well as becoming a target of Loki, who has placed himself as King back on Asgard after Odin falls ill.  Loki wants to supremely rule over his people and enacts a vile plan to ensure that Thor neither returns back to his magical realm and does not continue to live on Earth either. 

The scenes of political and family strife on Asgard seems to echo similar themes of The Bard, and Branagh paints them with a lush and epic canvas and a formal mood throughout: THOR is an unqualified technological triumph and Branagh uses all the tricks and tools of the visual effects trade to create a fantasy universe as sprawling and immense as any I’ve seen.  From the opulent costume and set design to the panorama vistas of Asgard – all shown in long and loving detail and not dissected into a multitude of microscopic edits – Branagh and his team create an inviting feast for the eyes and imagination that has spared no expense. 

Yet, for as empowered, immersive, and sumptuous as THOR is on a visual level, the real unexpected treat of the film is just how hysterical it becomes when THOR attempts to come to grips with his earthly banishment.  Once the former hammer-swinging Norse hero literally crash lands in New Mexico, the film becomes a highly amusing fish-out-of-water comedy about he trials and tribulations of a once all-powerful god reduced to a mere mortal…albeit a mortal with a seriously juiced up physique that makes Portman’s Foster – and every other woman viewer in the theatre – swoon like giddy school girls.  Thor's formal intonations (“I need sustenance” or “I shall have another” as he is treated to pancakes and coffee) are side-splitting for their social incongruity, not to mention that his continuous assurance that he is a God of Thunder meets with many well-timed incredulous reactions.  Thor also marks the first time in super hero film history that the hero is tasered when he gets a bit uppity. 

The performances are of chief importance for harnessing the film’s divergent tonal shifts.  Hopkins, as stated, is in appropriate scenery chewing mode, as is Hiddleson’s Loki, who becomes a venomously evil force.  The human characters are all portrayed nicely as foils to the gods: Portman has not been this spunky, loose, an adorably frisky in a long time in what could have been the perfunctory one-note love-interest role.  Kat Dennings provides solid comic relief that amusingly deadpans lines that point out the obvious to the viewers and the characters: “You know, for a homeless person, you’re pretty cut,” she tells the shirtless Thor. 

Then there is the son of Odin himself, as played in a performance of movie star bravado and appeal by Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth.  Like the late Christopher Reeve before him, Hemsworth has an uncanny resemblance to the comic book super hero he plays and, more than Reeve, is the most consummately ripped and inanely sculpted actor ever to play a comic character.  Yet, beyond mere physical attributes, Hemsworth gives a thanklessly and smashingly good performance as Thor that works wonders with the actor’s star-making and mischievous grin, his honorable and truthful eyes, and a delicately played game of traversing between a larger-than-life gravitas, immature insolence and self- importance, and a dashing, scoundrel-like charm.  Most importantly, though, Hemswoth is in on the joke, fully realizing that his take on Thor must not wink too much to viewers nor get buried within a silly caricaturized portrayal.  He understands that Thor is a figure to be equally revered and mocked. 

THOR most certainly is not airtight: the love story between Foster and the title hero seems a bit haphazardly developed and weakly cobbled together.  Some characters - like Rene Russo’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo as Odin’s wife - are underwritten.  There are also instances when THOR feels like one two-hour prologue to the upcoming AVENGERS movie.  The film's 3D upconverison is reliably unnecessary and shoddy (seek this out in 2D, especially if you want to really enjoy the color palette of Asgard and not have the action disintegrate into eye-fatiguing blurriness).  Yet, THOR is an equal parts funny and exciting popcorn adventure that, unlike many other super hero flicks, understands how to merge its own inherent and weighty seriousness with self-referential comedy.  Okay, THOR isn’t the masterful genre-altering artistic triumph of THE DARK KNIGHT, but for sheer and unbridled fun factor, it’s right up there with the first IRON MAN and the second SPIDER-MAN.  

As the God of Thunder himself might say, “I shall endeavor to seek it out again!”

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