Friday, May 13, 2011

'Thor' is mighty indeed

It now seems like you know it is summer time when you have the arrival of the first superhero movie of the season. This year summer comes early with “Thor,” the latest film from Marvel Studios.
“Thor” is one of the stranger heroes in the Marvel comics family. Well, strange is perhaps the wrong word given the Marvel universe features a bevy of mutants and oddities, but he's an unlikely choice for a comic book superhero given his origins in Norse mythology.
Kenneth Branagh, best known for directing and starring in Shakespearean film adaptations such as “Henry V” and “Hamlet,” directs “Thor.” He may seem like an odd choice to direct a big budget superhero film, but he brings a gravity to the scenes in the realm of Asgard. Norse mythology, even in this watered down state, has much of the same sort of drama Shakespeare's plays dealt in.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god of thunder, is set to be named the new king of Asgard, replacing his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but the ceremony is interrupted by an attack by the ice giants, a rival race from a neighboring realm. The impetuous Thor goes against his father's wishes and leads an attack on the ice giants' world thus undoing an already tenuous truce.
Angered by his arrogance and vanity, Odin strips Thor of his power and his mighty hammer and banishes him to Earth where he'll only regain what he has lost by learning humility and compassion. Luckily, Thor meets a trio of scientist played by Natalie Portman, Stellan SkarsgÄrd and Kat Dennings who help him overcome his flaws.
The other key player in all this is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief and Thor's brother. His motives and intentions are ambiguous for much of the film. Is he just a prankster or a schemer? It is probably only Branagh's presence as director that begs the Shakespeare comparison, but there's a bit of Iago from “Othello” in Hiddleston's Loki. It is a strong performance that makes the character dimensional and sympathetic even when doing sinister things.
Hemsworth, who had a small but crucial role as Kirk's father in 2009's “Star Trek,” is quite fantastic in the title role. He certainly looks the part, handsome and muscular, but that's really the easy part. Any number of male models could get the look right.
What Hemsworth brings to the table is raw charisma. He plays the fish-out-of-water scenes on Earth very well, allowing Thor's now misplaced bravado to create an amusing juxtaposition with the world around him. He also gives Thor a complete arc. Hemsworth does a fine job portraying Thor's ego at the beginning of film and showing his transformation into a more humble and better being by the end.
Portman is also charming, warm and funny as Thor's love interest and she does have chemistry with Hemsworth, but there's just not quite enough there on the screen. We're suppose to believe they've made a deep connection, but it feels as if a scene or two is missing. The film would've benefited from more time with them together.
Inevitably, there has to be a bad action showdown at the end, with Thor and a trio of Asgardian friends (sort of his Merry Men) doing battle with the Destroyer, which is sent to Earth to put an end to Thor and everything that stands in its way.
It is an exciting, well-handled action scene, but as was true of “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk,” two previous films from the Marvel, it is the middle, character-driven section of the film that works best. It is the care that each of these films puts to making characters we actually care about that makes them such satisfying pieces of entertainment.

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