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Saturday, May 7, 2011

It’s Hammer Time For The Mighty ‘Thor’

Thor:  4 out of 5
Thor:  The answers you seek shall be yours, once I claim what is mine.
Summer, 2011, is an important time for Marvel Studios.  Both Thor and Captain America are going to hit theaters, and they have been designed to build into the Avengers movie that will be released in 2012.  A dense movie universe, with so much history and comic mythology behind it, has not been attempted before, so eyes are set on seeing how well it all works out.  While Captain America won’t hit screens until July, everyone’s favorite Norse God/superhero is now entering the scene.  Fortunately, Thor is a success.  Thanks to a fairly simple plot about a hero’s redemption that is balanced well against the absurd components that go into making a big, live action blockbuster film about Thor, this film succeeds in being very entertaining, while true to its roots.

Thor throws us into the realm of Norse mythology, which can now be seen as a reality within the Marvel universe.  After a brief prologue that explains how Odin (Anthony Hopkins), King of Asgard, was able to prevent the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore), from conquering the Nine Realms (which includes and starts with Earth), we begin to focus on Odin’s son, Thor.  Upon his growth into adulthood, Thor (now played by Chris Hemsworth) is soon to be declared the new king of Asgard by Odin, despite the dismay shown by Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  However, before the chance to be declared king occurs, Frost Giants ruin the ceremony, only to be quickly dispatched by a security device known as The Destroyer (which looks like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still).

Understandably upset, Thor sets out with his warrior companions to take on the Frost Giants on their home turf, Jotunheim.  This scuffle only angers Odin, who arrives just in time to preserve the shaky truce between Asgard and Jotunheim.  The punishment for Thor is dire, however, as Odin banishes him to earth, stripping him of the source of his power, Mjolnir, a large hammer.  Odin does also send Mjolnir to earth, casting a spell upon it, allowing only the worthy to wield it.


Now stuck on earth, Thor is literally ran into by a scientist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant, Darcy (Kat Dennings), and her mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  The three are determined to learn more about Thor’s mysterious arrival into their lives, as it corresponded with an irregular event that they believe may have been some sort of worm hole.  As Thor tries to understand the foreign ways of earth, more trouble is afoot, as danger may be closer to Asgard than anyone is prepared for.
Thor:  Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.
A problem with the first installments of many superhero movies revolves around the structure of telling an origin story.  There is a pattern in those types of stories that really feels familiar, no matter how well put together it may seem (Iron Man).  I really appreciated the fact that Thor does not really tell an origin story as much as it throws us into his life during a pivotal period in his progression of becoming a leader and a hero.  Yes, audiences are being introduced to Thor for the first time, but not in the same way of us learning why Peter Parker became Spider-Man or why Tony Stark became Iron Man.  I think it is because the film forgoes the period of introductions that we get to delve into a story line that is more interesting.


The whole film essentially revolves around Thor redeeming his character.  The beginning of the film presents Thor as a brash and arrogant persona, until he is forced to deal with reality in a very literal way during his banishment on earth.  It is an interesting arc that manages to distance itself from the kinds of lessons the other Marvel heroes have had to deal with.  The other main element in this story is how the struggle for power from within a family comes about.  This will come up again, but there is a Shakespearean element to the relation between a father and his sons, which adds another interesting layer of drama to the proceedings.

Having laid out all of those aspects of the film, this is a Marvel superhero movie, about the god of thunder no less, and due to that, of course you have to have a certain level of fun and comic book-style action and entertainment to go along with it.  This film does not shy away from giving us some satisfyingly heavy hammer hits to those who get in Thor’s way.  While not the greatest asset to the film, the action sequences are strong enough to satisfy, while making it safe to say that many foes will be left ‘thor’ in the morning.

Thor:  This mortal form grows weak.  I require sustenance!
The film is also quite comedic.  I am not blind, the mention of Frost Giants can certainly raise an eyebrow, but adapting Thor to the big screen is a huge challenge in itself, as one must deal with having god-like characters attending to large scale dilemmas.  This aspect alone can lead to a certain campiness factor, which I believe is quite well handled.  It also leads to some of the funniest scenes that take place on earth.  As Thor is forced to deal with mortal status on earth, his habits certainly do not escape him, as he still speaks and acts in the only way suitable for royalty from the realm of Asgard.  It is a quality that I was hoping to see in a film that brings Thor into the world of mainstream audiences, and I am glad that this film does not attempt to be super serious about what it is presenting.

Chris Hemsworth makes for a great Thor.  This is a breakout performance that will have him headed for great things down the line (after appearing in the decade’s worth of films Marvel probably has planned for him).  Hemsworth does not just make Thor a golden-haired hunk; he imbues him with a personality, which changes over the course of the film.  Thor has convincing emotions, motivation, and a level of charm that serves the character well.  The last thing one would want is a bland lead character that relies on supporting relief, and that is luckily not the case here.


The cast is quite well-rounded as well.  Anthony Hopkins makes for an imposing Odin, pulling off work that is surprisingly better than most of the roles he has been in for some time.  Portman is the unbelievably attractive astrophysicist/love interest, yet seems to be having a lot of fun, along with her comedic support provided by Dennings.  I really enjoyed Hiddelston’s performance as Loki, who has a damaged quality that makes the role develop into more than just the required villain of the piece.  Then you have Idris Elba as Heimdall, the all seeing eye of Asgard, who is simply bad ass.  The cast list does continue with more supporting players as well, which brings Clark Gregg’s Agent Caulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. back into play.

Agent Caulson is actually an important point for the film.  Thor has done the best job yet of being both a standalone film as well as one that will fit into a larger puzzle down the road.  Most likely due to the fact that it was written with The Avengers in mind, more so than Iron Man 2 (which felt like it was cramming spinoff material in), Thor handles this subplot well, not alienating an audience that may not necessarily be knowledgeable of the future of Marvel films or how these elements may be connecting to other films.  That said, Thor is not above having plenty of hidden surprises in it, one of which is all kinds of awesome (and really just a straight up cameo).


When it was first announced that Kenneth Branagh would be directing Thor, confusion was one of the main reactions I had.  Branagh has been known mainly for directing and starring in several adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.  The fact that he would be directing a Marvel superhero film seemed puzzling, but now, given the structure of the film and the dynamic that exists between characters like Odin, Thor, and Loki, I can understand it.  The action movie aspect of this film is fine enough, but it is the way these characters are handled and how the tragic element of the story is played up that I can see what Branagh was attracted to.

As far as other elements of the filmmaking are concerned, this film certainly looks expensive.  Many ridiculed the set and costume designs early on, but I think now, seeing these pieces within the context of the film, there is a lot to be admired in how well everything has been pulled off.  Thor is a very hard concept to focus into a film, but a lot of time has been spent in making things feel appropriate.  I especially found the design of Asgard to be pretty cool.  The effects in general are fittingly handled for the most part, with extra credit going to the sound design for Thor swinging around Mjolnir.  And while not a memorable theme, Patrick Doyle’s score felt like a fine call back to something fitting of a medieval knight going on a heroic quest of his own.


Many wrote Thor off before it arrived.  I stuck by, convinced that the over-the-top nature of these godly characters would be interesting to watch on film.  I received exactly what I wanted.  While I have no delusions about the more ridiculous aspects of this film, I can still say that Thor was a very entertaining film.  Hemsworth made for a fine lead, swinging around both his hammer and a smile aptly.  The story was appropriately rich with power struggles, heroic redemption, and comedic sensibilities to keep things grounded.  And the film does service to both the comic fans and those simply seeking to enjoy a fun action film mixed with the fish…er, god-out-of-water story structure.  Eschewing complexity in favor of a simpler story about a being discovering what truly matters, Thor is a mighty fine film.  If Captain America pulls off similar success, than it will truly be a blast to see The Avengers assemble.
Odin:  I have sacrificed much to achieve peace. So too must a new generation sacrifice to maintain that peace. Responsibility! Duty! Honor! These are not mere virtues to which we must aspire! They are essential to every soldier, to every king!


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