BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
It’s the unofficial kick-off of the summer blockbuster season when it seems that a Marvel super hero epic arrives as dependably as Spring allergies. At this point the Marvel franchise can’t pretend to be a product of inspiration; Marvel characters are being forged into films like widgets on an assembly line. Past botched entries like Wolverine and Daredevil have kept expectations low, so it is a pleasant surprise to discover that the latest, featuring the intergalactic Norse God Thor, has been hammered into a pretty sturdy chapter in the series, mixing operatic drama and earthly exploits with surprising aplomb.
Sure, Thor has many of the drawbacks that seem inherent in these Marvel adaptations — over-reliance on CGI, the obligatory romance with an under-developed woman, and a predictability in plotting — but the streamlined script co-written by Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller (who worked on the Terminator TV series) and Kenneth Branaugh’s purposeful direction gives Thor a snap-crackle-and-pop that should please fans of the genre. Chris Hemsworth, the little-known Australian actor (briefly seen as James Kirk’s father in the Star Trek reboot) is the film’s other major asset. He’s built like a Norse God, yet displays the humor, cockiness and in the end a humility that let’s the viewer know we’re witnessing the birth of a new star. He’s truly spectacular.
Thor‘s opening is its shakiest part. After a brief introduction with Natalie Portman’s scientist Jane witnessing Thor’s arrival on Earth, we flashback to Thor as he is ready to ascend to the throne of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, giving exactly the performance you’d expect). The ceremony is thwarted by a failed attack from the rival Frost Giants which leads Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to stage a reckless attack on the Frost Giant’s kingdom. This battle encompasses everything dreary about the Marvel franchise, it’s a dimly lit, poorly choreographed fight against unconvincing CGI monsters with characters we know little and care little about. Owing more to video games than cinema, the big action opening lacks any visceral impact.
But once Odin strips Thor of his powers and sends him crashing to earth, that friction between super-heroics and the real world (or something resembling it) draws you into the story. Thor lands in modern-day New Mexico, now a mere mortal who has been separated from his mystical hammer. He’s poked and prodded by naive scientists until he and his mighty sledge are reunited to save a wind-blown New Mexican town from a rampaging robot.
I never really bought Branaugh as being the heir to Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare throne, but he is perfect to add a little royal intrigue to the battle that shapes up around Thor and a family member who has secretly betrayed him. It’s an age-old plot device, but since Branaugh refuses to get bogged down in sub-plots, the tale provides a sturdy framework to tell its tale of battling princes and royal exile. The production design carries some real beauty with it as well, especially the glistening cosmic bridge that is guarded by the lone sentinel Heimdall (Idris Elba) and the horned headdresses and metallic costuming of the Norse royal family.
Although the film features the what are now obligatory nods to future chapters in the Marvel franchise, Thor feels like a complete film unto itself, ending with a beautiful bittersweet finale. Outside of the unsuccessful Silver Surfer launch in the Fantastic Four sequel, Thor marks the first time the Marvel franchise has attempted to recreate the intergalactic realm that inspired some of comic artist Jack Kirby’s greatest work. It’s that extra dimension that gives Thor its own goofy kick and lifts the titular superhero above your everyday comic book warrior.