The summer of 2011 will see the biggest assemblage yet of superheroes onscreen with the upcoming releases of X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, and Captain America: The First Avenger. (At least until next year when The Avengers hits theaters.) Every movie is a gamble to some degree, but these three mitigate the risk a bit in that the X-Men film is the fourth in a popular franchise and the other two both feature highly recognizable actors in the title roles.
But there’s one superhero movie this summer that’s flying with a hammer in place of a safety net. The potential hurdles include a relatively unknown lead actor, a director thought to be an odd choice at best and a terrible one at worst, and a hero built on magic and fantasy. Thor is a god, an honest to god deity, and that can be a hard sell in the science-fiction and technology-filled world of Marvel films.
Thor opens with a brief intro in the Southwestern US with a pair of scientists (Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard) and their snarky assistant (Kat Dennings) tracking an odd weather phenomenon. They drive towards the center of the storm and accidentally collide with a figure emerging from the darkness.
Quick cut to Asgard!
Odin (Anthony Hopkins) narrates a brief intro into the history of life, the universe, and everything before we’re swept into a great hall where a smiling Thor (Chris Hemsworth) approaches his father’s throne to receive his pre-coronation kudos. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his mother (Rene Russo) look on proudly, but when the party is crashed by three (creatively named) Frost Giants, Thor takes the incursion as an act of war against Asgard and demands they strike back. Odin prefers the path of peace though and forbids any such action. Thor disobeys his father in spectacular fashion and is banished, powerless and sans magical hammer, to the realm of Midgard. Aka Earth.
Which brings us back to where we started… the Portman/Dennings sandwich.
Thor’s action is literally split between two worlds, but unfortunately that divide carries throughout many other aspects of the film. What works in one realm seems far less effective in the other. The segments on Earth are fun and filled with life by way of humor, wit, and personality, whereas life on Asgard is dour and utterly serious. One is loose and almost goofy in its use of laughs to punctuate the dramatic beats, and the other is brimming with Shakespearean drama and CGI-filled action scenes on other worlds. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but the two don’t mesh well.
The action on Earth is centered on Thor attempting to regain his power, but even with his hammer firmly implanted in the ground before him he’s little more than a buff, tall drink of water man. Odin has placed a spell on the hammer so it will only release its purchase when Thor is worthy. His journey is therefore one of self discovery with his newfound friends which includes a possible love interest in Jane (Portman) as well as visits from Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D. Although the romance is about as convincing as Gregg playing a special agent, which while I love Gregg is not very convincing at all. The action here, both physical and verbal, is light, casual fun, and does well to bring Thor into our world.
Asgard, by contrast, dominates much of the second act and does so without Thor at the forefront. While he sits powerless on Earth, Loki is making discoveries and plans of his own at home. The film’s real drama unfolds here, but oddly it’s Loki’s fate that is at stake instead of our hero’s. Hiddleston dominates these scenes though and develops true pathos for the character. The world of Asgard is a combination of elaborate sets and CGI, and while they look okay they never really feel convincing.
Much of the film’s charm comes from some of the smaller roles including Dennings, Colm Feore as King Laufey, and Idris Elba as Heimdall. Dennings has fewer than ten lines in the whole movie, but she makes them count and garners some of the film’s biggest laughs. Feore is the face of the Frost Giant king and brings real character to what is in essence one of a hundred digitally captured look-alike enemies. Elba is buried beneath elaborate armor and a slightly altered voice, but he still makes Heimdall an imposing guardian of the bridge between worlds. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of his character in a possible sequel.
The film is filled with these small but inconsequentially entertaining performances, but it’s anchored by two charismatic leads. Hemsworth is incredibly charming as an arrogant and fearless god and equally so as a fragile human. He’s also more than convincing in the action and fight scenes and a believable source of the strength and power necessary to wield that hammer. Hiddleston isn’t nearly as physical, but he takes full advantage of a character written with the most depth and emotional charge. Like Thor, Loki learns something about his true self throughout the story, and Hiddleston makes his education palpable in its pain.
Much of the hand-wringing over director Kenneth Branagh’s involvement has proven both groundless and unnecessary. The tonal imbalance between the two intertwined halves is the film’s biggest weakness, and credit should be shared between Branagh and the writers (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz). But this same team has managed a minor miracle in making Thor as tangible and engaging as he is here. They also keep the film from ever getting bogged down in a mythos that could have been disorienting for newcomers to the character.
Thor is by no means a great movie, but it sits comfortably between the two Iron Man films in its entertainment value and serves as a solid lead-in to The Avengers. It’s breezy fun that more than does the job of introducing what could have been a very troublesome element into the Marvel universe. The true test will be to see how Thor interacts with his more heroically human counterparts next year, but he proves quite capable of supporting his own film and should hopefully earn a second outing.
The Upside: Chris Hemsworth is charismatic and cocky enough to bring Thor to glorious life; solid action and effects; Hiddleston is a perfect blend of emotion and evil; Earthbound segments are filled with personality and humor; Idris Elba rocks it as Heimdall; film succeeds in bringing the godly hero into the real world; kill scene of a monster on frozen world is pretty damn sweet
The Downside: Segments on Asgard feel heavy and visually plasticine; limited emotional depth with Earthly characters; tonal imbalance between worlds; lightweight overall; certain Avenger cameo is lame and clearly inserted for nothing more than fan appeal; unconvincing love story
On the Side: Stay after the end credits for a super secret extra sce– oh hell. You already know this don’t you.