Starring Natalie Portman,
Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth
Comic book movies are a difficult proposition. There’s something inherently vexing about taking someone with extraordinary powers who jumps around in fancy underpants and making it work on the big screen. Obscure concepts present tests to any filmmaker, but those who understand them know to either strip away the extraordinary in order to get to the grit, or go all in to indulge the more fantastical elements.
Examples abound: Christopher Nolan has made two good Batman movies (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight”) by grounding the story in a dark reality and removing the more theatrical aspects. On the flip side, Tim Burton made two really good Batman movies (“Batman” and “Batman Returns”) by reveling in the stagecraft and embracing the surrealism of the comic book. There is no clear path, but there does seem to be an “all or nothing” mentality.
“Thor” is a movie that works because director Kenneth Branagh (“Hamlet”) has embraced the eccentric. For those blissfully unaware of the comic book, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the god of thunder, who lives in the magical realm of Asgard where his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), rules the land. Thor is a headstrong, fight-prone brute who feels the best way to achieve peace in the kingdom is to hit things with his magical hammer. It’s an interesting policy, though it lacks the kind of nuance Odin is looking for in his heir apparent.
Thor’s coronation ceremony is interrupted by the Frost Giants, which sounds like a Norwegian death metal band, but actually they are a race of blue-skinned ice monsters who really don’t like Odin. Thor, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his warrior friends decide to go gangster and head to the kingdom of the Frost Giants, looking for a fight. When Odin learns of Thor’s disobedience, he banishes him to Earth so he can learn a little humility.
There’s a touch of culture shock when Thor gets to Earth. Everyone thinks he’s crazy and no one is quite sure what to make of the guy. He meets Jane (Natalie Portman), a scientist working on trans-dimensional portals and her team of nerdy friends. There’s an immediate attraction. He’s a tall, handsome, romance-novel cover model who acts like a relic from the middle ages. What’s not to like? Jane tries to help Thor find his way home.
Meanwhile, back in Asgard, we learn there’s been some scheming and treachery going on. Loki has been secretly plotting to get the throne of Asgard for himself. Odin falls into a mystical coma, and Loki now rules the kingdom. Thor finds his mystic hammer in the desert being examined by the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the same government agency that’s been popping up in the “Iron Man” movies. Thor fights his way to his magical weapon, but he can’t get it up, and he’s pretty upset about it. Down and defeated, Thor finally begins to understand what it is to have nothing. It’s a lousy time to learn this lesson since Loki has just sent the biggest, baddest killing machine in the universe to wipe out humanity.
“Thor” is a big, ridiculous movie—and I mean that in the best way. When the protagonist is Norse, the god of thunder, any attempt at grounding the material in reality would be a waste of time. In fact, the film is at its least interesting when Thor is on Earth. Sure, there’s some comedy mined out of the “stranger in a strange land” premise. Asgard is where Thor really takes flight. Branagh works well with excess, and on this magical plane, he goes ape shit. The sets, the costumes, the magical portals to other worlds: It is the kind of stuff I expect to see in a film about the legendary comic-book character.
Hemsworth does a great job portraying Thor. He’s earnest, noble and best of all likable. This is no easy task. As I watched the movie, I kept thinking back to movies like “Conan the Destroyer” and “Masters of the Universe,” where the strapping action heroes were played by guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren—guys who weren’t really actors but steroid-laced, catchphrase-sputtering machines. Hemsworth is able to bring likability to the character. Tom Hiddleston does a great job as the mischievous Loki, bringing an appetite for scenery chewing.
My complaint about the acting is the kind of “phoned in” performances from the supporting cast. Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard are veteran actors who seem a little disengaged. Still, it’s a minor quip. “Thor” is a good summer movie. It has a little action, a little romance and a lot of fun.