Shakespeare and mythology clash with superheroes in Marvel’s engaging and effects-driven blockbuster Thor, the studio’s fourth prequel to next summer’s epic The Avengers. In spite of being a vastly entertaining picture that’s competently-directed, strongly acted with polished production values and dazzling visual effects, it’s the pedestrian screenplay and plot that eventually hamper it from breaking the constraints of the ultimate “fanboy movie” genre. Still, as far as superhero origin stories go, you could do far worse (ahem, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four films) and Thor does the decent job of introducing the God of Thunder to the masses.
Towering and gallant warrior Thor (a charismatic Chris Hemsworth) is the Prince and heir to the throne on the planet Asgard, ruled by the mighty Odin (the always scenery-chewing Anthony Hopkins) but when his arrogance and war-mongering leaves Asgard on the brink of war with the Frost Giants, Odin banishes the mercurial Prince to Earth, striping him of his powers and most important weapon – a gigantic hammer Mjolnir (pronounced myawl-neer) which Odin also throws to Earth, but with a disclaimer – the power of the hammer will be wielded only by one who is worthy. This estrangement leaves Loki (a fantastic Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s scrawny, sly younger brother, with the keys to the kingdom – something that he picks up rather swiftly in order to command the kingdom with an iron fist.
Stuck on Earth, in New Mexico of all places, Thor, now a powerless and hammerless mortal (he got to keep his godly abs though) bumps (literally) into a team of physicists including Jane Foster (recently anointed Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman), Eric Selvig (the always stellar Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (comic relief Kat Dennings) on the brink of making a major astronomical discovery. Fascinated by this mystery man who literally fell down from the skies into their laps, the trio try and make sense of their discoveries when the superspy government organization of S.H.I.E.L.D. (now a staple of the Marvel movies) swoops into town and confiscates all of their equipment in the hope of uncovering the mystery behind Mjolnir, now lodged into a rock, sword in the stone-style. Back on Asgard, Thor’s buddies find the fly in the ointment and rush down to Earth to alert Thor of their brother’s misdeeds but is Thor worthy to unleash Hammertime? You gotta pay $14 bucks for that!
Many of my colleagues in the reviewing world have noted how they were initially skeptical of Marvel’s decision to hire Kenneth Branagh to helm the film but how the final result proved it was actually a wise and bold decision. That’s all a bunch of nonsense. Sure, Branagh is far from the hired gun most studios puppeteer to shoulder the weight of these hyper-stylish blockbusters but when you consider that the arc of Thor’s rise and fall (again, literally) is textbook Shakespearean drama, there simply was no other doorbell to ring. I mean, this is the man who has made a career out of Shakespeare adaptations so to me it was a no-brainer.
It’s no surprise then that the Asgard scenes work the best since this “Ye Old World” English is Branagh’s bread and butter. I never doubted Branagh’s ability to handle the Shakespearean drama aspects of Thor. No, what I was more worried about was real “vision” – you know, like what Christopher Nolan did with Batman and what Bryan Singer did with the first two X-Men films. Unlike many critics who are falling over themselves for this good but hardly great blockbuster, there’s none of it in Thor (unless you call bland CGI visionary!). There’s nothing beneath the surface here. It’s all squeaky clean stuff. And just as I figured, it’s the desert of New Mexico that the film comes to a halt. Granted it’s not a screeching halt but still, you know… it doesn’t work as well. I get that this is where the arrogant Thor must learn to become a good man but in all honesty, his transformation is rushed and simply didn’t buy it. Okay so now that Thor has learned to do the dishes, that means he’s become a good man?
Luckily the actors are there to make it worth sitting through. Hemsworth whose only major screen credit prior to this was a small role in Star Trek really sells it as the eponymous Thor. He’s commanding, charismatic, funny and most importantly, he’s got the look. The same goes for Hiddleson who plays Loki. Loki’s character arc may be the most tragic of all the characters in this universe (save for perhaps, the Hulk) and Hiddleston is magnificent. There’s a reason why he’ll be reprising his role in The Avengers (if you think I’ve spoiled something then you need to work on your pop culture homework home slice). Hopkins is Hopkins – the grandmaster can play this role in his sleep and as a matter of fact, he does sleep through the performance for a good portion of the movie. Portman is fine while the others are just there for comic relief.
I enjoyed Thor for what it is – a big, loud superhero summer blockbuster. It also had some strong performances from the leads but when it came to bringing something new to the stale superhero genre, I got nothing (okay, maybe a little Shakespearean drama in Asgard but not enough for me to stand up and take notice). A few unpredictable twists and turns would have been nice but this is Marvel we’re talking about. These guys are doing their best to stay within the Green Zone because one misstep and all the dominos crumble over their mammoth Avengers undertaking. Captain America better not be a gee-shucks golly wiz-athon or I’ll start foaming at the mouth.