Friday, May 6, 2011

Thor: Smashing good time

Thor (2011) • View trailer for Thor
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief profanity and fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.11

The clear skies and warmer weather notwithstanding, the summer movie season has arrived with a clap of thunder.

Courtesy of Marvel Comics' favorite Norse god.
Although banished to Earth and stripped of his powers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
has been confident that all will be well, if he can just find and reclaim Mjolnir,
his mighty hammer. Sadly, redemption won't be nearly that simple.

Although never granted the mainstream name-recognition enjoyed by the likes of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, Thor always has been one of the comic book industry's most intriguing superheroes, particularly when his exploits are chronicled by writers who play on the whimsically awkward juxtaposition of Norse mythology and workaday American existence. J. Michael Straczynski is just such a writer, having recently delivered an engaging run on Thor's comic book exploits; Straczynski shares story credit on this film with Mark Protosevich, and the quality shows. (Three other individuals are credited for the script, which no doubt was fine-tuned — by committee — to maximize its crowd-pleasing potential.)

But the true hero of the hour is director Kenneth Branagh: a great choice to bring this Norse legend's Shakespearean-style gravitas to the big screen. Florid dialogue that plays comfortably on the printed page doesn't always translate well in cinematic terms; few actors can wrap their lips around the stilted thees and thous, not to mention the sing-song cadence that often stands in for the "high speech" of such characters. Branagh well understands how to make Shakespeare enticing for the masses, having done so with marvelous — and sometimes delightfully mischievous — big-screen adaptations of everything from Henry V and Hamlet to Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It.

But Branagh is equally comfortable with more modern myths, as evidenced by his intriguing 1994 handling of Frankenstein. All of which demonstrates that Thor is right in Branagh's comfort zone, and he delivers a well-paced adventure that allows ample character development in between the necessary smashing and thrashing.

And let's face it: merely getting his stars to wear Alexandra Byrne's opulent costumes, without looking like total fools, is a major accomplishment by itself.

I do question the decision to open this film with a flash-forward prologue, though, as if all concerned felt it necessary to first introduce this saga's Earth-bound (read: ordinary) human characters before transitioning to the other-worldly realms of Asgard and Jotunheim. That doesn't suggest much faith in the average viewer, which seems rather insulting; after all, nobody had trouble with the lengthy planet Krypton prologue that kicked off 1978's Superman.

Thus, we briefly meet research scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and their feisty young intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings), as they chase down a weird celestial phenomenon late one evening ... which climaxes when their SUV plows into a figure who appears out of nowhere, as if deposited by the weird weather spike (which he was). Fade to black and re-wind the clock.

Asgard, realm of the Norse gods who defend the entire universe — as explained by star Anthony Hopkins, in a well-delivered off-camera narration — prepares to celebrate the crowning of its new king: Thor (Chris Hemsworth), elder son of the all-powerful Odin (Hopkins). For all his prowess and crowd-pleasing charisma, though, Thor has grown up to be an arrogant, boastful, over-confident and reckless young god, far too inclined to think of himself above others. When a bit of sabotage briefly derails the ceremony, Thor impetuously leads his staunch comrades — the "warriors three" Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Fandral (Josh Dallas), along with the equally plucky Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) — on a vengeance-fueled mission to Jotunheim, the realm of the evil frost giants and their king, Laufey (Colm Feore).

Sadly, Thor's rash act breaks a long-standing truce between Asgard and Jotunheim. Worse yet, Thor fails to realize that he has been manipulated by his crafty brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the "god of mischief" whose apparent devotion to his larger, stronger brother is naught but a sham. Thor, blind to such subtleties, lacks the healthy wariness to imagine such Machiavellian schemes. He therefore bears the full brunt of Odin's well-deserved rage; the elder god strips his son of his powers and banishes him to the "lower realm" of Midgard (Earth).

As if contemptuously rubbing salt in the wound, Odin also hurls Thor's mighty hammer, Mjolnir, to the same New Mexico desert where the ex-God of Thunder finds himself ... and is, in turn, found by Jane, Erik and Darcy. As we get to see a second time. (What, we'd have forgotten so quickly?)

The film's middle act has plenty of fun with this fish-out-of-water concept, as Thor attempts to adjust to his new surroundings. And even without his supernatural abilities, Thor still cuts an imposing figure; Hemsworth's one shirtless scene is played for maximum impact, and rapturous inhalations could be heard from every woman present at last week's Sacramento preview screening. Small wonder Jane falls head over heels.

The chemistry is potent, as well. Hemsworth, an Australian actor who made an impression on these shores with a small part in 2009's re-boot of Star Trek, delivers the blend of graceful warmth and instinctive intelligence that his character demands. Needless to say, he also looks quite capable of belting a frost giant or two.

Portman, playing the "grounded" character who serves as our entry to all this magical mayhem, is credibly sincere as Jane. The Earth woman who falls for an extraterrestrial visitor has been a cliché ever since Lois Lane tumbled for Superman, but Portman makes it feel fresh. She's also believable as a scientist, which is a pleasant relief.

Branagh deserves credit for keeping a tight rein on Hopkins, who delivers the appropriately florid brio as Odin, without going over the top (as he's often is prone to do). Hopkins bears the weight of most of the script's more richly purple dialogue, and manages not to sound silly while navigating the Asgardian sturm und drang.

Dennings (Charlie Bartlett, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) pretty much steals every scene in which Darcy appears, thanks to her bemused sidelong glances and perfectly timed snarky asides; she's every inch the aggressively confident grad student. Skarsgard makes a solid mentor, and his character's Scandinavian heritage grants him leave to scoff at their new companion's insistence that "childhood fairy stories" have a basis in fact.

Hiddleston, appropriately understated as Loki, makes a grand, Shakespearean-style villain; his eventual transformation to full-blown baddie is unexpectedly chilling, given this film's mostly larkish atmosphere. Idris Elba also makes a strong impression as Heimdall, guardian of the gate between realms.

The Earth-bound discovery of Thor's mighty hammer is milked for plenty of humor, as various New Mexico denizens attempt to move it; as with King Arthur's fabled sword, none but Thor can wield the mighty Mjolnir ... and one of those making an attempt, with a truck and a winch, is Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee, in a crowd-pleasing cameo.

The production values are top-notch, and the various melees destroy an impressive amount of real estate; an Earth-bound battle involving a sort of Asgardian super-robot is particularly well staged. On a quieter level, Asgard's vastness is impressively conceived: yet another reminder of how computer graphics have completely transformed cinema's sense of wonder.

On the negative side, Thor is another of the many recent movies converted to 3D in post-production, which remains a huge mistake. In the first place, Branagh didn't choreograph his film with any thought of 3D effects sequences, so the added "third dimension" here is mostly meaningless. More crucially, the post-production 3D seriously darkens the screen image and screws up focus at times: two serious problems that contributed to last year's Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender being such colossal failures.

This type of retrofitted 3D has been infuriating viewers for a year now, particularly when one considers the stiffer ticket prices automatically affixed to 3D movies. I won't go so far as to say that this poorly rendered 3D ruins Thor, but it certainly compromises the viewing experience. That's a shame, particularly when considering all the colorful costumes and settings that so many talented behind-the-scenes folks spent so much time putting on the screen.

As was the case with Iron Man 2 — and will be echoed in another few months, with Captain America — the groundwork is being laid for next year's Marvel superhero summit meeting in The Avengers. We once again spend some time with the officious Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), of the black-ops agency SHIELD, and savvy comic book fans will know the identity of the shadowy, bow-and-arrow wielding operative — yes, that's Jeremy Renner — who briefly stalks Thor at one point.

Cross-pollinating characters is a lot of fun, a description that also suits Branagh's take on Marvel's God of Thunder. This superhero epic has plenty of crossover appeal, and should please both fans and curious mainstreamers not up on their comic book lore. You can't ask for much more from an early summer popcorn flick.

No comments:

Post a Comment