Verily! “Thor” doth cometh to smite thee! Okay, so the Thor in Kenneth Branagh’s big-screen version of the Marvel Comics character doesn’t actually talk like a reject from a Renaissance Fair, which is a shame, as that might have been hilarious. Instead, Thor and his buddies, including the Warriors Three (or, er, Four) talk pretty much like you and I, except with a little more English. Literally. The film boasts a number of British actors, including Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s brother Loki, and of course, the venerable Anthony Hopkins as the granddaddy of all Asgardians, Odin. Star Chris Hemsworth isn’t British, but let’s face it, he has less ground to cover in “sounding” British than, say, Jaimie Alexander, who plays the Warrior Lady Sif and hails from South Carolina, USA.
The first of Marvel Studios’ big-screen onslaught of big-budget comic book movies, “Thor” is probably the least well-known of the superheros that will be battling for your hard-earned bucks this Summer. Moviegoers certainly aren’t as familiar with him as they are with, say, Captain America (soon to be seen in his own movie, “Captain America: The First Avenger”) or Iron Man (eventually to be seen in “Iron Man 3”, but first in next year’s “The Avengers”). And if I’m being honest, it’s the one comic book character that I didn’t think could ever NOT look (or sound) silly onscreen. So you can imagine my surprise on how the film turned out: while not “knock your socks off” great, it’s still pretty darn “go figure, it’s a lot better than I thought it would be” good.
Australian hunk of a man Chris Hemsworth stars as Thor, the Asgardian God of Thunder, though he’s never really mentioned as being a God, just a dude with a really cool hammer that can do really cool things like whip up lightning, tornadoes, and help him fly. It can also be wielded by only the most “worthy” of wielders, which makes you wonder how Odin, his pop, ever gave it to Thor, since when we first meet him, Thor is every bit the thoughtless rogue his much more sublime brother Loki believes him to be. On the day of Thor’s coronation to the throne, some unsavory Frost Giants (tall, blue ice beings) break into Asgard and cause mischief. Thor, never one to take an invasion lying down, decides to retaliate by attacking the Frost Giants’ home world, starting up a war that has been in a state of limbo for centuries or thereabouts. (“The Chronicles of Riddick’s” Colm Feore voices King Laufey, leader of the ice-lovin’ Frost Giants.)
As punishment for his misguided heroics, Thor is cast out to Earth, but not before he’s stripped off his powers and precious hammer. Now a mere mortal, Thor meets spunky scientist Jane Foster (a spunky cute Natalie Portman), who keeps broadsiding him with her jeep, and her professor/mentor (Stellan Skarsgard) and unpaid intern Darcy (Kat Dennings), the trio having been scouring the New Mexico nights for signs of wormholes. When Thor drops into Jane’s lap, it proves her theories mostly correct. Or correct-ish. Honestly, it’s all technobabble to me, folks. Suffice it to say, soon the super spy agency SHIELD, led by Marvel U.’s ominipresent Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) has shown up to boss people around. Meanwhile, back at Asgard, Loki spins his sinister plans, taking down Odin, and assuming the crown. He does this incredibly easily, which is both silly and amusing, but does the job of giving Thor a big ol threat to combat.
Featuring surprisingly sure-handed direction by Kenneth Branagh (whose hiring for the gig was probably as out-of-left-field as you’ll find in recent years), he of the Shakespearean plays and movies, “Thor” has all the brawn, humor, and superhero action you’d want from a superhero movie. It also brings a lot of tragedy to the table, with much of Loki’s machinations spurned on by that most ancient of squabbles, sibling rivalry. Which makes the casting of Hopkins as Odin a no-brainer. Odin is full of gravitas and is one emotionally heavy dude, helping to make the movie’s twisted family dynamics believable. Tom Hiddleston is equally fantastic as Loki, bringing a sly menace to what could have been stock villainy. Thor may have all the brawn and bravado, but you do believe that Loki, though less physically imposing, is every bit his equal when the chips are done, thus setting up a pretty intriguing clash for years to come.
A hugely imposing fellow, Australian chap Chris Hemsworth fills out his red cape and shiny Asgardian armor nicely. He’s asked to be charming and keep those pecs glistening throughout, both of which he does with aplomb. Natalie Portman, coming off her Oscar winning turn in “Black Swan”, seems to understand that she’s in a Summer comic book movie and acts accordingly. We’re told her Jane Foster is super duper smart, but honestly, she’s just goofy and endearing. Likewise with Kat Dennings, who unfortunately gets mostly lost after the first act. The film’s huge action set pieces come early and fast, with Thor and company invading the Frost Giants’ home, then the Destroyer arriving on Earth to finish off the banished Asgardian. Curiously, the Warriors Three really don’t get a whole lot to do after the battle at the Frost Giants’ homeworld, in particular Japanese cinema icon Tadanobu Asano, who looks mostly lost among the English-speaking cast. I have to believe Asano spent most of his screentime being either bewildered by the Hollywood production or concentrating very hard on his few English lines.
Early International reviews for “Thor” have been surprisingly strong, which should bode well for the film’s Stateside premiere this Friday. Of course it helps that the film has a strong foundation, with Shakespearean guy Branagh behind the camera and Hopkins and Hiddleston in front of it, both giving standout performances. Chris Hemsworth is no slouch, but let’s face it, he’s big and brawny and throws a mean punch and looks good doing it. It’s not exactly a tour de force performance. On the fanboy angle, comic book geeks should keep an eye out for a shadowy guest appearance by an Avenger during Thor’s raid on the SHIELD compound halfway into the film. And there’s another worthwhile cameo during a scene where locals try to pick up Thor’s hammer that’s good for a chuckle or two.
P.S. Stay after the end credits.
Kenneth Branagh (director) / Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne (screenplay), J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich (story)
CAST: Chris Hemsworth … Thor
Natalie Portman … Jane Foster
Tom Hiddleston … Loki
Anthony Hopkins … Odin
Stellan Skarsgård … Erik Selvig
Kat Dennings … Darcy Lewis
Clark Gregg … Agent Coulson
Idris Elba … Heimdall
Ray Stevenson … Volstagg
Tadanobu Asano … Hogun
Josh Dallas … Fandral
Jaimie Alexander … Sif
Rene Russo … Frigga