Review: THOR – Hugely Entertaining, Visually Stunning, Absorbing & Action-Packed
Obsessed With Film, 18 April 2011
A billionaire industrialist with a weakness for the odd drink, fast cars and dressing up as a flying, armoured alter-ego; a brilliant scientist who pushes the radiation research envelope too far and creates a rampaging monster from the id made flesh; a scrawny, 100 pound weakling whose die-hard optimism causes him to volunteer for a super-soldier program – all extraordinary, all outlandish, but all oddly relatable in the confines of the comic book movie.
A flying being from another world/dimension with incalculable strength and a hammer weapon called Mjolnir that allows him to control lightning, and one of a pantheon of humanity’s perceived deities? That might be a harder sell.
Or so you’d think. Because as with most of Marvel’s properties in the lead up to the comic book movie to end all comic book movies, 'The Avengers', their latest 'Thor' is an example of canny casting in getting talent to make human and recognisable the inhuman world inhabited by the characters, some basic story-telling smarts, and a seemingly left-field choice for director. And it’s with Kenneth Branagh that much of the success of 'Thor' lies. There is no sense of being above the task in hand, of just taking a chance at playing in the Hollywood sand-pit, instead there’s a full-on embrace of the Marvel Universe. It seems those stories about being enthralled by a Thor comic growing up in Belfast weren’t just PR flim-flam. With his $150 million dollar toy the man just seems to be having fun.
Making sure we’re not thrown immediately into the other-worldly realm of Thor’s home Asgard, the story begins with a familiar loop as astrophysicist Dr Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her colleagues Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings), witness an extraordinary event in the New Mexico desert and discover a prostrate and patently de-powered Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – as evidenced by his susceptibility to Darcy’s trigger-happy Taser. Only then can we discover exactly what he’s doing there.
This is one of Branagh and co.’s smart scripting moves as when we do get our first sweeping look at Asgard it is utterly fantastical, all shining, golden towers and lush colours as far as the eye can see. It is a world that just skirts the tipping-point of visual overload, perhaps being a little too shiny, a little too perfect, but if this is a world inhabited by supposedly higher-beings then I guess they feel right at home. I can confirm though that worries about Flash Gordian camp excess are un-warranted. You might worry about the cleaning bill, but you wouldn’t want to mess with its owner.
That, of course, is the all-Father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), a weary ruler who although still projecting strength and power we find in the throes of crowning his successor, and son, Thor. Celebrations soon turn to conflict however, as Frost Giants from one of the other nine realms, Jotunheim, break a peace treaty and attempt to steal back their source of power. Frustrated by Odin’s refusal to take revenge on Jotunheim Thor, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and his steadfast companions, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) travel across the Rainbow Bridge and through Asgard’s gate to cause havoc. They are disastrously outnumbered and only saved by the intervention of Odin himself.
Disgusted by the arrogant behaviour of Thor he banishes him to Midgard (or as we call it, Earth) and strips him of his power, Mjolnir, which also crashes in New Mexico outside the town of Puente Antiguo (‘Old Bridge’ – there’s a link there methinks) leaving Loki as the sole heir to the throne in Asgard, not to mention the one who alerted Odin to Thor’s vengeful plans.
Coming full circle Jane Foster and her crew manage to cart the inert Thor to hospital whilst Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his SHIELD cohorts discover the immoveable Mjolnir and turn it into an investigative no-entry zone.
Thor’s subsequent fish out water experience of Earth runs the gamut from examining room throw-down with a dozen medical staff, a crockery abusing ability for ordering drinks, some amusing nods to Thor’s comic-book alter-ego Donald Blake, and the gradual (but not too gradual) understanding from Foster, Selvig, and Darcy that Thor has more to do with the astrophysical events in the desert than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Amidst all the cosmic events these middle moments of Thor’s mortal banishment are a welcome necessity, both as a means for some character development (albeit very quick), but also as a device for audience empathy – it grounds the story and allows Hemsworth to show what it was that Branagh and Marvel saw during the casting process. His Thor is at once the tower of self-belief, of strength and purpose, but also unintentionally human. Not just in the funny side moments, but most tellingly as he kneels mud-covered, broken and denied at the foot of Mjolnir, stuck resolutely in its rock prison and unyielding to his hand.
Portman and Skarsgård are naturally faultless in roles that require game participation more than heavyweight performance, and although she veers worryingly into annoyance now and then Kat Dennings does end up at least slightly endearing. As Loki, Tom Hiddleson is all effortless duplicity as he manipulates his way to the throne, and if I have one major criticism it’s that more screen-time wasn’t dedicated to the twisted affection of Thor and his brother.
There are fan-boy cameos to spot both in the main story and in the inevitable post-credits sequence (which this time is thankfully not 100% obvious), and scripted asides to other upcoming 'Avengers', but it isn’t just a bridge to Joss Whedon’s all-comers superhero smackdown – 'Thor' a worthy standalone addition to the summer’s blockbuster season.
It’s hugely entertaining, visually stunning, absorbing, and action-packed, and when Thor finally regains his power and summons a cascade of lightning it’s not just a moment of character regaining his destiny, but also of Hemsworth earning the right to wear the costume, no questions asked. Branagh, in his first foray into blockbuster film-making has delivered with absolute assurance, and must surely have booked himself another trip in the director’s chair for the hoped-for 'Thor II'. The boy from the Belfast comic book shop done good.