Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thor (2011)

Ambitious, inventive, and ultimately satisfying, this oddball superhero movie revolves around the titular God of Thunder as he is cast down from his native realm Asgard (read: Valhalla meets Mt. Olympus) for betraying his father, Odin's, command. After a brief, gratefully grounding introduction in New Mexico, much of the first act of the film takes place in regal, vaguely viking yet strikingly foreign Asgard. The film's greatest achievement is in its realization of Asgard; its self-contained history, its architecture, its science, and its methods of transportation are all given a fair amount of attention, which, in this day and age of assembly-line studio tentpoles, is a real blessing, and gives the Asgard sequences a sense of wonder and delight. Once Thor arrives on Earth, the film naturally deflates a little bit; after a dynamite, eye-opening first act, Natalie Portman's astrophysicist, SHIELD's slow, already-seen discovery of Thor's lost hammer, and the obvious fish-out-of-water Thor vs. contemporary New Mexico comedy deflate the pic around its midsection a bit. However, as his villainous brother, Loki, makes his political stand for Thor's rightful place on the throne of Asgard, the film gains its momentum and, while never quite reaching the apex of the opening scenes, leads to a satisfying, surprisingly convincing climactic showdown.

I must say, I had doubts over the previously-untested skills of Chris Hemsworth as Thor, but they were thoroughly unfounded; while he is going to have to work to keep up with Avengers teammates Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans in the charisma department, he looks the part (much to my girlfriend's delight), he fights very convincingly (for someone formerly on Australia's Dancing with the Stars), and, most importantly, takes this stuff very seriously, that is to say he knows when to act regally haughty AND when to relax in the role a little. Among those backing him up on Asgard are Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, and Rene Russo (as his mother), all of whom are appropriately tough, decadent, and Norse (Elba's badass gatekeeper character is a personal favorite). Anthony Hopkins is, surprisingly, effective and non-campy as the wise, tough Odin, and Tom Hiddleston makes for a complicated, volatile Loki, a stark contrast from Thor's stalwart beefcake. Inevitably, the human characters get the short end of the stick: Natalie Portman's Jane Foster is underwritten and goofy, Kat Dennings is essentially reduced to making one-liners about Thor's hot body and weird demeanor, and poor Stellan Skarsgard, clearly one of the more talented and experienced actors in the film, relegated to spouting out whatever benign dialogue the plotline saddles him with. None of them are ever even exposed to Asgard, keeping their realm of experience, and thus their interest quotient, to a minimum. However, as members of Shield, Clark Gregg is, once again, absolutely hilarious and deadpan as Agent Coulson, and Jeremy Renner makes a cameo as a certain Marvel character whose appearance is, at the same time, mercifully brief and perfectly integrated (his introductory shot elicited cheers from me and maybe a handful of other wise audience members).

Kenneth Brangah has never directed a film of this magnitude, the closest being his remake of Frankenstein, but, as with Favreau's Iron Man, you'd never tell based on his work here. Aside from the perfectly realized and rendered Asgard, with the rich, unconventional iconography, the rip-roaring action scenes, the large-scale effects sequences, and his interesting, canted angle-heavy shot compositions, he more than steps up to the plate of this grand style of filmmaking. In many cases, his bravery is commendable; there are not many contemporary directors of big-budget comic book flicks who would have had the chutzpah to dress Ray Stevenson the way he looks here (and he sure looks great drinking and gnawing on bones in a banquet hall). The old-world dialogue is concise, and rings true, marking a decided contrast with the Natalie Portman- and Kat Dennings-speak, and the interplay between Thor and the humans is far less corny and obvious as it could've been. However, the latter contains some of the least intriguing moments of the film, and, without the magnetism of, say, Tony and Pepper Potts' scenes in the Iron Mans, keep the film from attaining the modern classic status of Favreau's original masterwork.

Recommended to fans of the source material, the current generation of Marvel-sanctioned flicks, or of high-scale, big-budget sci-fi fantasy such as David Lynch's Dune, 1980's Flash Gordon, or The Chronicles of Riddick. This is above the level of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, yet not quite to the level of the original Iron Man; it is yet to be seen whether this or Captain America will be the better-remembered of this year's Avengers flicks (alls I know is, Marvel will have enough footage for a teaser by the time late-July rolls around, so...definitely ready for that).

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