REVIEW: “Thor” (***)

Posted by · 10:49 am · April 30th, 2011

As superheroes go—and go they do, with alarming frequency, at the cape-wearers’ convention that the multiplex has become in recent years—Thor, or at least the Marvel-authored Artist Formerly Known As Norse God Thor, is more super than most. Where most beloved superheroes are humans (at least ostensibly so) who grow into their superhuman powers as a kind of parallel puberty, Thor needn’t waste time on any such learning curve.

He is, to reappropriate a quote from “Almost Famous,” a Golden God—quite literally golden as played by aggressively blond Australian up-and-comer Chris Hemsworth—and as such, preternatural strength and ability are things to which he feels entitled, not enslaved. Marvel’s Thor may be as boyish as the gangly Peter Parker or the gizmo-rapt Bruce Wayne, but it’s a boyishness of lifelong petulance rather than golly-gee self-awe; he may be better than his superhero brethren, but he’s also harder to know.

That obstacle of relatability is both a debit and a distinguishing asset in Kenneth Branagh’s poppy, spirited addition to the Marvel adaptation gallery, and something that ultimately cleaves the film in two. An odd couple of films jostles for space in Branagh’s surprisingly trim 114-minute package: one a dourly earnest celestial battle epic set in Thor’s mythical, CGI-built home realm of Asgard, the other a sweetly goofy alien comedy set in the decidedly unmagical realm of New Mexico.

Individual mileage may vary as to which of these films you’d rather be watching—this viewer found himself sighing each time the camera swooped up through the stars to Norseville—but while the tonal discontinuity could be seen as a novel affectation, the film’s uneven visual textures and gear-grinding pacing do little to bond the whole.

Thor himself is the source of the fluctuation: a consistent character given a strikingly different read by his planetary surroundings. He begins the film in full-on spoiled young Turk mode: on the verge of taking the supremo-god mantle from weary-wise father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, his sonorous narration lending the film some classical, if improbably Welsh, gravitas from the get-go), smarmily winking to his mother (Rene Russo, in a sadly inconsequential return to the screen) at his coronation, and cheerily patronizing his sullen brother Loki (electric young Brit Tom Hiddleston), all in a manner that telegraphs a fall from grace sooner rather than later. Sooner it is, as he picks an ill-advised fight with Asgard’s self-explanatorily named enemies the Frost Giants—for cliquishness is next to godliness, apparently—and is duly exiled to Earth by his affronted pa.

All this business takes up a somewhat humorless half-hour of screen time, made additionally claustrophobic by wall-to-wall digital sets that alternate between the disappointingly Mattel-sheen opulence of Asgard, where even the Alexandra Byrne-created robes carry a Halloween-costume whiff, and the dank stalagmite playground of the Frost Giant lair – where the film’s otherwise superfluous 3D is at its most grayingly murky.

Branagh, already working commendably far from his Masterpiece Theater comfort zone, hasn’t quite the technical savoir-faire to make this kind of lurid spectacle soar, so the film hits terra firma in more ways than one when Hemsworth falls from the sky and into the car of Natalie Portman’s fortunate research scientist Jane. Needless to say, the story gets no less silly from this point, as Thor enters twin grudge matches with both his Asgard oppressors and the black-suited FBI agents who are standing in the way of Jane and her vaguely defined but presumably world-beating research. But as our increasingly flummoxed hero takes on the no-horse desert town of Puente Antiguo, the film hits a comfy comic stride that makes a virtue of Branagh’s penchant for arch theatricality.

The freakish self-possession that makes Thor a somewhat impenetrable presence above the clouds becomes wholly disarming below them: it’s hard not to love the guy who, in the film’s single most treasurable scene, marches into a pet store with the booming imperative, “I want a horse!” If anything, the film’s corral of screenwriters might have teased out these delusions a little longer before domesticating him; Thor takes to wearing snug Levis and whipping up scrambled eggs with amusing rapidity, all the better to hasten an appealing (if mythologically bewildering) romance with the untaxed but pleasingly game Portman.

Hemsworth, previously a less-than-distinct recruit in Hollywood’s curious mini-army of Nordic-featured Chrisses, deserves much credit for the film’s upswing here: as physically formidable as a mortal playing the God of Thunder is required to be, he nonetheless counters the hulkishness with spry comic timing and genial regard for his co-stars. It’s easy to imagine how a duller leading man could have scuppered the whole enterprise; this unexpected flash of star quality suddenly makes Joss Whedon’s upcoming superhero-soup movie “The Avengers,” in which Hemsworth reprises his Thor opposite the likes of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a more appetizing prospect.

The actors, in fact, are all on rather better form than the functional writing demands: Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård are dippy fun as Portman’s sidekicks, and if Hopkins is phoning it in as usual, he at least remembers to leave a message this time. Best of all is Hiddleston, a former collaborator with Branagh on stage and television, here acing his audition for the mainstream: though he plays Loki with the necessary dose of lascivious Bond-villain camp, there’s a weighty emotional acuity here that Branagh himself might have mustered 20 years ago.

Indeed, if “Thor,” with its eccentric split personality, ragged construction and hot-and-cold technical contributions, still emerges as fizzier, heartier and more generous than most comparable blockbusters cluttering the release schedule, the actorly empathy of its director may be what makes the difference. Fanboys reacted with some hostility when it was revealed Branagh would shepherd this Marvel property to screen —and in fairness, nothing he’d directed since 1996’s “Hamlet” automatically suggested he was to be trusted with any major mainstream project—but if his awkward handling of certain action and fantasy set pieces is unlikely to appease them, it’s refreshing to see a superhero picture that trades in human wit rather than lazy irony. It’s scarcely surprising, then, that this virtue is most apparent when the film remains earthbound: in this particular face-off of gods and men, the men have it.

[Images: Paramount Pictures]

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20 responses so far

  • 1 4-30-2011 at 7:35 am

    JJ1 said...

    For some strange reason, I feel like I’ll really dig this (and early clips/trailers from months ago weren’t impressive).

    Great write-up, Guy.

  • 2 4-30-2011 at 10:00 am

    Raj Himself said...

    I liked the performances quite a bit and I agree that the Earth bound and comic second act is the strongest of the film by quite a distance. As usual with these types of films a bit more character development would go a long way; Loki and Thor could have sustained more than one interesting scene.

  • 3 4-30-2011 at 10:23 am

    Maxim said...

    Yeah, those early trailers didn’t look like much but I’m pleasantly suprised by the reaction this film has been getting.

    And I’m sure Tom Hiddleston would be a much better Loki than Alan Cumming.

  • 4 4-30-2011 at 10:42 am

    Speaking English said...

    I don’t know anything about the “Thor” mythos, but doesn’t Asgard sound like a “Lord of the Rings” thing?

  • 5 4-30-2011 at 4:05 pm

    mrmcfall said...

    I’m really looking forward to this one, and it’s reassuring to know it was enjoyable enough.

  • 6 4-30-2011 at 8:05 pm

    Isaac Richter said...

    Saw it today, and it was a lot of fun. I laughed a lot, and yes, Chris Hemsworth is a very charismatic lead (I also love the effortless chemistry he has with Natalie Portman).

    I think my biggest problem with the film, however, was that I felt the film was constantly shifting Loki’s motivations. In the last act of the film, I did not know exactly what to make of Loki. What exactly did he want? I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I found a lot of the mini-reveals of his character’s plans really confusing. Yes, Tom Hiddleston was pretty good, but the writing of his character’s motivations needed work.

    Also, I thought this was going to bother me, but I thought Clark Gregg’s character was pretty well integrated into this film. You might remember his character from the Iron Man films, and the scene where they find the hammer as that scene at the end of the Iron Man 2 credits. By the way, it wasn’t the FBI that Thor was up against on Earth, it was SHIELD.

  • 7 4-30-2011 at 10:00 pm

    Fitz said...

    Branagh seemed like a perfect match for the material and this may be the biggest film of the summer for me (2nd to Tree of Life).

  • 8 5-01-2011 at 7:45 am

    tony rock said...

    Guy…how would you rank it among other comic-book adaptations? And how do you figure it’s remaining above 90% on RT when I think it’s obvious to most people that while it might be a good movie, it’s not Dark Knight good.

  • 9 5-01-2011 at 8:58 am

    Noecitos said...

    I’m new to the site so this question must seem a bit stupid but I’ll ask it anyways…
    How many stars is the top grade for a film? Four? Or Five?

  • 10 5-01-2011 at 10:26 am

    Loyal said...

    Thor exists for one reason and one reason alone, to introduce magic and goblins and other planets into Tony Stark’s movie universe. Thor is 100% perfunctory, it’s not innovative nor overly enjoyable. It simply exists and is not as bad as it could have been all things considered.

    Better than Iron Man 2 for sure but that’s also faint praise.

  • 11 5-01-2011 at 3:12 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Tony Rock: Like many people, you place too much stock in RT percentages. Remember that it’s merely a 50/50 system — a 90% score doesn’t necessarily indicate widespread enthusiasm so much as general inoffensiveness. As for your first question, I haven’t really thought about it in those terms — on the same level as Iron Man, I guess.

    Noecitos: Our highest grade is four stars.

    Loyal: Maybe so. But remember that there are many viewers, myself included, who aren’t that invested in the Marvel universe, for whom ‘Thor’ exists as a self-standing entity — and it works just fine on those terms.

  • 12 5-02-2011 at 1:53 am

    Fitz said...

    Guy, do you only do reviews for flicks like Thor during downtime? Or would you cover this even if it came out during the Oscar season?

  • 13 5-02-2011 at 3:39 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    It’s not a question of the season — my reviews are limited to what I can see here in the UK ahead of the US release date, which is why I don’t get to write as many as I’d like to.

  • 14 5-02-2011 at 3:25 pm

    Plainview said...

    #6- Well, Loki is known as the God of Lies. Him being completely honest about his motivations and not manipulating everybody wouldn’t quite fit the character.

    And my main problem was exactly something you mentions as a high point: the romance with Natalie Portman (which really looks and sounds a lot like Natalie Portman, shockingly) is extremely contrived and not belieable at all (even if she does look like Natalie Portman).

  • 15 5-02-2011 at 4:09 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    In the grand scheme of things, how believable can one expect a romance between a god and a New Mexico physicist to be?

  • 16 5-03-2011 at 8:36 am

    red_wine said...

    I would also give it 3 stars but out of 5.
    Its a decent little movie (if little applies :P), a fairly pleasant time spent at the multiplex and compared to some of the recent garbage that I’ve seen touted as blockbusters, this film is a relief and certainly qualitatively better than other blockbusters.

    It struck me more of an ensemble piece rather than a lead hero movie which might be a critique of Chris Hemsworth but he strikes me more like a character actor rather than a leading man. Sure he has the looks and biceps of an action lead star but the personality, charisma & depth of character is missing. Or perhaps that is just how the role was written.

    But a decent effort from all, for an unmemorable but entertaining film.

  • 17 5-07-2011 at 1:40 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Now that I’ve caught up with it, I gave this a read. I pretty much agree word for word. Safe (inoffensively so), a real ride, engaging performances. I might place it above Iron Man (which is nearly dismantled entirely by its limp third act).

    Fingers crossed Captain America is at least similarly acceptable, so we can go in to The Avengers expecting real synergy.

  • 18 5-11-2011 at 9:51 am

    God of Thunder said...

    The movie was not bad but it was not great either. For a supposedly all powerful God-like Hero, Thor doesn’t feel nor look that powerful in the movie.