Thor - movie review
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Unlike some of his predecessors, in the hands of director Kenneth Branagh and star Chris Hemsworth, Stan Lee's most godly son is a welcome addition to the cinematic superhero pantheon.
Having brought war to the peaceful realm of Asgard, the cocky Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished to Midgard (otherwise known as Earth) by his furious father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), despite the best calming efforts of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). In banishing his son, Odin casts a spell upon Thor's hammer, Mjölnir, so that it will only impart its powers on a worthy bearer.
In other words, Thor has to go and think long and hard about what he's done.
There's plenty of time to do that on Earth, where he meets - i.e. is nearly run over by - Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist who has been investigating electrical storms in New Mexico. Soon enough the S.H.I.E.L.D suits (led by Clark Gregg as the perfectly smarmy Agent Coulson from both Iron Man installments) are on his case, too.
As if that wasn't enough for an off-duty Norse god to deal with, Loki assumes the throne in Asgard and creates havoc in both realms. He invites the Frost Giants, hungry for vengeance, across the Bifröst into Asgard, sends The Destroyer (seemingly the love child of a radiant heater and Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still) to Earth, and Thor soon has his work cut out for him.
It's a tidy story arc, as these origin/reboot films tend to be, but Thor never feels underfed, thanks to an impressive cast, a snappy script and thoughtful direction from Kenneth Branagh.
When he was announced as director (after Matthew Vaughan dropped out), Shakespeare expert Branagh must have felt like an odd fit in many comic fans' eyes, but in fact he brings a reverence for the source material that is compelling.
After all, what are comic books if not epic mythic narratives? Superhero stories have more in common with the work of The Globe's finest than many would like to admit: tragedy, comedy, pathos. And Thor, blessed additionally with its grounding in the great Norse myths, perhaps has even more in common.
Hemsworth is wonderful as the hero, effortlessly traversing Thor's journey from magical jock douche to someone more worthy of Mjölnir's powers.
Much is made, by Odin and others, of Thor's being little more than a hot-headed "boy", and Hemsworth finds the perfect mix of youthful arrogance and childlike innocence.
Without infantilising him (which, let's face it, would be a fairly stupid actorly choice given his physical appearance), Hemsworth gives Thor a vulnerability that is appealing. When Loki appears at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base to inform his brother of the terms of his banishment, Thor's eyes well with tears and he asks only, "Can I come home?" It's simple and moving.
Hiddleston is terrific as Loki, a slimy, super-powered version of Shakespeare's Edmund. Like that (literal) bastard, Hiddleston's Loki is a curiously sympathetic antagonist, never falling into caricatured evil.
As Jane Foster (a nurse in the comics, updated here to an astrophysicist), Portman is sparky and appealing; her scenes with Stellan Skarsgård (as her colleague, Erik) and Kat Dennings (as the deadpanning intern, Darcy) have a breezy, natural rhythm.
The cast is so uniformly strong that it would take too much space to praise them all individually, but in particular, The Wire's Idris Elba is imposing as gatekeeper Heimdall, Anthony Hopkins underplays (uncharacteristically) as the alternately mournful and hot-blooded Odin, and there's a nifty pre-Avengers cameo for Jeremy Renner as an unnamed Clint Barton/Hawkeye.
Too often there seems to be a desire among filmmakers to look askance at comic book lore, as though they need to cram in as many winking gags as possible to say to the bro dudes in the audience, "Hey, don't worry dudes, we made this for you, not those Poindexters down the comic shop."
To his credit, Branagh avoids this, though not at the expense of fun; indeed, Thor is frequently hilarious, but the humour comes from a genuine affection for the occasionally silly tropes of the comic books, not misguided "irony".
(A sequence in which a parade of local rednecks use Thor's buried hammer as a strength-tester to the tune of Billy Swan's I Can Help is particularly fun.)
One of the few weaknesses of the film is the skipping back and forth between Earth and Asgard. Just as the action in either realm gets on a roll, it's back to the other.
At times, the Asgard sequences teeter on the brink of unwatchable, not because they are bad, but because there is so much to see that your eyes begin to short-circuit.
The Bifröst by itself? Fine! A shimmering ocean? Cool! Awesome castles? Why not! Throw them all together in 3D and the legendary realm is such a smorgasbord of visual riches it almost cancels itself out. It's a testament to Branagh and his creative team, however, that within that "almost" lie some of the most impressively realised vistas in recent memory.
(The 3D cinematography is used unobtrusively and serves to be more immersive than flashy.)
In many ways, and despite its awe-inspiring visuals, Thor feels like a film out of its time; it almost has more in common in with the rollicking adventures of the 1930s and '40s than the hip superhero reboots of the 21st century.
That mood is reflected in a variety of ways. The frost giants, led by Colm Feore as Laufey, are predominantly played (at least in close-up) by actual actors in makeup, which is a relief - there's something so much more satisfying about a villain who isn't just a computer construct.
Under Branagh's guiding hand, Thor and his band of friends - Sif and the Warriors Three - carry on like Errol Flynn-era heroes, clapping each other on the shoulder in greeting and over-emoting just enough to set them apart from us mere Earthlings. It's charming.
More broadly, though, Thor has a real emotional depth - it's unusually soulful for a superhero film. Yes, Christopher Nolan's Batman efforts had a similar sensitivity, though it came from a darker and, thus, ultimately less interesting place; Thor is more bittersweet. There's a hopefulness to the film, particularly its ending, that verges on elegiac.
The inevitable Avengers film (expected in 2012) has given the most recent individual origin films an episodic quality, but where Iron Man 2 suffered for that - and one suspects the upcoming Captain America will also - Thor avoids feeling like a placeholder. Instead of leaving the cinema irritated, unwilling to wait for his next adventure, you feel buoyed.
A winning blend of thrill and feeling, respect and irreverence, Thor lifts Marvel's movie stocks considerably.
Your move, DC.
- Four stars
Thor opens in cinemas on Thursday, April 21.
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