Hammer Time

The first of the big, summer blockbuster films, Thor explodes on the screen with the thunder of a god

It takes a big man to wield the hammer of Thor, God of Thunder. And going on looks alone, Chris Hemsworth is just the man to do it. Thankfully he brings more than just good looks and big muscles to the part.

Thor
Thor
(Photo by Zade Rosenthal)

Representing the first of the big, summer blockbuster films, Thor explodes on the screen and contains everything a film of its genre promises – super-heroic exploits, big explosions, a cheesy love story, and a plot just substantial enough to hold it all together.

Based on the Marvel comic book, Thor (Hemsworth) is the petulant child of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), destined to take the throne, even though his immaturity and desire to fight reigns supreme. When he disobeys his father, he reignites a feud with the Frost Giants and starts a war that could destroy his realm, Asgard.

As punishment, Odin banishes Thor to Earth and prevents him from reaching his trusty hammer, the source of his power. Immediately upon Thor’s unceremonious landing, he encounters a group of scientists, including the lovely Jane (Natalie Portman) and the fatherly Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), who are conducting some groundbreaking yet suitably vague research on atmospheric anomalies. When Earth is threatened by intergalactic mayhem, it’s up to Thor to save the day – and the solar system.

Yet behind this superficial plot, the real story lies in the evolution of a god who finds his humanity when all else has been lost. It’s a tale of hubris and ego, not unlike one of Shakespeare’s tales. There’s also royal family drama, complete with daddy issues and sibling rivalry. Think King Lear, Henry IV and Hamlet, all rolled into one.

Which is why it’s not so surprising that classically trained Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair. Co-writers Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne also manage to craft a script that, while far from erudite, is not dumbed down either.

There are two key factors to the successful bridging of these worlds – Hemsworth and Branagh. Hemsworth stumbles a little in transitioning from his home world to the more mundane setting of Earth, but his transformation from pompous child to hero is much smoother. Saddled with the inevitably corny lines that all comic book heroes must utter to their love interests, there’s enough twinkle in his eye to make sure it’s not too serious.

Similarly, Branagh makes sure the entire film is lighthearted. Rather than being too earnest (as with Spider-Man 3), Branagh embraces the clichés and uses them to his advantage. When a quartet of Thor’s friends walks down a typical Main Street USA, the locals stare in disbelief and make snide remarks. Just the type of welcome you’d expect from Middle America.

The characters surrounding Thor are, at times, equally compelling, most notably Odin, played with a commanding presence by Hopkins. He’s a force greater than the impressive Thor, and still able to shame his son. On the other side of the spectrum is Portman as Thor’s love interest. Supposedly a brilliant mind conducting cutting-edge research, Portman plays Jane as easily distracted and lacking real depth. It’s not so bad you want to take away her Oscar, but it’s about as far removed from Black Swan as you can get. (Actually, that would probably be No Strings Attached.)

By now a familiar face from other Marvel adaptations, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) shows up and helps move the plot forward. And, of course, legendary Marvel writer and creator Stan Lee has his five-second cameo.

While the plot has holes bigger than the wormhole that transports Thor from Asgard to Earth, it’s nothing that overly distracts from the enjoyment. And, comic book films are supposed to be pretty; fittingly, the special effects are well handled, and the fight scenes paint vivid pictures of the other worlds.

THOR
starstarstarstar
Starring
Chris Hemsworth,
Natalie Portman
Rated PG-13
114 Minutes
Opens May 6
Area Theaters

The primary complaint about the visuals is the needless conversion of the film to 3D. The effect is minimal – more often than not, it’s a box of cereal popping out at the audience as a product placement rather than something that enhances the experience. Speaking of product placements, Branagh could have been a little subtler – it’s all too obvious that Kashi cereal, Southwest Airlines, Acura, Bank of America, and 7-Eleven must be bankrolling this film.

Ultimately one can’t ignore the fact that Thor is one more step toward the eagerly awaited Marvel superhero-packed epic, The Avengers, due out next year. Helmed by Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedon, Thor will be joined by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the newest addition, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

Which is why, at times, Thor feels like an extended trailer and advertisement for another movie. But to only view Thor as necessary chapter-building toward something bigger would overlook a film that stands solidly on its own two feet.