Back in 2006, when comic book giant Marvel first made the decision to self-finance and self-produce films based on its mammoth library of colorfully-clad do-gooders, it was easy to arch a furrowed, skeptical brow. They're willing to bet the farm on a big budget movie about Iron Man? Really? After all, here was a character who'd traditionally occupied the second-tier even when his title sold well, and it's not like he had the marquee value of a Spider-Man or a Hulk, right?
Well, one Robert Downey and two Iron Man movies later, we all know how big Marvel's gamble paid off. It tells you something that we're now at the point where we're talking about a Thor movie, arguably a much, much bigger risk for the studio, and yet my eyebrow remains blissfully un-furrowed. Yep, they've done it again.
For those unfamiliar with the character's comic book background, Marvel's Thor is the Thunder God of Norse myth, hailing from the otherworldly realm of Asgard, who protects Midgard -- Earth, to you and me -- with the aid of Mjolnir, a magic mallet forged from the mystic metal Uru. Now, just reading over that, it strikes me that a) I'm so much of a comic nerd that I didn't bat an eye at any of it (the 1980s Thor run by writer-artist Walter Simonson -- newly-collected in a really expensive hardcover -- remains one of my all-time faves), and b) the folks at Marvel had a pretty big challenge ahead of them in not only adapting Thor to the screen in a way that wasn't ridiculous, but also such that it could co-exist comfortably within the world established in the Iron Man flicks (as well as 2008's Incredible Hulk). And on both these fronts Thor succeeds quite admirably.
This is a master class in brand management, humming with the cool confidence that can only come from a studio that's danced this jig already and knows all the beats. The first masterstroke was in hiring Kenneth Branagh to direct, bringing all his Shakespeare-honed sensibilities to bear and lending this story of gods & men and fathers & sons immediate credibility beyond the four-color crowd. The second was the selection of actor Chris Hemsworth in the title role.
Hemsworth, whose most prominent role to date likely came in his brief turn as Jim Kirk's doomed pappy in 2009's Star Trek, is as much of a revelation here as Downey was in Iron Man, playing the role with humor, pathos, and charisma to spare. Also revelatory is Tom Hiddleston, who lends complexity and nuance to Loki, the God of Mischief who is Thor's brother and arch-foe. Both actors imbue larger-than-life characters with human foibles, lending their conflict greater resonance.
Even the story -- about the arrogant Thor being cast out of his immortal realm to live on Earth as a mortal until he can learn humility -- has a comfortable familiarity to it. We instinctively know the basic narrative beats that need to be satisfied to get Thor from zero to hero, and while there are a few surprises, there aren't many. But far from being a debit, this instead speaks to how well the Marvel shop has perfected its craft when it comes to readying a new franchise for launch.
The film methodically caroms from setpiece to setpiece, grounding it first in the real world by introducing the title character through the eyes of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, having a whole lot more fun here than in all three Star Wars prequels), then ricocheting into the magical mystical stuff via some helpful narration from the all-seeing All-Father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who can do this kind of thing in his sleep -- which he does for a good chunk of the movie).
There's a very delicate tightrope at work here requiring us to buy into the fantasy elements that ground the first act enough that we'll accept it when it intermingles with our own world in the second and third. That's no easy feat, and by the time we see a clutch of Thor's fellows walking down a New Mexico street in full Asgardian regalia, it has the very real potential to be as laughable as a Roger Corman flick (or 1987's Masters of the Universe, which did something very similar), but it never is. Part of this can be chalked up to the terrific supporting cast that Branagh assembled, with his motley cast of gods including once-and-former Punisher Ray Stevenson, Jamie Alexander, and Idris Elba (whose selection was the subject of some controversy, you may recall), but it can also be attributed to the production's absolute conviction in itself -- playful and portentous in equal measure. Branagh lets the small moments breathe, which in turn makes the big moments bigger.
Is Thor perfect? No. There are definite times when the effects don't feel as fully "there" as the producers no doubt hoped (the decision to post-convert to 3D is probably a net neutral -- neither an Airbender-level mess, nor an Avatar-level success). Also, Patrick Doyle's score, while functional enough, lacks the scope and sweep you'd hope a project like this would be infused with. And the third act does feel a bit rushed in its need to not only resolve the primary conflict, but also set up the status quo for next summer's Avengers opus, with all the requisite winks, nods, and cameos (make sure you stick around after the credits!) you'd expect. These are small complaints, though.
If Thor isn't necessarily a homerun, it's an extremely solid base hit, effectively extending the goal posts of what to expect in this universe without ever shattering our suspension of disbelief, and standing firmly on its own as a rollicking entertainment and welcome entrĂ©e to the summer season. B+
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