The latest Marvel Comics superhero adaptation is an entertaining fantasy action film with some good performances. It has some issues, but not enough to keep it out of the winner’s circle.
After an impetuous attack on the Frost Giants, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished from Asgard by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Banished to Earth without his powers, Thor is taken in by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s initially skeptical of his claim to be an Asgardian prince. Meanwhile, Thor’s manipulative brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over Asgard, and his schemes threaten both Asgard and Earth. Can Thor regain his powers and defeat Loki?
Director Kenneth Branagh, best known for his Shakespeare adaptations (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) but also responsible for films like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sleuth, may initially seem like an unusual choice to direct a summer blockbuster, but he proves to be an excellent candidate. From the fantasy worlds of Asgard and Jotunheim to the small town New Mexico setting on Earth, he rather adeptly brings together the quasi-Shakespearean drama set in the former with the fish out of water action comedy set in the latter, while providing a suitable visual scope to both.
The screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz (Agent Cody Banks, X-Men: First Class) and Don Payne (My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), from a screen story by J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Changeling) and Mark Protosevich (The Cell, I Am Legend) isn’t always the most faithful to the comic book character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby, but it fits neatly into the Marvel Comics film universe established in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2.
The film confidently delivers fantasy, comedy, family conflict, and superheroics, but its story beats are predictable and it does fall apart just a bit in the third act, with major conflicts wrapped up too quickly. It sometimes feels more like a setup for The Avengers and Thor II than a resolution of its own story. Flawed, yes, but in the grand scheme of an otherwise entertaining two hours, it’s not a major issue.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Sleuth, Mamma Mia!) provides stellar lighting schemes that bring an epic visual style to the proceedings. Production designer Bo Welch (Batman Returns, Men in Black) and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Hamlet, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) are responsible for making real Asgard and its inhabitants, as well as Jotunheim and the more mundane realm of Earth. The score by Patrick Doyle (Hamlet, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is as stirring and at time bombastic as the story requires. The visual effects are top shelf all the way.
Chris Hemsworth, best known to international audiences for his small role as Kirk’s father in the Star Trek reboot, is perfect for the role of Thor. He not only looks the part, he acts the part. From arrogance to humility, from comedy to conflict, he makes his charismatic Thor a flesh and blood character. He’s a star in the making, holding his own in scenes with Anthony Hopkins.
If Hopkins no longer seems to throw himself into roles like he used to, he’s still a fine actor, and brings some veteran fireworks to his portrayal of Odin. As Marlon Brando did in Superman: The Movie, his mere presence elevates the scenes he’s in. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a manipulative schemer, but one motivated less by outright evil and more by jealousy. Hiddleston plays up the petty side of the character, and plays well off of Hemsworth and Hopkins.
The writers didn’t fully flesh out Jane Porter, but Natalie Portman is able to work with what she was given and deliver a steady performance as the love-struck scientist. It just feels like any actress could have been plugged into the role, it’s so generic. Kat Dennings, playing Porter’s assistant Darcy, steals just about every scene she’s in with her appeal and comedic knack.
Idris Elba is marvelous in limited screen time as Heimdall, the Asgardian sentry of the rainbow bridge. He brings a lot to the table with his body language, eyes, and voice. He’s supposedly under contract for sequels, so one can only hope he receives more screen time in them.
The rest of the cast includes Stellan Skarsgard as Erik Selvig, a colleague of Porter’s; Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants; Ray Stevenson as Volstagg; Tadanobu Asano as Hogun; Joshua Dallas as Fandral; Jaimie Alexander as Sif; Rene Russo as Frigga; Clark Gregg as SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (a role he previously handled in Iron Man and Iron Man 2); and Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton (aka the superhero Hawkeye). Thor’s co-creator Stan Lee has his usual Marvel film cameo and co-writer Straczynski appears as a townie. Samuel L. Jackson returns as SHIELD head honcho Nick Fury in a post-end credits scene (stay in your seat as the end credits roll or you’ll miss it) directed by Joss Whedon (setting up The Avengers for next year). Performances range from acceptable to good under Branagh’s direction. Stevenson, Asano, Dallas, and Alexander fall into the former category, although it must be noted that their characters are written as one note.
Thor thunders onto cinema screens as two hours of good entertainment, with visual style to spare and some good acting by the leads. It’s not going to redefine the superhero genre, but it’s no slouch, either.
[4 out of 5 stars]