Movie Review: Thor
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Audiences last saw actor Chris Hemsworth when he nearly walked away with the "Star Trek" reboot in the movie's first minutes. He played lantern-jawed George Kirk, who goes down with his ship and saves more than 800 lives, including his son James Tiberius. It was a brilliant way for the Australian actor to get a foothold in America. "Thor" will make him a star.
For much like that other Marvel Comics franchise, "Iron Man," what works about "Thor" has everything to do with the swaggering titular character and almost nothing to do the CGI that surrounds him. From his wide smile and actual godlike physique to his menacing glare and sharp comic timing, Hemsworth looks and acts born to swing Mjölnir.
Based on one of Marvel Comics perennial B-listers (the character itself a superheroization of ancient Norse myth), we are introduced to Thor as he crashes to Earth in a giant funnel cloud, only to immediately be hit by the car of slightly scatterbrained astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, totally harmless). Unfortunately, the mysterious government organization S.H.I.E.L.D. has been noticing her work as well.
At the scene of the accident, out hops Foster, her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård, there to be Scandinavian, mostly) and her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings, criminally underused). As they gaze at Thor, the movie jumps to Asgard, the world from which Thor has been ejected.
Asgard is a glittering dimension of purest CGI and is ruled by King Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor describes Asgard to Jane as so technologically advanced that science looks like magic, yet everyone sounds vaguely Shakespearean, and capes never went out of style. These ideas owe less to the mythology a primitive culture creates to sustain itself and more to surreal '80s cartoons such as "Thundarr the Barbarian" or the steroidy-looking "Masters of the Universe." (Thundarr? Anyone? Someone remembers.)
In Asgard, Thor is an arrogant brat, the heir to his father Odin's throne. He's the handsome frat guy who just won his student council presidency whom everyone happens to like despite it all. He is beloved, and he knows it. His boon companions are ciphers, but good in a fight.
But his combative earnestness makes him an easy mark for his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who manipulates Thor into crossing the Rainbow Bridge and attacking Jötunheimr, the land of the Frost Giants, with whom Odin has had a treaty. Faster than you can say "Benedict Odinson," Thor is exiled to boring old Earth. and Loki is on the throne.
Again, Hemsworth makes the very best of what could have been a showy mess. Save for a few well-executed jokes, "Thor" wisely sidesteps most of the fish-out-of-water possibilities and alternates between Thor's courtly good humor with Jane and dynamic fight scenes.
Which brings us to director Kenneth Branagh. Sure, he's known for Shakespeare, but here's the thing: "Thor" — the comic, the movie, whatever — was not actually written by the Bard. Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee was famous for his fauxspeare dialogue, especially in coming out of Thor's mouth.
Branagh probably has more than a little skill in getting that sort of thing to sound natural, but that doesn't quite make up for his deficiencies as an action director, such as wide shots that make our heroes look distinctly non-super. The best superhero action keeps the focus on combat tight — see also "the Dark Knight" or any given episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." One can imply "epic" without having to sweep the camera all over the place. ("Buffy" creator Joss Whedon has signed on to direct "The Avengers," which will bring all of these Marvel heroes together.)
And too many fight scenes trade needed comprehensibility for frantic action. This is especially true in icy blue Jötunheimr; directors need to compensate for the fact that 3-D glasses are tinted and remove a lot of brightness from the screen.
It's entirely possible "Thor" would pop more in two dimensions than three. This seems appropriate, given Thor's roots in four-colored newsprint and ageless campfire tales. Hemsworth gives the Thunder God all the spark he needs.