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Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Thor" Loser

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is not entirely accurate, but I can't resist a gag. Thor actually earned a 78% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and a lot of users have been pretty enthusiastic about the film. As a non-comic book reader myself, I've nevertheless enjoyed many of the movies adapted from them, including Spider-Man I and II, most of the X-Men sequels, and offbeat entries like The Losers and Watchmen, and I'd have to put Thor in the middle. Serviceable but not spectacular, and I don't think it's going to have very long legs, as I think seeing it once will be enough for most everybody.

The plot is quickly laid out: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are Norse Gods, the sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and they all live in Asgard, one of nine worlds in the Norse universe also inhabited by Jotunheim, land of the Frost Giants, ancient enemies of Asgard. The film kicks off with an almost incomprehensible battle between Odin and the Giants, and I started to wonder if this was a Michael Bay film. But Odin defeats the Frost Giants, losing an eye in the process, and we're onto some expository scenes. Odin is back home with his two young sons, telling them that soon one of them will inherit his kingdom, but it's clear that he favors Thor. Hilariously, this scene reminded me of the prologue of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: Dad dotes on the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy while dark-haired Loki stands on the sidelines, fuming with jealousy.

Suddenly they're grown up, and Odin is in the process of transferring his kingdom to Thor, but the ceremony is interrupted by a surprise attack from the Frost Giants. Thor takes his valiant team of soldiers to Jotunheim to retaliate, infuriating Odin, who takes away his son's legendary hammer and banishes him into exile, hurling him into present-day New Mexico without his godly powers. The hammer also comes to earth, but it is lodged "Sword In the Stone"-style into a rock, and no one, not even Thor, can pry it out.

Enter Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, trying to shrug off her string of post-Oscar stinkers), an astrophysicist who has a habit of smashing into Thor with her RV. Her associates are Dr. Erik Sevig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (Kat Dennings). They've witnessed Thor's explosive appearance on earth, and Jane wants to know everything about it. They're bemused by Thor's grandiose proclamations, and Sevig, who is of Swedish descent, tries to persuade Jane that Thor is insane, describing worlds and myths he remembers from his childhood as though they were real.

Of course, Thor proves him wrong, and they become his allies, especially when the government agency from Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), pops up and confiscates all of Jane's research and equipment. Oh, and Loki takes the throne for himself and sets a villainous plot in motion involving the Frost Giants, and he comes to town to tell Thor that Dad is dead (he's not, just in Odinsleep) and that Mom (Renee Russo) doesn't ever want him to come back to Asgard (she does).

Then Thor's gang of warriors arrive (like the villains in Superman II, except they're the good guys) and they face off against a robotic creature controlled by Loki that looks like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still and can shoot flames out of its helmet. After some mayhem involving lots of cars blowing up really good, Thor speaks directly to Loki through the robot, offering himself as a sacrifice if his brother will spare everyone else.

His earnest plea cuts through the veil of Odin's sleep, and his powers, his hammer and his cool costume are restored to him. The battle commences, and that's pretty much what happens for the rest of the film, both on earth and back on Asgard.

I never thought I'd put Kenneth Branagh, Marvel Comics and 3D together in the same sentence, but there you have it. Branagh handles the action sequences pretty well, although the opening battle is shot so tight that you often can't tell what's going on. But it's the familial confrontations that allow him to bring his Shakespearean background to bear: Dad confronting Thor; Thor confronting Loki; broken-hearted Mother weeping over them all. The New Mexico sequences are less successful.

My audience was quite amused by Thor's "fish out of water" experiences in the small town, but I thought it was pretty cliched. And I didn't understand S.H.I.E.L.D.'s purpose, except to get in everyone's way. And they give up pretty easily, too—after Thor smashes up a bunch of doctors at a hospital and they take him prisoner, Sevig arrives at their compound with a phony story that Thor is an associate of his, showing them a mocked-up driver's license as proof, and they let him take Thor away!

Hemsworth (Star Trek) is suitably blond and athletic to portray Thor, and he brings some nice charm to the character. Hiddleston brings a dissolute impulsiveness to Loki's character, and Hopkins gives Odin a nice, bombastic energy, which makes for a refreshing change to the variations of Hannibal Lecter he's been doing for the past 20 years. Portman's performance is best described as "eager," while Skarsgard fulfills his perfunctory role effectively—no more, no less. Denning is the hip, wisecracking sidekick who makes a few jokes and then fades into the background.

The art direction and CG are effective and atmospheric, particularly during the sequences in Asgard and Jotunheim, but the filmmakers didn't seem as interested in the earthbound scenes. The New Mexico town looks like it's about a block and a half long, with a few storefronts and a drive-in restaurant that has been converted into Jane's lab, and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s makeshift compound looks like it was assembled from a bunch of Slip 'N' Slides. I saw Thor in 2D and I certainly didn't miss seeing the dark 3D conversion. The battle scenes in Jotunheim in particular would probably have been really hard to watch.

All in all, it's a moderately entertaining live-action adaptation of one of Marvel's lesser superheroes. It could even be considered to be a super-long trailer for the upcoming The Avengers, scheduled for a May 2012 release, which brings back most of the cast, throwing in Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) for good measure. It'll be interesting to see how they handle all of those superheroes and villains jostling for screen time.

Maybe The Avengers will be the first Marvel adaptation approaching the length of one of Peter Jackson's Ring epics.

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