Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba 
Running Time: 114 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Even if writing Thor off as a complete waste of time is probably something I should wait on doing until officially viewing The Green Lantern or Captain America: The First Avenger, the fact still remains that it's pretty underwhelming. It's yet another 2-hour commercial for Marvel Studios, who still seems more interested in promoting their other superhero properties than focusing on the task at hand. At this rate, considering the amount of time and effort they've spent promoting next year's The Avengers, that movie could turn out to be the second coming of The Dark Knight and no one outside its core fanbase would even care since it's been shamefully shoved down our throats for three years. They're at it again here, indulging in silly clues and distracting cameos. It's a big misstep, but hardly the worst of Thor's problems. Not when you have a sleep-inducing backstory for the protagonist, an overabundance of distracting CGI effects and a charisma deficient villain. Things get a little better once the story starts to play out and at least the most prominent role is well cast, but Marvel really needs to get its act together moving forward. As a mix of action-comedy and fantasy, Thor's somewhat original in its approach, but a disappointment just the same.

Most of the first hour is spent on Thor's origin story, and it's a drag. Information that could have easily been dispensed via voiceover or even a brief flashback over the opening credits feels like it's given nearly half the running length of the movie, in addition to those voiceovers and flashbacks. I understand the desire to give a detailed backstory so we care and it's commendable (it definitely worked for Christopher Nolan in Batman Begins), but the problem is that Thor's is silly. It's a weird and not entirely successful mix of mythology and comic books, with a Shakespearean style family feud thrown in for good measure. That the director is Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh explains a lot, as does the presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins as King Odin of Asgard, father to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). When the quick-tempered Thor stages an attack against Laufey, the Frost Giant King, breaking a long-standing peace agreement, Odin banishes his arrogant son to Earth. He's discovered in the New Mexico dessert by scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). As he adjusts to life on Earth S.H.I.E.L.D agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is brought in to investigate, while back on Asgard Loki looks to benefit from his older brother's misfortune, scheming his way to the throne.

The scenes on Earth work much better than those on Asgard, if only because there are some decent comic moments with Thor trying to get used to life in 21st century America and Hemsworth's performance, while not as spectacular as everyone's been claiming, is solid. He looks the part and has surprisingly decent comic timing so it's difficult coming up with alternative actor choices that could have worked any better. Hemsworth (known primarily for his brief role as Captain Kirk's father in 2009's Star Trek) does what he can with the material he's given, even if there's no escaping the fact that a lot of the lighter Earth-bound scenes contrast in tone to the mythological fantasy nonsense it's interspersed with. Hiddleston's Loki comes off as more of a whiner with daddy issues than any kind of serious threat and the intended love connection between Thor and Portman's Jane falls flat and feels thrown together and underdeveloped. If they really wanted to go in that direction it would have been better to eliminate Skarsgard and Denning's characters to narrow the focus on Jane, but considering Denning delivers the film's best one-liners, she may have been indispensable. Given how much she's improved as an actress over the past few years, it's a shame to see Portman take on such a thankless role, but a relief that it likely would have been just as forgettable in anyone else's hands.

On the plus side, he involvement of S.H.I.E.L.D.(Avengers plug #1) Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson wasn't quite as distracting as I expected, but still kind of insulting when you realize we haven't been made to care about Thor to begin with.  As for the inevitable Samuel L. Jackson cameo (Avengers plug #2) as Nick Fury, it at least takes place after the film, avoiding the nightmare that occurred at the end of The Incredible Hulk a couple of years ago when a huge, showboating cameo in the final scene nearly upstaged the entire picture, pissing on the title character for the sake of promoting you know what. But there is a cameo during this film from an Oscar nominated actor (Avengers plug #3) that I won't reveal, but that I had to check what character he was and why he was there probably doesn't bode well for the impact it had, at least for more casual viewers who actually want to see a movie about Thor.

Over the closing credits there's actually a message (Avengers plug #4) reminding viewers to "See Thor in The Avengers." Thanks for the heads up. I'm willing to bet most of the people reading this review (and many others) don't even know what The Avengers is. If Marvel really wanted to promote that film a good start would have been to make this one as good as possible so we'd actually look forward to seeing Thor in it. This does some things right, but there's this inescapable feeling of it being just a teaser for something else, which isn't okay since that's what trailers are for. All movies are made to make money, but I shouldn't be able to tell that while watching them and those decisions shouldn't adversely affect the product on screen. The downside in the entertainment industry to the economic crisis is that everyone's playing it safe, not looking how they can creatively improve the movie they're working on, but promote the next one they haven't gotten to yet. And that, despite some inspired direction by Branagh, is the main problem with Thor. It feels like it exists to generate revenue for the studio rather than excitement for audiences watching it.

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