Combustible Celluloid
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With: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Adriana Barraza, Maximiliano Hernandez, Richard Cetrone, Stan Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner
Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, based on a story by J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich, and on a comic book created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence
Running Time: 114
Date: 04/21/2011

Thor (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

If He Had a Hammer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Thor is the "directed by Kenneth Branagh" title card. Branagh is a talented, Oscar-nominated actor and director perhaps best known for his five cinematic Shakespeare adaptations (Hamlet, etc.), as well as other theatrically influenced films. He did venture into the pulp realm twice, once with his excellent thriller Dead Again (1991), and again when he adapted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994). So Thor is his first attempt at a film for boys, though it makes sense if you consider that the story comes from Norse mythology; Branagh probably did enough research to make his experience seem literary. Not to mention that the vibrant directing style that Branagh brought to his best films serves the new summer action movie remarkably well.

But then we move to the hero himself. I suppose it's asking too much to hope for the kind of rich, energetic performance that Robert Downey Jr. brought to Iron Man. Thor is a musclebound blondie; I never read very many Thor comics as a kid, but I remember him being a trifle serious, and never very much fun. He's certainly not sexy, but Hollywood of course pushes him in that direction. And so we get Chris Hemsworth, who is perhaps best known for his ten minutes of screen time as Kirk's dad in the Star Trek reboot. Hemsworth has muscles, and blue eyes to make the girls swoon, but beyond that he doesn't have much personality. Although at least this Thor smiles from time to time.

After a prologue, the story begins in Asgard, where Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are next in line for the throne. Their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is a wise king, and tries to teach them about how not to thirst for war, especially with their sworn enemies, the Frost Giants. After an unwarranted attack on Asgard, the hotheaded, arrogant Thor organizes an unauthorized counterattack, which leads to his banishment from Asgard.

He lands in New Mexico, where a pretty scientist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is studying atmospheric phenomenon. Unfortunately, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents turn up, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and take all her research. Thor vows to help her, but first he must retrieve his hammer, which is stuck in the ground nearby. Oh, and some giant, metallic creatures have also arrived.

Branagh creates a nice flow, with many dynamic angles, and clear, exciting fight scenes. He makes the most of his opposite locations: emphasizing the cross between the dark, colorful, heavily designed Asgard sets and the bright, wide-open New Mexico plains. There's one great sequence set inside a labyrinth of white, government-constructed tunnels -- much like the ones created around the ailing E.T. -- where Thor races through, beating up black-suited agents, trying to get to the center. The movie also enjoys some fish-out-of-water humor; for example, Thor tries to navigate an earthly hospital, a diner, and a parking lot, without much success.

Perhaps best of all, the movie manages to cook up believable character logic for most of the characters (even if Jane doesn't have much chemistry with the strange, blond pretty boy). Especially good is the characterization of Loki, who is far more interesting than he could have been. Rather than a cackling trickster bent on taking over the world, this Loki is a bit sad and tormented; clearly he loves his family and his actions come at a great personal cost. I hope we'll be seeing more of this character in the upcoming spinoff The Avengers. (Fans will already know to stick around for a post-credits teaser, but also keep an eye out for an A-list star in a tiny part.)

Meanwhile, Branagh can be proud of himself for turning in an upper-class summer (or pre-summer) entertainment.

Part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.

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