Thor

I suppose the summer movie season started last week with Fast, the fifth installment in the Fast and Furious series. Since I hadn’t seen any of the previous ones, I skipped it. The reviews for it have been intriguing. It’s clearly going to be a superhero summer, however, with no less than three new tentpoles going up and an interesting retro take on the X-Men by a proven director.  And that’s not to mention Cowboys and Aliens, which is based on a graphic novel and probably some projects I’m forgetting. Throw in the final Harry Potter movie and I’d say it’s already a better summer than last year’s anemic season.

First up is Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, based on the Marvel comic, which is loosely based on Norse legend.

The tone of these things has always been an issue for me. I whined for a long time that I wanted to see grit, a superhero movie that felt like The French Connection. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are, I think, as close to that as we’re liable to get and they are triumphs. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with Superman. But after seeing Brian Singer’s X-Men and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, I believe that those two have hit on the approach that will work most of the time.  It is a respectful treatment, not campy or juvenile, and it takes the subject seriously, paying attention to theme and the emotional depth of the characters. And yet they aren’t exactly realistic. The powers of the heroes are either magical, as in the case of Thor, or based on unrealistic science as in X-Men or Iron Man. Plus the plots are more melodrama than drama. In short it is the same approach as you will find in most comic books.

You probably couldn’t make a hard as nails procedural Thor movie. Having the Norse God of Thunder solving street level crimes is just too ridiculous. Thor also has the same problem as Superman in that he’s just too powerful for your average perpetrator. You have to bring in super-powered megalomaniacs like Loki, Thor’s brother, played by Tom Hiddleston, to present him with worthy adversaries. A higher, almost epic tone is called for.

In this universe Thor and the other Asgardians are beings from another dimension who are able to travel between these realms, as they call them, by means of a wormhole. Centuries ago, they came to this realm and interacted with the Norsemen, giving rise to their mythology.

Works for me.

Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, is the arrogant son of the leader of the gods Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins. On the day of his official recognition as Odin’s heir, a team of Frost Giants breaks into the armory of Asgard and tries to steal back a casket that is the source of their power. They’d lost the casket in a war centuries ago. The attack is stopped but Thor, eager to prove himself in war, leads his friends into Jotenheim, the realm of the Frost Giants, and tries to extract revenge.  This action starts a devastating war. As punishment Odin strips Thor of his powers and exiles him to Midgard, which is our realm. It turns out, however, that Odin has to enter into some kind of coma like sleep every once in a while and he’s been putting it off until he’s sure that his heir can act wisely as an interim leader. So when he falls into it against his will, it is especially deep and they are not sure he’ll recover. Loki, ever jealous of Thor, assumes the throne and tries to make sure his brother’s exile is permanent.

What Branagh hath wrought here (if I may be permitted the use of some high-falutin’ language in the spirit of the subject matter) is a standard comic book adventure. It gets bogged down at the beginning with the necessity of relating the origin and once it gets going its serviceable.  There are touches of humor, which flirt with campiness, but never cross the line and all in all it’s a pretty fluffy treatment of a comic book character who can be pretty heavy at times. The dialog is not written in Shakespearean English like the comic book, but the Asgardians do tend to speak in a more formal manner.

The performances are fine. Hemsworth is convincing during the early haughty scenes and then later uses his bluff Australian charm to show Thor’s growing humility. I like that they show Thor as a bit of a carouser here, which is a little closer to the myths. I haven’t read the comic in a long time, but when I did read it, Thor was a bit too noble.

You really can’t argue with Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is genuinely torn by his loyalty and his ambition. It’s a pretty good performance. Natalie Portman is not given much to do as Jane Foster, a physicist studying wormholes who finds the newly exiled Thor in the desert.

The effects are pretty and seamless but that’s not as impressive a feat as it once was. I guess I’m becoming jaded.

Thor is a good, but not great start to the summer.

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