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Although Thor doesn’t come close to equalling some of the amazing super-hero films we’ve been blessed with over the past several years (the first Iron Man, which kicked off this current run of inter-connected Marvel films, The Dark Knight, the first two X-Men films, and the first two Spider-Man films), it is a WAY better film version of the character of Thor and his mythos than I EVER would have imagined possible.

Despite by being a huge comic book fan and a Marvel Zombie since I was a kid, I never read the Thor comic regularly.  I always thought Thor was great as part of the ensemble of The Avengers, but his solo title never captured my interest.  And when Marvel announced, after the huge success of Iron Man, that they were working on a film version of Thor (as part of a series of films that would build up to The Avengers), I was dubious.  The recent Marvel films had worked so well in large part because they were fairly grounded.  Sure, Iron Man wound up with two guys in huge metal suits punching each other, but the filmmakers and the actors took pains to ground the story in the real world (and to give the characters human, real-world motivations and emotions).  I think that was a big part of the film’s success.  Same goes with the Spidey films and the X-Men films (which, for example, cast off most of the more colorful aspects of the comics — like the yellow spandex costumes).

But Thor? The Thor comic books are all about a big guy who is ACTUALLY A NORSE GOD and speaks in archaic language (a lot of “thees” and “thous”) and who has crazy adventures with other gods or god-like characters.  How could that possibly be achieved in a film that wouldn’t feel painfully small-scale (without the budget or the resources to properly achieve the epic scale of Thor’s cosmic adventures as seen in the comics) and/or feel totally ridiculously silly.

And yet, somehow, director Kenneth Branagh managed to pull off a film that, for the most part, works really well and is enjoyable both as a film in its own right and as a key stepping-stone towards The Avengers.  This is an impressive achievement and a pretty fun time at the movies!

As with Iron Man, the film’s biggest success lies in it’s casting.  There are other things that one can pick at about Thor (and I will of course do so momentarily), but I think the casting is pretty much spot-on perfect.  Chris Hemsworth (so great as James T. Kirk’s doomed dad in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) is tremendous as Thor.  He looks the part (the guy is HUGE!!), he sounds the part (the timbre of his voice and his accent are great), and he has the acting chops to carry the film on his broad shoulders.  Mr. Hemsworth pours his charisma and his believability into all of his scenes in a way that carries us through even those moments that are rather thinly written (such as his burgeoning romance with Natalie Portman, but we’ll get to her in a minute).  I would happily watch Mr. Hemsworth’s Thor in a whole series of movies (which is obviously what Marvel would like!).

Equally great is Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s brother Loki.  I really love Mr. Hiddleston’s work in the film — it’s smooth and restrained in a way that makes him into a menacing villain and a credible threat to his brother Thor.  There’s no moustache-twirling here, and no scenery chewing, and that’s critical to the performance’s success.  Loki is all about manipulation, and about hiding his true feelings and plans, and Mr. Hiddleston does a great job at keeping his cards very close to his chest.  There are several moments in the film where I thought Mr. Hiddleston would step over that line and into cackling super-villain land, but he always resisted.  My compliments!

Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, the scientist who discovers Thor when he finds himself exiled to earth, powerless, by his father Odin Allfather.  Marvel was wise to cast someone as likable as Ms. Portman in the role, because she’s somehow able to keep us engaged with a character who, really, has no character whatsoever.  She’s a token love-interest and a narrative device to help Thor to learn a lesson about valuing the lives of others, but we don’t get to know anything more about her than that.  We’re given the barest hints that she’s been studying something that might be in some way connected to learning of the existence of the realm of Asgard, but we don’t really see her get to be an intelligent scientist at any point in the film.  She’s more believable a brainiac than, say, Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough, but that’s solely due to Ms. Portman’s gravity as an actress, rather than any actual characterization given to her in the film.  And although her falling truly, deeply in love with an apparently delusional man who claims to be the Norse God of Thunder isn’t quite as crazy as her falling in love with a bratty, annoying Jedi Knight who has admitted to her his support of fascism as well as an act of brutal mass-murder, it’s pretty close!  I give great credit to Ms. Portman and Mr. Hemsworth for somehow keeping their love story from being laugh out-loud silly.

Kat Dennings brings a lot of fun energy to another pretty one-dimensional role in her performance as Darcy, Jane’s dim but jovial assistant, as does Stellan Skarsgard as Jane’s mentor.  (And supervisor?  Though Mr. Skarsgard’s character, Eric, speaks at one point of how he knew Jane’s father, the film never really clarifies what role Erik plays in Jane’s work.  Are they partners in Jane’s projects?  Just friends helping one another out?  Is he a professor evaluating her work?  Unclear.)

I also must lavish a lot of praise on the casting of the Asgardians.  The clear stand-out is The Wire‘s Idris Elba as the all-seeing Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge that connects Asgard to Earth and the other realities of the “Nine Realms.”  Mr. Idris’ great voice (assisted by some heavy modulation), enormous presence, and a really funky costume combine to create a really fascinating, compelling character.  There’s a lot of Heimdall in the film, but I would have loved to have seen even more.

Although I was never a huge fan of the Thor comics, I of course know of his comrades-in-arms The Warriors Three, so I was thrilled to see them included in the film.  They don’t have a lot to do, but they’re fun to see.  (And they did a great job with Volstagg — he’s big and with an enormous appetite, but not unbelievably corpulent as he’s sometimes drawn in the comics.)  Even better was the depiction of Sif (Jamie Alexander), a character I never felt I got to know that well in the Thor comics I read but who I found really fascinating in this film.  If there’s a sequel, I’d love to see more of Sif, and to learn more about her relationship with Thor.  (There’s a moment towards the very end of the film that hints at something between her and Thor that I’d love to see explored further in future films.)

Then, of course, at the top of the Asgardian food chain is Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Rene Russo as his wife Frigga.  It’s great to see Rene Russo back on-screen, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well she fit in to the Asgardian world.  (I’d been worried that she had too “contemporary” a feel as an actress to mesh well with the mythical Asgardian stuff.)  Anthony Hopkins plays everything BIG as Odin but, hey, Odin is the ruler of all the gods, so it works!  It’s an over-sized performance, but a ton of fun to watch.  Odin has a much larger role to play in the film’s events than I’d expected, and that was a pleasant surprise.

The over-all look of Thor is very strong.  There is a LOT of CGI in the film, and some of it is more successful than others.  I quite liked the over-all design of Asgard and the frozen world of Jotunheim (home of the Frost Giants), even if sometimes the CGI effects used to execute those sequences left something to be desired.  I tend to think that, in particular, the large crowd scenes on Asgard and Jotunheim were weak.  But I really dug the look of the sets and the costumes — they were very fantastical and crazy, but they were able to stay JUST on the right side of the line between fantastical and silly.  Asgard is all bright, primary colors.  It’s simplistic, but it works.  I thought the costumes, in particular, were really terrific — they captured the essences of the Asgardians from the comics (who have been drawn many different ways by many different artists, which must have complicated matters for the filmmakers) and felt regal but also effective as suits of combat.  And while the designs had a unified sense that gave all of the gods’ outfits a clear connection as Asgardian attire, every god’s outfit was different enough as to be a real aid in helping to differentiate each character from the others.

I absolutely adored the execution of the Rainbow Bridge.  Again, this is something I never in my wildest dreams ever expected to see realized in a live-action movie, but I was dazzled by the Rainbow Bridge and the Bifrost.  It’s a gorgeous fusion of classic imagery from the comics with some inventive, cinematic new ideas.  Really super-cool.

In many ways, the narrative of Thor is a much bolder one than I’d expected.  I’d written at the start of this review about my fear that the film’s story would be small-scale, as a way of pulling this movie off on a reasonable budget.  I figured we’d just get a few glimpses of Asgard, amd that much of the film would take place in the small desert town where Thor finds himself after being cast out of Asgard.  But as I just noted, I was very pleased that a HUGE chunk of the film’s story takes place in Asgard and Jotunheim.  After the opening, the film’s story shifts to Asgard and we stay there for a good long while… and even after Thor is exiled, we keep cutting back to Asgard to keep up with the action there even while watching Thor’s misadventures as a powerless human on Earth.

Yes, there is some cartoonish CGI and some moments when the live-action actors are not well integrated with their CGI-enhanced environments, but you know, this didn’t wind up bothering me all that much.  I love that Thor is a film that swings for the fences, and that felt free to set lengthy chunks of the story off-planet.  I’d rather a film like that which has to rely on some imperfect visual effects (in order to execute the cosmic story without costing a bajillion dollars) FAR more than a film that decides it can’t possibly execute the cosmic stuff so cuts all that out and takes place entirely on a small, Earth-bound scale.

I’ve been tugging at some of the weaknesses of the plot throughout this review, and the simplicity of the film’s story is certainly the film’s biggest weakness (as is sadly often the case in so many large-spectacle films these days).  There are no moments that are terrible, and there are no embarrassing attempts at camp or unfunny comic relief (most of the scenes that are meant to be funny are, actually, funny!) or unearned schmaltzy emotion.  But neither is the film’s story that sophisticated, and the characters all remain pretty one-dimensional.  I was thrilled that both Thor and Loki have pretty strong character arcs through the film (both characters wind up in very different places, emotionally, at the end of the film than they were at the beginning), but I doubt it would take any adult audience member that long to be able to figure out exactly where each character’s story is going in the film.  There are no surprises.  And, as I noted above, the romance between Thor and Jane is pretty weak.  Again, there’s nothing painful to watch, but neither is the romance that interesting (or at all believable).

I was also a bit bugged by the portrayal of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the film.  On the one hand, it’s awesome that S.H.I.E.L.D. had so much to do in the film, and it’s great to see the deadpan Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) again (he appeared in both Iron Man films).  On the other hand, he comes off as pretty clueless in the film.  In the tease at the end of Iron Man 2, he seemed to know exactly what Thor’s hammer was all about, and yet in this film when he first interrogates Thor he starts asking him if he’s a mercenary from Afghanistan or Pakistan.  I’d rather that Coulson and the S.H.I.E.L.D. characters were AHEAD of the audience, rather than way behind us.  I’m also unclear as to how secret or public S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be in this Marvel movie universe.  Coulson introduces himself as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Jane Foster as if that’s supposed to mean something to her, but she says she’s never heard of S.H.I.E.L.D..  It doesn’t surprise me that this agency monitoring super-human activity would be keeping a low profile, and so this young scientist wouldn’t know what the heck they are — but if S.H.I.E.L.D. is a secret agency, why does Coulson keep blurting out the agency’s name?  I’m confused.

Then there’s the mid-movie guest appearance of a character from The Avengers.  I’m going to avoid spoiling this character’s reveal, in case anyone out there hasn’t heard about this crossover.  I will echo, though, the comments made in many other reviews of Thor that I’ve read: that it’s disappointingly obvious that this character’s shots were filmed long after the rest of that sequence, because he doesn’t interact on-screen with any other characters, and ultimately he just stands around and does nothing.  (I mean, really, if you’re going to bother including this character, than HE should have been the one to take down Thor when he tried to infiltrate the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility to retrieve his hammer, right?)

Far, far stronger is the tantalizing post-credits scene.  (Surely you all know by now to stick around after the credits at all of these Marvel movies, right??)  None of these post-credits teases will ever top the fantastic shock of seeing Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man, with his talk about the “Avengers Initiative” being a tantalizing promise of amazing future film adventures to come.  But after the disappointment of Iron Man 2′s post-credits tease (which was a super-obvious and expected tease for Thor), Thor’s post-credit’s tease was quite a surprise, very mysterious (to be honest, I was a bit confused as to what exactly was going on, as suddenly we’re forced to re-evaluate a familiar character’s loyalties — I really hope this is further explored in future films), and features an awesome, I never-thought-I’d-see-it-in-a-movie appearance of a classic (but very out-there) Marvel Comics item.  (I’m trying to be vague here so as not to spoil this for anyone!!)

This review is getting very lengthy (I could talk about these comic book movies FOREVER!), so I’ll wind down by commenting that I saw Thor in 3-D, but I wasn’t that impressed.  I found a lot of the action difficult to follow, and in particular I thought the lengthy early fight-scene with the Frost Giants was nearly impossible to make out.  This was not only because the fast-moving action was dizzying in 3-D, but also because the image was too dim to be able to see what was going on clearly.  I’ve read that a common problem with 3-D is that the image isn’t bright enough to really pop in the 3-D, and that was definitely a problem with this Frost Giant fight.  I’d be really interested to see Thor again in regular 2-D, to see what I thought of it.  I think many of these sequences might actually be better in 2-D.

Marvel’s march towards The Avengers continues, and my excitement continues to build.  This multi-film conglomeration is one of the boldest film experiments I can remember, and I am jazzed.  Thor always seemed to me like Marvel’s biggest hurdle on the way to The Avengers, and I’m thrilled that Mr. Branagh and his team pulled the film off so well.  I am super-pumped for the second half of Marvel’s summer double-feature when Captain America: The First Avenger opens in July!

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