BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After impetuously attacking the Frost Giants on their home planet Jotunheim on the eve he is to ascend the throne of Asgard, Thor, the God of Thunder, is cast from the higher realms to Earth, where he becomes the defender of humanity.
PROS: Good cast, attractive design and good action sequences, all under director Kenneth Branagh’s deft hand.
CONS: Predictable script hampered by Kenneth Branagh’s too deft touch; rushed pace; feels more like a placeholder than an adaptation.
Good news from Asgard! Kenneth Branagh, whose last foray into the fantastic was the overblown and overwrought Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, does not follow in the footsteps of Ang Lee with the release of Thor, Paramount’s latest entry into the Marvel cinematic canon. Many comics fans may breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, avoiding Lee’s missteps with 2003’s Hulk means only that Branagh has avoided pop culture shipwreck, for Thor never attains the legendary status of the best comic book adaptations. In this, it actually compares to another iteration of the green gamma giant, Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk: enjoyable, fun, but ultimately slight. Not a bad place to be, but disappointing considering where it could have gone.
Part of the problem comes from Asgard itself. Though Branagh and his team of art directors render Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) home place with the breathtaking beauty of a Jack Kirby panel seemingly reimagined by science fiction cover artist Jim Burns, the golden castle walls and the walk to the Bifröst Bridge look as ephemeral as the bits that serve as their building blocks…a critique that fits far too many movies reliant on digital effects. A breathtaking vista painted with digital cotton candy must provide more. Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stenz and Don Payne understand this, fortunately, and try to provide more than eye candy. Branagh understands this too, and tries to get more from his actors than normal from a summer blockbuster, despite the story not giving them much to do.
The story? It begins in media res, when scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who, after her torturous performance in Aronofsky’s Black Swan, must have viewed a frothy return to genre with relief) and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), along with Foster’s assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) find him in the New Mexico desert. How he got there requires more extensive backstory: a thousand years ago, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) waged war on the Frost Giants from the planet Jotunheim to keep them from conquering the Nine Realms, ultimately seizing the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. Millennia pass, and the Frost Giants attempt to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters, interrupting Thor’s ascension ceremony, thus seemingly disrupting the tenuous truce between them. Thor, in a fit of pique, travels to Jotunheim with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Sif (Jamie Alexander) and the Warriors Three, where they do battle with the Frost Giants, only to be interrupted by Odin in the interest of saving the Asgardians. As punishment for Thor’s arrogance, Odin banishes Thor from the Nine Realms, stripping him of his powers and banishing him to Earth, along with his hammer Mjolnir, which serves as the source of his power, now only allowing the worthy to wield it.
And that’s just the backstory. The plot itself primarily involves introductions: Thor to Jane, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Political machinations in Asgard. Battles with the Destroyer. So much goes on, in fact, that the movie’s two-hour running time barely contains everything. Worse, the key plot elements turn out to be less interesting than incidental scenes: Thor eating a meal at a local diner, later drinking with Selvig, rednecks hitching their pickups to Mjolnir in an attempt to pull it out of its crater. Thor lives and breathes during these scenes, but suffocates during the primary action sequences.
Telling Thor‘s story also gives very little for the cast to do. Chris Hemsworth, buff and gorgeous, turns in a good performance as the title character, and will no doubt make more than a few women drool; this will be one of the few superhero movies in which women will attend screening in equal proportion to men. Portman, Skarsgard, Hopkins…a cast that promises riches, all perform well, but without much to do other than serve the plot.
Ultimately, Thor serves as little more than a placeholder for upcoming Avengers movie. It has moments of fun, and will certainly entertain, but never achieves the greatness it should, especially given the talent behind it. No matter. As superhero filler goes, it acquits itself well.