Thor (***)

A new franchise is born and a new star has arrived in "Thor"...

One of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2011, “Thor” arrives with a lot riding on its well-defined shoulders. For starters, “Thor” represents the launch of yet another potential superhero franchise for Marvel Studios. The film ushers in the arrival of a new and fresh face, the Australian-born Chris Hemsworth. And “Thor” is an integral component to the upcoming superstar rock concert of a comic book adaptation, “The Avengers”, set to arrive literally one year from the release of this film in May 2012. For those nervous or skittish about “Thor”, don’t be. The movie delivers intensity, liberal doses of humor, and an engaging and charismatic new star in Hemsworth.

King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is a husband to Queen Frigga (Rene Russo) and a father to two boys, Thor (Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Odin rules the land of Asgard and has maintained an uneasy and tenuous truce with the Frost Giants, led by the intimidating King Laufey (Colm Feore), for thousands of years. For reasons later disclosed, Thor is the chosen son of Odin to ascend to the throne and preparations are in place for the new king’s coronation.

Precisely at the moment that Odin is to make his declaration, he senses a problem and discovers that Frost Giants have infiltrated an impenetrable vault in an effort to steal the Casket, an energy block which houses their power source. Vanquishing the theft does not curtail the anger Thor exhibits over the incident and against the wishes of his father and brother, Thor journeys out to the Frost Giants homeland, Jotunheim, and incites a violent battle between Asgardian fighters and the Frost Giants’ limitless army. After a horrific monster is unleashed on the Asgardian soldiers, Odin intervenes and ends the battle, and essentially ending the truce between the two factions. War becomes imminent and the Frost Giants are ready, willing, and able to seize back control of Asgard and the Realm both races inhabit.

By disobeying his father, Thor is viewed differently by his father and Thor’s arrogance and cavalier attitude become too much for Odin to bear. For essentially ending the truce and putting his entire people in danger, Odin banishes Thor to Earth and removes his deity
powers. Additionally, he transports Thor’s unique weapon, his boomerang-like mighty hammer to Earth, locked under a spell where only a chosen one can retrieve it and restore its powers.

Thor lands at night in a New Mexico desert and is almost immediately hit by a car driven by an astrophysicist team of Jane (Natalie Portman), Erik (Stellan Skarsgard), and Darcy (Kat Dennings). After reviving him, Thor is transported to a local hospital where he is sedated and under watch. Coming to and completely unaware of his surroundings, Thor breaks out of the hospital only to find himself again with the team, being quizzically asked about who he is, why he’s on Earth, and what his purpose for being there is.

Arriving the next morning are representatives from SHIELD, led by Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). They have located the hammer and have quarantined the area and are looking for its owner. Knowing more than they naturally let on, SHIELD seizes the research that Jane’s team has been gathering and begin trying to identify Thor’s identity and connection to the hammer embedded into the Earth. As Thor attempts to retrieve the hammer, he finds himself powerless and resigned to a new and unexpected life on Earth.

“Thor” succeeds, almost against expectation, by brandishing a strong wit and a dazzling, if not eventually exhausting visual presentation of Asgard. Employing five screenwriters, the story is more hit and miss than one may care to admit; largely a hit on Earth and mostly a miss when the writing team navigates us through the mythology of the Asgardian Realm. Watching “Thor”, I grew weary of the now redundant storyline of brotherly jealously and nepotism and more interested in how Thor adapted and acclimated to modern and everyday life on Earth.

Carrying the film and, in turn, allowing “Thor” to rise above its contrivances, Chris Hemsworth is a terrific superhero and brands Thor as his own. Engaging, funny, and traveling from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, I found Hemsworth’s Thor more and more enjoyable as the film moved along. Despite a lot of chefs in the proverbial writing kitchen, I am relieved that the writers exercised restraint in not making us watch Thor learn how to drive…or attempt to use a cell phone…or stumble around with a television and.or remote control. Instead, Thor just exists and accepts his banishment in an accepting and affable way. Actually, Thor might be the most accommodating superhero-type ever teleported from the deep recesses of another galaxy. He is well, disarmingly charming.

Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean-honed actor and acclaimed actor and director of works both by The Bard and not by The Bard, was a curious choice to take on this mega-budget comic book adaptation. His films typically employ a character-driven and dialed down technique, as even his grander directorial achievements (Henry V, Dead Again, Hamlet) have focused squarely on the more cerebral motivations of his characters. Branagh has never come close to tackling something of this scope and magnitude and pleasingly, he navigates the film confidently and even expertly at times. He crosscuts between the CGI-heavy landscapes of Asgard and  the dusty and barren confines of a southwestern town. At times, he creates dramatic distinctions with these juxtapositions. In Asgard, Branagh stages scenes with Odin, Loki, and Thor as almost stage-ready, angling for the feel of his well received Shakespearean adaptations and costume-heavy dramatic pieces. In New Mexico, he directs the movie with a light and almost airy quality, eventually finding a way to marry those thematic differences together.

The film is impressive below-the-line, with tremendous sound work and a nice musical score by Branagh’s frequent composer and collaborator Patrick Doyle. Frustratingly, “Thor”‘s visual effects become suffocating and unrelenting. Now I recognize that complaining about “Thor” being too reliant on visual effects borders on the absurd. And yes, I am completely aware that in order to tell this story, you need lots and lots of CGI. So as I acknowledge all of that, I nonetheless grew tired and distracted by much of what I saw when the film shifts to Asgard. Other than a handful of set pieces, nothing in Asgard feels authentic or organic in any way, shape, or form.  After awhile, the Asgardian scenes are almost too synthetic, presenting a far too jarring contrast with the visual trickery used for the effect pieces on Earth. When a particular Asgardian inhabitant finds his way to Earth and sets sights on Thor, the visual effect work is flawless and affecting. However, once we settle into the story and see the crosscut of the two worlds Thor finds himself entrenched within, the schizophrenia of the settings reaches a saturation point.

With a great performance at its core, the supporting performances are mostly effective. Hemsworth is again well cast as the titular character and will easily slide in alongside Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Chris Evans (assuming that his “Captain America” is a success) in rounding out an already impressive cast for “The Avengers”. Natalie Portman is fine as Jane, the astrophysicist who may ultimately win Thor’s heart. Kat Dennings steals much of the movie with her hilarious turn as Darcy, the research team assistant and 20-something cynic who observes the unexplainable play out before her. Dennings’ masterfully interjects the right doses of disillusionment and skepticism, adding to the likability of all of this.

British actor Tom Hiddleston does the best he can with Loki, but becomes saddled with the assembly-line characteristics of his character. I liked his performance and appreciated what he brought to the role, but his effectiveness is stunted by the lack of originality he is given to work with. Anthony Hopkins is well…Anthony Hopkins, with heavy costumes and a metallic eye patch and Rene Russo is hardly present as Frigga, Odin’s wife and Thor and Loki’s mother.

When “Thor” works well, it is funny, smart, and inventive. And in this new “All-Things-Lead-T0-The-Avengers-Movie” landscape we find ourselves in, that is indeed an accomplishment. Chris Hemsworth may carve out a comfortable existence over the next several years playing Thor and this film is precisely what it feels like – the end of the beginning of a bigger story still yet to be told.