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Iron Man 2 got the movie season off to a loud bang last summer. Don't expect such a thunderous start from Thor, this year's May-through-August kickoff.
As the movie debut of the mythological god with the hammer of thunder, Thor falls somewhere in the middle of the pack of comic-book adaptations. While nowhere near the level of disaster of the Fantastic Four movies, it's neither the soaring success of the Iron Man franchise. It's an average superhero film at best, with a single noteworthy element to its credit: Chris Hemsworth.
You could not have cast a more suitable actor to play the title role if the God of Thunder showed up at the studios himself. Tall, blond, and ripped, Hemsworth not only looks the part, he shows a surprisingly deft comic sensibility in the role, as Thor arrives on Earth as a mere mortal. The actor clearly gets the crucial balance intrinsic in this comic-book hero, that of the occasional sly wink and moments of kick-butt ferocity.
It's a shame, then, that Hemsworth's impressive work on camera is often upstaged by Kenneth Branagh's failure behind it.
THOR * *1/2
Directed by Kenneth Branagh; written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne, based on Marvel Comics characters. A Paramount Pictures release, opening at midnight at Rave Fallen Timbers, Franklin Park, and Levis Commons and tomorrow at Fox Woodville and Sundance Kid Drive-In and rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence. Running time: 130 minutes.
Thor ........... Chris Hemsworth
Jane Foster ........... Natalie Portman
***** Outstanding; **** Very Good; *** Good; ** Fair; * Poor.
Branagh's best directorial work -- really, the only part of his oeuvre worth revisiting -- are his many Shakespeare adaptations. And Thor, despite the film's quasi-medieval dialogue and father-brother royalty issues, is no Shakespeare. To compensate for that lack of substance, Branagh combines an aesthetic of computer-generated rubbery landscapes and 1996 Twister storms with uninspired camera angles, which includes the now-cliche tilted camera shot for the villain, perhaps most famous from 1960s TV Batman. He hasn't looked this amateurish since his painfully awkward Frankenstein in 1994.
To be fair, Marvel Comics' Thor isn't an easy sell to mainstream audiences. If it weren't for next year's The Avengers, an all-star line-up of superheroes including Thor, the God of Thunder probably never would have seen light of a digital film projector.
How do you make and market a film about a hammer-wielding Norse god to those who aren't familiar with the comic-book character anyway? He's not an easy sell like, say, Spider-Man.
For one, what is Thor?
In the comics Thor has been a human who could transform himself into a god by the power of his hammer. In subsequent versions he was a god or an alien worshipped as a god.
The film suggests he's the latter -- part of a race of supreme beings from the world of Asgard, who were once worshipped as deities by the Vikings. These beings are led by the wise and just King Odin (Anthony Hopkins in paycheck mode). Odin has two sons: the arrogant, impetuous warrior Thor and the crafty, scheming Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It is Thor whom Odin deems worthy as successor, until the elder son defies his father's wishes and breaks a long-standing truce between Asgard and the warrior-race Frost Giants.
As punishment for his defiance, Odin strips Thor of his powers, his princely clothes, and his all-powerful hammer (which Odin throws away, right into the hands of the U.S. government) and banishes him to the desert of New Mexico to live as a mortal. There he meets a group of scientists, led by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, asked to do little with a role that offers even less). Jane inexplicably -- especially to us -- finds herself attracted to this crazy homeless guy and offers to help him retrieve his mighty hammer.
Portman and Hemsworth have chemistry, especially during the film's more comedic moments. But their romantic connection is nothing more than a half-hearted plot device to pay off in subsequent Thor films. (By film's end, you'll understand.)
Meanwhile, a superhero is usually only as strong as his villain.
Branagh and the film have grand aspirations for Loki, Thor's ultimate nemesis, who pulls a fast one on his family and asserts himself as king. And as grandly Shakespearean as that plotline may be, Loki is saddled with too many daddy-brother issues; he's more teenage-awkward and jealous than grown-up malevolent.
This familial conflict builds to the inevitable battle scene. But even the climatic showdown between Thor, sans hammer, the giant robot-like Destroyer and his destructo-beam, and Loki is hardly rousing, much like the film's uninspired computerized graphics.
Thor is a should-have-been superhero film of mostly unrealized potential.
The God of Thunder this ain't; more like the God of Dull Roars.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.