by Del Harvey
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He’s big, he’s bulky, he’s got a beard and long hair, and he’s a God. He’s also the latest superhero to come to the big screen from Marvel Studios. He’s one more step towards the dream team film realization that will be The Avengers.
The most surprising thing I found while watching this film is that I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I expected to. Director Kenneth Branagh actually found a way for his audience to connect to a guy who speaks like he’s a member of the worst Shakesperean Theatre Troupe In The World. Branagh finds a way for his audience to accept all of the fairy tale stuff: the rainbow bridge, guys wiping out giant monsters with a huge hammer forged from a star, people who can fly, and so on. I think it is Branagh who is the real star of the film, the one who ties it all together and makes it work.
Here’s the basic story:
In 965 A.D., Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgard, wages war against the Frost Giants of Jotunheim and their leader Laufey (Colm Feore), to prevent them from conquering the Nine Realms, starting with Earth. The Asgardian warriors defeat the Frost Giants and seize the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters.
In the present, Odin’s son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) prepares to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but is interrupted when the Frost Giants attempt to retrieve the Casket. Against Odin’s order, Thor travels to Jotunheim to confront Laufey, accompanied by his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), childhood friend Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). A battle ensues until Odin intervenes to save the Asgardians, destroying the fragile truce between the two races.
For Thor’s arrogance, Odin strips his son of his godly power and exiles him to Earth, accompanied by his hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.
But then something happens, as is always the case in these types of stories, and Odin falls ill. He descends into “Odinsleep,” a coma of sorts which allows a god’s mortal form to repair itself. In his absence, his dark son Loki takes his place, and tries to do everything he can to keep Thor from regaining his power.
Thor lands in New Mexico, where scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) find him. The local populace finds Mjolnir, which S.H.I.E.L.D agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) soon commandeers before forcibly acquiring Jane’s data about the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth. Thor, having discovered Mjolnir’s nearby location, seeks to retrieve it from the facility that S.H.I.E.L.D quickly constructed but he finds himself unable to lift it, and is captured. With Selvig’s help, he is freed and resigns himself to exile on Earth as he develops a romance with Jane.
Not only do we get to see Agent Coulson again, but there is a cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, who eventually becomes another member of The Avengers. As Thor’s father, Odin, Anthony Hopkins is his typical amazing self. As the love interest, Natalie Portman is superb. And the supporting cast is equally impressive. Tom Hiddleston, recognizable as one of Branagh’s peers in the excellent PBS Wallander mysteries, is perfectly slimy as Odin’s dark son Loki. Stellan Skarsgard is the perfect father figure and mentor to Portman’s scientist. Kat Demmings is delightfully cute as the only intern who responded to Portman’s ad. And Thor’s warrior brethren - Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Joshua Dallas, Tadanobu Asano - convince us they are lifelong friends. Even the impressive Idris Elba is given a moment to shine as Asgard’s gatekeeper Heimdall.
So, how good is this film? I’m going to upset a lot of fanboys here, but I enjoyed Thor much more than I did Iron Man or Iron Man 2. It’s just got so much more heart than either of those films. It actually tries to get its audience to care about its characters.
A part of this has to do with the comic book characters themselves, but it also has to do with the interpretation by the screenwriters and directors who adapt the comics to screen. Tony Stark/Iron Man is a callous, arrogant, assinine CEO type, and Favreau and Downey Jr did a fine job of getting that across on screen. Thor is a young, arrogant, almighty god, and Branagh and Hemsworth did a fine job of getting that across. It’s just that, for me, Branagh and the writers did a far more superior job of investing us in the person, the flawed character, which is the subject of their film.
Even so, it’s the first superhero film of a summer which promises quite a few, and it’s definitely worth seeing. Besides, if you’re one of those fanboys I mentioned before, how could you possibly miss yet one more precursor to the drool-inspiring Avengers flick still to come?
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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