‘Thor’: Hammering out an origin

May 5, 2011

“Thor” is a comic-book movie made by a Shakespearean – Kenneth Branagh – in 3D.

And, intriguingly, he mostly makes it work.

The action is flashy but comprehensible, the script is often witty, the actors serve their roles (instead of vice versa). And the computer-generated imagery – which dominates roughly half of the film – is eye-popping, instead of being eye-glazing.

In other words, it’s hammer time. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that. I’ve been thinking about it for a month and finally gave in.)

A few weeks back, based only on a two-line synopsis I’d read and the teaser trailer for the film, I told my son I could probably thumbnail the entire “Thor” plot for him. My prediction was based only on what I’d seen and my knowledge of other first installments of Marvel comic-to-movies transformations. (And have no doubt: If “Thor” is a hit, it’s the first of at least two or three more movies.)

Sure enough, the plot was, in an almost beat-for-beat fashion, just as I’d predicted. Still, it’s a better movie than I expected because, for the first half, the writing and action are surprisingly strong. And after a lull in the middle, it came back strong for the finale.

Which doesn’t make it a great movie, just a slick piece of product. No doubt, Branagh can talk a great game about the deeper meaning of “Thor.” But it’s just another comic-book movie, built to the Marvel specifications and with the same kind of faux depth that these films aspire to.

The story starts in Asgard, legendary realm of the Norse gods, where we see the king of the gods, Odin (Anthony Hopkins – does this guy turn down anything?), vanquishing the greatest threat known to the Seven Realms: the Frost Giants (whose king is an unrecognizable Colm Feore – as if most people would recognize Colm Feore out of makeup). Peace is restored. Yay.

A couple eons later and Odin’s little sons Thor (Chris Hemsdale) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are now grown men. Thor is heir apparent to Odin’s throne, though he’s arrogant ahd headstrong. But just as Odin is about to crown Thor, there’s an attack by the Frost Giants, who somehow have breached the defenses of Asgard, in violation of a longstanding truce. The furious Thor, against Odin’s orders, saddles up with his posse of warrior pals and jumps into the wormhole that takes him to the Frost Giants’ planet. Instead of kicking ass, however, he barely escapes with his life – thanks to an intervention from Odin – and not before essentially triggering a new inter-realm war.

The angry Odin strips Thor of his powers and his super-duper hammer and banishes him to Earth. He has to prove himself worthy of his powers – and, well, you can probably figure out the rest. He meets a cute Earth scientist (Natalie Portman) and saves Earth from a threat that originates in Asgard, where the trickster Loki has taken over as king for Odin, who has slipped into some sort of coma.

It’s all rendered with an often-slick blend of live action and computer-generated imagery. The CG is stunning when used to create the spires and buttresses of Asgard’s otherworldly architecture. It’s less convincing when it is obviously used to replace live-action characters with CG figures, who look like escapees from an advanced video game.

Oh yeah – and it’s in 3D. The bad news is that, as with virtually all 3D movies, that extra dimension is wholly unnecessary. The good news is that Branagh knows what to do with it: He keeps his camera in motion, putting the viewer into the scene in a way that few directors (other than James Cameron) seem to understand.

His cast is fine, given how little actual acting there is to do. Chris Hemsworth, an Australian discovery, certainly looks the part. And he appears to have the chops to handle both the comic and the heroic (as well as the melodramatic) aspects of the role.

Natalie Portman (is this, like, her 10th movie this year?) gets to play comedy as the geek-girl scientist who happens to be studying interstellar phenomena in the Southwestern desert at the exact moment Thor is wormholed to Earth. Kat Denning adds comic sidekickery as her assistant, while Stellan Skarsgard is her boss and the voice of reason. Hiddleston, as Loki, insinuates evil without actually acting villainous. And Anthony Hopkins – wearing a free-floating gold poker chip for an eyepatch – thunders as Odin, which is all he’s required to do. (Meanwhile, what happened to Rene Russo’s career, that she winds up in a nothing part as Thor’s mom? Perhaps she and Winona Ryder – who played Spock’s mother in the 2009 “Star Trek” – can form a club.)

Bottom line: “Thor” is about what you expect, maybe a little better. I’d put it somewhere between the delightful “Iron Man” and the enjoyable first “Spiderman” on the comic-book-movie spectrum.

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