Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor - Theatrical Review



THOR




Release Date: May 6, 2011

Thor is probably my least favorite character of the current Marvel super heroes being adapted into feature films. I love the mythology behind the character and the world he exists in but something about him always seemed a little artificial to me. So with some mild skepticism I went into that theater hoping for nothing more than a good time and that is exactly what I got.



Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 12:01 am May 6, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Biases:
Loves: The Marvel super hero universe
Likes: Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings, super hero movies
Neutral: Kenneth Branagh, Chris Hemsworth, Thor (the character)
Hates: Origin stories
S.H.I.E.L.D.: Has taken over all the marvel movies it seems



I would blame the large number of lesser known super hero films being made nowadays on the surprising success of 2008's Iron Man but that is no longer the case with what Marvel is attempting to do here. Iron Man was a well known character amongst comic book fans but anyone outside that circle only went and saw it due to good word of mouth it received upon release and thus became a smash hit. It was a gamble to put so much money into a film centered around a character hardly any of the mass market knew about but it paid off greatly for all involved. Fast forward 3 years and now we have Thor, a recognized name for sure but still a far cry from the legendary status of your Batmans and Hulks. This is a different time though because Thor is just one piece to a greater puzzle, a puzzle that won't be complete until this time next year which is still a ways off. But the question remains, is Thor a good and worthy film on it's own merits or is it just a stepping stone to something down the line?

A man is found out in the middle of the New Mexico desert one night after a thunderous storm by a small group of researchers led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). They have no idea where he came from and almost as immediately as he appeared we are whooshed away from Earth to a mystical realm known as Asgard. It is here where characters from our fairy tales such as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) reside and watch over the nine realms of the universe. This is also the home and sanctuary of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) god of thunder and son of Odin who is destined to take the throne once his father falls into what is referred to as Odinsleep (a hibernation period). But Odin will not give Thor the throne until he knows he is ready to put all his ambitions aside and rule for the people of Asgard, not just himself.

Thor greats the people of Asgard.

On the day of his coronation though trouble arises in the form of creatures called Frost Giants from the Jotunheim realm who attempt to raid the forbidden vaults of Asgard. Against Odin's wishes Thor takes this insult personally and with the help of his four warrior friends as well as his brother Loki they travel to Jotunheim to settle things once and for all. This act stirs up the hornets nest and Odin seeing that Thor is not ready to ascend to the throne decides to banish him to the Earth realm to live out his life until the day he can become the true king he was always meant to be. Odin being the clever ruler that he is sends Thor's hammer Mjolnir (a powerful weapon forged from a dying star) to Earth as well to return to it's master when the time is right.

I want to state up front that I was really worried about how this movie would play out. When I first heard that Kenneth Branagh was attached to direct I certainly had my doubts. I knew the man's work fairly well which consisted mostly of Shakespeare adaptations and other more dramatic works. The one time he attempted to step out of his comfort zone and made Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was a noble effort but it didn't leave one with the impression that he was very capable at working with fantastical ideas. Thor is a film that would require an eye for the magical and fantastical where plenty of CG effects would be strewn from beginning to end while telling the story of a god turned human. This was not material that seemed to fit the director chosen for the job but considering how many great super hero films we have gotten over the years from directors that didn't seem to fit the subject matter I decided to take a wait and see approach.

Thor puts the smack down.

I now feel kind of silly for ever worrying because Branagh has delivered a rousing adventure that spans multiple worlds where we get to witness the birth of a new movie super hero in fine form. Thor is simply put a well constructed movie that delivers on just about every aspect one could ever want from an origin story. The challenge that the filmmakers faced was unlike any other super hero film that came before it. For Thor they not only had to provide us with the building blocks of how the super hero came to be but also introduce us to a whole other world with Asgard and the nine realms. The film cuts back and forth between both Earth and Asgard continuously as everything plays out and it was exceedingly important that neither one felt like it was overstaying its welcome while also making both believable in their own ways.

Branagh thankfully sidesteps the usual traps that could have led to either world becoming a chore. While I know nothing of how Asgard has been imagined before I do know that what I saw was simply breathtaking at times. The city landscape is just awe inspiring every time there was a camera shot that swooped over the pristine city that rests in a pillow of clouds at the center of the universe. I was constantly amazed with each new visual treat that appeared on screen from the bridge leading to the Bifrost (a portal that transports travelers between realms) to the frozen realm of Jotunheim. While we do spend most of our time within the walls of Asgard's main palace ( oh, and where were all the citizens of Asgard that were constantly mentioned?) that too had a remarkable sense of wonder to its simplistic design. Asgard and its surroundings were just as other worldly as one could imagine and helped give Thor its own unique identity in a realm filled with other super heroes trying to etch out a place in the theaters this summer.

Odin isn't to be trifled with.

Like I said though, Asgard makes up for little more than half of the film with a good majority of it (mostly the middle chunk) taking place back here on good ole Earth. This was the one spot I thought for sure I knew what was going to go down but I was pleasantly surprised by the different direction the film took here. I thought we were gonna get this long drawn out explanatory segment where Thor must explain himself and learn about our world as he fights off alien and domestic invaders alike. What we get instead is a very brief (and hilarious) fish out of water scenario with Thor trying to acclimate to our world with the guidance of Jane and her two assistants Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) and the very welcome comedic stylings of Kat Dennings as Darcy. All the moments with Thor on Earth felt right, there never once was a moment when I thought things were being dragged out or didn't make sense. I also really loved that it all took place in this small town in New Mexico instead of your cliche crime-ridden streets of New York or Los Angeles. 

There is one aspect of the time we spend with Thor on Earth that kind of bugged me a little though and that is regarding all the scenes with SHIELD. Ever since the first Iron Man, Marvel has been building up to the inevitable Avengers movie and thus we have seen our super hero movies invaded by SHIELD's presence more and more. In Iron Man it was cool, in The Incredible Hulk it was neat, in Iron Man 2 it was a bit much and now with Thor it felt like it was there only to reaffirm to us that the Avengers movie is still coming. Every scene involving SHIELD was inconsequential to this film's plot and appeared to be more fan service than anything (that is including a cameo that felt completely stitched on at the last minute). While the implementation of SHIELD in Thor wasn't nearly as invasive as it was in Iron Man 2 I still would have liked it to be more about Thor and less about the Avengers or at the very least make it fell more organic to the overall story instead of having them just show up all of a sudden in the middle of the desert.

Thor isn't out looking for trouble...he is trouble.

And this is an origin story for Thor not the Avengers after all which means we need to see our hero grow and become the super hero he is meant to be. Problem is that Thor was born as a god with these powers already bestowed upon him so how do we see him become "Thor" when he was born that way? I think the solution that was decided is pretty clever with using his banishment as the key to him being stripped of his powers until he proves himself worthy of them again. This of course means that most of the film unfortunately lacks a lot of super hero action but what we do get to see is pretty damn amazing. The battle between Thor, his friends and the Frost Giants was just incredible to behold while the final moments after he regains his powers gave us just enough Thor badassery to hold us over until he begins his avenging next summer. Thankfully the film has much more going for it than its action and special effects which makes the lack of constant action easier to swallow.

But the true magic here is how well the film flows between both the Earth and Asgard realms. As we watch the political intrigue back in Asgard unfold after Thor's banishment we see how Thor still has an impact on what transpires there and vice versa with certain characters either attempting to help Thor or get rid of him during his time on Earth. I cannot stress enough how happy I am that this all worked out the way it did because it could have easily went off the rails if any one part of it didn't feel as though it was part of the overall storyline. Then there is the one other element to making the film work that I have neglected to mention yet and that is Chris Hemsworth as Thor himself.

Thor and Mjolnir have a little heart to heart.

Other than his brief appearance in the last Star Trek film I am completely unfamiliar with him as an actor and came into this with no expectations one way or the other. I had read some early reviews stating that this was a star making performance and one that sold the movie for a lot of people. I have to jump on that same band wagon because he did do a fantastic job as Thor. He definitely had the look but it was all about the delivery that mattered the most. His scenes in Asgard were appropriately heavy handed and melodramatic but it was his moments on Earth that won me over. The last thing I expected going into Thor was to find myself laughing out loud so much but those early moments with Thor still trying to act like a god when he has become human were priceless and Hemsworth sold every minute of it. Later he of course switches gears into the dashing leading man but by that time I was already taken by his commanding performance. We will definitely be seeing more of him outside the Marvel universe I am sure.

So there you have it, Thor has added another piece to the almost complete Avenger puzzle while still retaining its own identity. And I think given what Marvel is trying to do that is all we can ask for at this time. We no longer live in a film world where our super heroes exist in their own self contained worlds that never collide with one another. I got a feeling that even after all this build up is over and we have our Avengers movie that this will not be the last time a venture like this is attempted. At this time I have no idea if we will see Thor in his own movie again any time soon but I certainly hope so. The world of Thor is just so rich with potential that the mind swims with all the possibilities it affords. But for this film, on its own merits, is a triumphant success that I believe will catch on with the comic book crowd as well as the masses which means we only have more Thor to look forward to in the future and I for one can't wait.


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