Movie Review: Hammer Time

The God of Thunder is an arrogant and restless young prince whose dreams of inheriting the throne of Asgard are dashed when he’s banished to Earth to learn some humility. While Thor interacts with the locals and attempts to regain his birthright, Asgard falls into the hands of his manipulative brother, Loki. And a certain rainbow bridge gets a hell of a lot of traffic in the process.

The Marvel movie machine is in high gear this summer, with both Thor and Captain America taking over movie theaters around the world. The idea of an Avengers movie, featuring the stars of various film franchises, seemed rather audacious, even just a couple of years ago. Now, it’s actually happening, thanks in no small part to Marvel’s huge success with Iron Man, and a new formula for superhero movies that combines action, humor and a shared universe, with a few winks and nods to hardcore comic book fans thrown in for good measure.

Thor follows the Iron Man formula and does it very well. Chris Hemsworth was clearly born to play the God of Thunder, and he finds just the right mix of macho archaic bluster and newfound compassion. While some wise-cracking superheroes can keep things light with their banter, Thor is a different sort of animal. For all his arrogance, he’s not a smart ass, so most of the humor in the film comes from the “fish out of water” or “Thunder God out of Asgard” situations he finds himself in.

Assisting him on Earth are Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her small band of science friends, played by Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings. See, Jane is a physicist in this incarnation, and she’s very interested in the Einstein-Rosen Bridge and its wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey nature. Natalie is claiming that she did 85-90% of the physics in the movie; however, her science double recently accused the star of only doing about 5% of the physics on display. It’s another sad blow to a once-promising career.

The whole physics thing is just a way to get Jane to meet Thor, anyway, who just happens to drop right out of a cloud and into Jane’s life. Frankly, if I thought there was a possibility Chris Hemsworth might fall on top of me, I’d become a physicist in a heartbeat. I must admit the chemistry between Natalie and Chris is evident, if not fully serviced by the script. We’re supposed to take for granted that an evening of looking at the stars and chatting is enough to bond two people together, but it would have been nice to have a little more substance to the arc of the relationship.

Anthony Hopkins is suitably regal as Odin and manages to make him a wise and likeable character, as opposed to the comics version, who is always just a bucket of crazy. And speaking of crazy, Tom Hiddleston does a fine job of bringing Loki to life as a sympathetic, but ultimately nasty villain. There’s always that hope, with Loki, that he might stop being such an asshat. It’s why Thor is always forgiving him and giving him another chance. Tom does a splendid job of making us feel Loki’s pain and confusion. What’s missing, though, is an adequate depiction of his manipulative side. A character refers to Loki’s “silver tongue,” but we don’t really get much evidence of that supreme level of mischief and misdirection. By the time he’s lying and cheating and stealing, we already know he’s a bad guy, so it doesn’t come as much of a shock.

The visual world of Asgard is mythic and weird and otherworldly. Some of it looks like it might have come directly from a Ralph McQuarrie painting. I loved the architecture, the geography and especially the costumes, which eschewed any peer pressure to tone it down or go for basic black. Asgard and its inhabitants are 100% colorful comic book glory, and I’m glad the filmmakers made it as flamboyant and spectacular as possible. I had some concerns about how they might translate the rainbow bridge, but was satisfied, if not elated, with the results. It’s a reasonable solution.

Earth, by comparison, is obviously somewhat duller. The desert setting doesn’t help, and it’s easy to understand why Thor would want to get the heck back to Oz as soon as possible. Still, it’s the Earth setting that’s important, since that’s when and where Thor must face not only the dangers facing his new friends, but his own nature and flaws.

Kenneth Branagh knows his way around epic storytelling, and there are clearly parallels between the politics and personal relationships in Thor and any number of Shakespeare’s plays. (Loki/Iago or Odin/Lear comparisons come to mind.) While the action sequences deliver, the strongest moments in the movie are the personal ones, and seem to best represent Branagh’s vision for the film. Family ties and lies are rich territory for drama, and Branagh does a fine job making immortals feel all-too human.

Having had high hopes and expectations for this film, I can’t say I’m disappointed. While there are some leaps in logic, and some important character development feels a bit rushed at times, I’m looking forward to seeing it again, if only to start the Easter egg hunt for all the hidden (and not so hidden) Marvel universe references. Plus, Chris Hemsworth’s abs on the big screen are not to be missed, making this the first movie that’s actually worth the price of a 3D screening.