Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich (Comic: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby)
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo
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First came Iron Man. Then The Incredible Hulk. Now, we have Thor. The third film in Marvel's cleverly-prepared The Avengers character introduction series finds the famed Norse god Thor cast out from Asgard to Earth where he must learn a lesson in humility, patience and love.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the typical headstrong Norseman craving battle and never stopping to consider the consequences. On the day of his potential ascension to the throne of Asgard, a band of frost giants, introduced earlier in the film, infiltrate the palace in an attempt to steal a powerful, icy artifact that can freeze solid anyone in its path. Against his father Odin's (Anthony Hopkins) wishes, Thor, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his four longtime and stalwart companions Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) convince bridge guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba) to send them into Jotunheim where they face down the fierce frost giant leader Laufey (Colm Feore) before fleeing for their lives only to be saved by an angry Odin. For his treachery and for lacking the skills he desired in a son to lead Asgard, Odin banishes him to Earth until he can learn a lesson.
Once on earth, he meets beautiful scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is researching strange weather phenomena and is searching for proof of the hypothetical spacetime feature known as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. The Bifrost as the Norse referred to it, is a magical bridge that connects the realm of Asgard and various planets in the cosmos. When she discovers Thor in the wreckage of one of her anomolies, she struggles to understand what is going on before her work is taken by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives because of its association with Thor and the mighty hammer that was thrown to Earth by Odin and solidified to its place until the rightful recipient should claim it.
The primary story here is the relationship between Thor and his father Odin, his potential ascension to the throne and his trials to become worthy of such an honor. It is complicated by Thor falling in love with Jane while learning his lesson and dealing with his treacherous brother who has convinced him that he will never return to Asgard as it was his father's final command before going into Odinsleep, an intense, indeterminate-length recuperation cycle. He settles into his life on Earth attempting to make domestic life palatable while spending time with Jane. It's a rather simplistic story that has a lot of strong parallels to Greek mythology where gods would frequently fall in love with mortal humans before undertaking a dangerous task that threatens their lovers. The film takes place alternatingly in Asgard and Earth where the audience has to follow the parallel stories as they eventually connect two-thirds of the way through. It's a risky gamble that mostly works.
Director Kenneth Branagh is an estimable talent and a lot of his choices are quite bold and surprisingly astute. The problem comes when he's trying to keep the action exciting while propelling the story. The film's first major fight scene is a dark blue mess of limbs, swords and bodies as the audience reels trying to keep track of the action. It's one of the most frustrating aspects of modern warfare storytelling. Sometimes, for the audience to grasp the full extent of the action, longer takes and less chaotic cuts are required. Branagh learns from this early mistake and makes the handful of subsequent battles a little easier to follow. It's almost as if Branagh lost control of the film early on allowing producers to make changes as needed instead of permitting him to retain control. At least I hope that's the case.
Compared to Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, Edward Norton as the Hulk and Chris Evans as the upcoming Captain America, Hemsworth doesn't quite fit. He's not a recognizable name and seems at odds with Marvel's attempts to cast notable figures in its films. Yet, despite this obvious disadvantage, Hemsworth does a excellent job standing against these long-time actors. Evans isn't exactly the caliber of actor Downey Jr. or Norton, but he has enough experience to carry a film. And while Norton will be replaced in The Avengers film by Mark Ruffalo, his impact on the Hulk character was an important one.
Portman knows a thing or two about performance and although Jane is not nearly as compelling as I would have hoped, she does a suitable job in the role. That she's outdone by a neophyte like Hemsworth or Kat Dennings as Jane's co-worker Darcy isn't that positive a sign. Perhaps her physically and emotionally draining performance in Black Swan sucked all of her energy for this performance, but I think there may be more truth in the fact that the role was severely underwritten. Jane is supposed to be this amazing scientist, but she's treated more like a frustrated college student than as a brilliant theoretical physicist and engineer.
When comparing the three films that have come to date, Iron Man is easily the superior film, though The Incredible Hulk was a pleasant and entertaining surprise putting it in second place. That leaves Thor, a respectable and entertaining film that had a lot of potential that might have been better served split into two films. The first would establish Thor and his cadre of loyal associates and the second would have explored this film's narrative. As it stands, Thor is a fine concept muddied by too little backstory. And its strong entertainment value may be the primary reason it works in spite of itself.
May 8, 2011