Thursday 5 May 2011

THOR review

Now in cinemas is the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Watch the trailer and read my review, next...

After disobeying the orders of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), heir to the throne of Asgard, finds himself stripped of his powers and banished to Earth in order to learn an important lesson in humility. As Thor adjusts to his New Mexico surroundings with the help of local scientist Jane (Natalie Portman), little does he know that back in Asgard his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots to take control of the kingdom and prevent Thor from ever returning.

Given my limited knowledge of the Marvel comics iteration of the character, I've always considered Thor to be one of those slightly stupid properties that didn't deserve its own cinematic (or televisual) outing, my opinion largely based on my only reference of the character being a cringeworthy appearance in the Incredible Hulk TV movie. There he was a loud, obnoxious bore with a costume that was about as subtle as a hammer to the solar plexus, and not a character who could maintain my interest for two hours. Then, when Marvel decided to give Thor his own film in the build-up to the Avengers and hired renowned Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh for the directors seat, I really didn't know what to expect.

Seeing that Branagh had seemingly no qualifications that would make him suitable for the job, I was a little apprehensive about this entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thankfully I needn't have worried, as Thor has turned out to be a surprisingly good superhero movie, not necessarily matching its big brother franchise Iron Man for action, but perhaps equaling it in entertainment value, largely thanks to the performance of leading man Chris Hemsworth and the keen comedic eye of director Branagh. Thor the character may still be loud and obnoxious, but with his backstory filled in it seems oddly justified. He's the Warrior Prince of Asgard with an ego the size of Mjolnir, so sticking him in the middle of New Mexico with no powers was going to lead to a new spin on the character.

Brought to us in what must be the most unnecessary usage of 3D yet, as you'd expect from a big budget superhero film there's a fair bit of action on show (including some poorly lit segments set on the CG created world of Asgard, not helped by the dulling effect of the 3D glasses), but it's when Thor engages in some hand to hand combat that the film is at its most thrilling. Thankfully the film doesn't rely on its action to provide entertainment, delivering more laughs than you'd expect from a superhero film. Sure, Iron Man has the quippy Robert Downey Jr as its lead, but Thor gets its laughs from its daft, Short Circuit-esque fish-out-of-water premise.

Chris Hemsworth is solid (in more ways than one) as Thor, adding a lot of charisma to the character's brutish nature. He works well as the big man in a small town, and handles the comedic aspects well (I guarantee that at some point this weekend, every pet shop in the world will have someone striding in shouting "I need a Horse!"). Tom Hiddleston also does some good work as Thor's younger brother Loki, although it's pretty easy to guess any character revelations from the start. As Odin, ruler of Asgard, Anthony Hopkins is being his usual calm, collected but shouty self, but shares some good paternal scenes with his character's sons that justify the hiring of Shakespeare nut, Kenneth Branagh.

Away from the main action there's also a lot of aspects that just don't work or aren't exploited enough. Idris Elba is under used as the guardian of Asgard, but in his short scenes makes them buzz with a tense energy. I'd have preferred to have seen more of him than Thor's battle-ready buddies The Warriors Three, who are utterly redundant and pointless to the story. Their outfits also look ridiculous when transposed to the real world, and not in a comic mismatch way either; the plasticky material just look cheap and nasty in natural sunlight. Natalie Portman's appearance seems like an odd piece of casting too. In what is a rather thankless role she's not bad by any means, sharing some obvious sexual chemistry with Hemsworth; but there's one too many characters running around on Earth and I'd rather get rid of her believability stretching scientist Jane than the funny sidekick Darcy played by Kat Dennings.

If you saw Iron Man's 1 and 2 and are looking forward to the higher profile Captain America and 2012's superhero smackdown The Avengers, you're going to have to see this film if you want to have any idea what's going on. It's not that each singular film's plotting is complex, but the franchises are getting so referential (aka incestual) with one another, the completed saga is going to look like Memento crossed with Primer with added tights thrown in. There's nods to superheroes who've already appeared up on the big screen along with some cameos that should all make sense sometime around July next year. Hopefully the big finale that is the Avengers will live up to all the hype, but personally I'm not so sure that these characters will work on screen when thrown together into one team.

As a stand-alone film Thor has plenty to offer, although probably more comedically than in the action stakes. I wouldn't bother wasting your money on the 3D option as there's nothing here to justify it, but along with the unanticipated laughs there's enough hammer flinging fun to please those expecting a more straightforward actioner. Very entertaining stuff, even if it does often feel like the precursor to something else.


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