For me, the beginning of summer isn’t signified by the length of daylight or the end of the school year since that has zero impact on me these days. It’s certainly not a change in the weather. I live in Texas; it’s been hot enough to count as summer for a month. No, the beginning of summer is fluid; it changes year-to-year and it’s based on one thing and one thing alone: when does the first real summer blockbuster open? With that in mind, dear readers, let me officially tell you it’s time to break out the flip flops and swimsuits, crank up the AC, and fire up the grill. “Thor” is here and it’s brought summer with it.
The son of the great Norse god Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an arrogant, brutish king-in-waiting within the kingdom of Asgard. Already strong, Thor is emboldened by the power of a mighty hammer with which he seeks war and destruction. After inciting a battle with an ancient foe (frost giants), Thor is stripped of his power and banished to earth along with the hammer he so cherishes. Stumbling through a dark New Mexico desert, Thor is struck by a van carrying scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her pair of companions (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who take him in and help him acclimate to his new surroundings. After failing to remove the hammer from its resting place (while it is being watched and examined by our old friends S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that pops up throughout the Marvel universe), Thor resigns himself to a mortal life. At the same time, however, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken the throne in Asgard and given into his darker nature, causing a ton of trouble that only Thor can stop.
There is an awful lot to like about “Thor.” Kenneth Branagh seemed an odd choice to direct such an FX-heavy, comic book flick. I mean, I love Stan Lee but he’s no Shakespeare. Surprisingly, Branagh seems a natural. The scene structure, backgrounds, and cinematography are all brilliant, not to mention the stunning special effects which are truly awesome. Branagh (and a host of screenwriters) also does an excellent job of giving us the basic information about Thor and the world he lives in without bogging the film down in an extensive origin story. There are a lot of nerds out there who have grown weary of origin films and while I’m not sure I’m in that camp, I can understand the discontent. What you get here is really a crash course in the mythology of one of Marvel’s lesser known superstars. (I know several people who only knew of Thor as he relates to “Adventures in Babysitting.”) There’s no doubt “Thor” is a setup for sequels and “The Avengers” movie next year, and at times that thinness shows through, but for the most part that’s easy to overlook and a light hearted, brighter superhero movie is kind of refreshing these days.
From an acting standpoint, I think “Thor” comes down directly to the writing. Some of the actors were given good source material to work with and their characters shine through. Some were not and these characters are flat and underdeveloped. Hemsworth embodies the attitude, physique, and behavior of Thor magnificently. Much like Robert Downey, Jr. was the perfect choice to play Tony Stark, Hemsworth gives you the impression that he is Thor in a way. He seems comfortable in what amounts to his first leading role and the film feeds off of his confidence. Hopkins, meanwhile, gives a performance that temporarily makes you forget the laughable career choices he’s made over the past decade. He even has a few moments that harken back to his former glory wherein he commands your attention. I honestly can’t remember the last time he was able to do that. Skarsgard and Clark Gregg (reprising his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson) also chime in with flair and Skarsgard even shows a hint of comedic timing. And as the gatekeeper who makes it possible for the Asgardians to cross into their other realms, Idris Elba steals every scene he’s in. I would watch an entire movie just about that guy.
On the flip side, the rest of the supporting cast is seriously hamstrung by corny dialogue and weak plot points. Loki, for one, is poorly developed. His mischievous nature and fascination with the gray parts of morality is more stated than illustrated which takes away from his impact. Hiddleston does an admirable job but the character is just too threadbare to allow for much surprise when he does turn the corner toward evil. Thor’s warriors (led by Ray Stevenson) are all horribly cliché and left me wincing more than once. Likewise, as an intern to Dr. Foster, Dennings is neither humorous nor relevant to the film in any way. She could have been cut out without “Thor” missing a beat. Personally, I’ve yet to enjoy Dennings in anything. I don’t get her appeal and this character did nothing to enhance that view.
More importantly, Portman’s Dr. Foster is an extremely monotone, one dimensional character. Unlike her intern, Foster is important to both this film and the inevitable sequels and yet Portman is given next to nothing to work with which I don’t understand on any level. If you’re going to write a throwaway female character, then save some money and cast Megan Fox or someone similar. In no way am I saying I want to see someone like Fox playing a genius scientist (remember Denise Richards in “The World Is Not Enough”?). I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense to cast someone as talented as Portman and give her a mindless character that borders on damsel-in-distress foolishness. This simply isn’t a well-rounded script and in no area is that on display more than in the shallow love story shared by Thor and Foster. The pair knows each other for approximately 48 hours before Thor goes off to save the world and yet somehow their connection somehow transcends the vast universe. Weaksauce.
I don’t wish to sound overly critical of “Thor.” For the most part, it is a great deal of fun and a more than solid introduction to the hero himself and continuation of the “Avengers” series. I just wanted a little more from the story and more quality material for the outstanding cast to work within. Still, “Thor” is at times magical and gives Hemsworth a chance to literally burst into the mainstream consciousness. And if nothing else, it is exactly the type of movie you crave to jumpstart the summer and get this year’s movie calendar moving in the right direction.
I can’t be alone in my dislike of Kat Dennings,
NOTE: If you’re a true nerd, make sure you stay through the ending credits for a sneak peak of things to come.
Care for another take? Check out Movie Muse's eerily similar opinion. (Every once in a while it's nice to link to someone who just about agrees with me.)