Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hammer Out Danger: THOR

The latest Marvel superhero to make it to the big screen is Thor, to my knowledge the only superhero with origins as a Norse God. That might seem tricky to assimilate into the ever-growing on-screen overlap between the various Marvel properties, especially with more Earthbound sci-fi heroes like Iron Man and the Hulk, but this big flashy summer tentpole is up to the task, especially with its nimble mixing of genres. The director is Kenneth Branagh, a fine actor, member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, turned director most notable for his Shakespearean adaptations, some of them quite good. With Thor he mixes a bit of high drama with a bit of low comedy and, to my surprise, it works quite well. It may not make a lot of sense some of the time, but it sure is fun while it lasts.

After a little teaser of an opening scene, the movie dives straight into mythological bombast and fantasy spectacle with the dramas of Odin (a fun Anthony Hopkins) and his royal court. He’s a Norse God who rules over Asgard, a kingdom set up in a towering mountain that emerges out of a cloudy nebula in space. (You read that right). He is a wise warrior who has successfully beaten back the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. This is the kind of movie that throws out crazy names and elaborate backstory without a second thought but is ultimately better off for it. This is a movie that starts with a fast pace and then keeps it up throughout, thundering towards its conclusion. No need to linger on nomenclature and fantasy semantics when there’s matters of grave importance to get to, namely the matter of the royal lineage in Asgard.

Odin has two sons and heirs. One is Thor (Chris Hemsworth), strong and impetuous, who has flowing blonde locks, a heavy magic hammer and a billowing red cape. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), slim with slicked-back hair and dark attire, is a jealous conniver. We can practically tell good and evil by nothing more than hairstyle and costuming but Hemsworth and Hiddleston are a bit subtler with their roles than you might expect. They do, however, fit perfectly in the oversized world in which they live.

Theirs is a big glittery world with sweeping colorful vistas and gleaming flying buttresses and a portal to other worlds that sits at the end of a rainbow bridge and sends these Norse God warriors off in a cloud of dust and lightning. After some Frost Giants sneak into the palace (and are promptly vaporized), it’s through this mode of transportation that Thor and some warrior pals show up at Jotunheim and beat up on them for breaking the treaty. Furious that Thor would try to provoke a new war, Odin banishes him to Earth, stripping him of his Godlike powers in the process.

Once on Earth, the movie plays out on parallel tracks. Thor finds himself in a fish-out-of-water story in a small New Mexico town. There he is found by a scientist (Natalie Portman) who has been studying the strange patterns of the night sky of the kind that he arrived in. With her mentor (Stellan Skarsgård) and intern (Kat Dennings), the three of them provide a mortal chorus of skeptics and incredulous observers to counterbalance the rush of entertaining gobbledygook that forms the opening sequences.

But that gobbledygook is turned into the stuff of pseudo-Shakespearian drama back in Asgard, where the other track of plotting is given over to Machiavellian scheming. Loki wants the throne for himself and the question of lineage and politics weighs heavy on the Asgardians. In gilded rooms featuring the perfect combination of regality and gaudiness designed by Bo Welch, Thor’s warrior pals (including great cinematic tough-guys Ray Stevenson and Tadanobu Asano as well as relative unknowns Jamie Alexander and Josh Dallas) fret and scheme about how to ensure Loki doesn’t end up sitting on the throne.

The constant juggling between earthbound conflicts – a mysterious (though recognizable from the Iron Mans) governmental organization has set up camp outside town to research a strange hammer that fell in the desert – and the epic tale of Asgard merges nicely. It’s a potentially unsteady mix, but it works because of the seriousness with which the filmmakers take both the drama and the comedy. Never once do they condescend to their own material. The film uses the humans to comment on the oversized nature of Thor in a little coffee shop or Asgard’s warriors strutting down Main Street, but it doesn’t stop these larger-than-life characters from feeling perfectly scaled to fit their homeworld. Both realms are filmed in deep, rich colors with the striking cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos making liberal use of oblique angles that join the realms with a similar sense of slinking dread. There’s a feeling that something is rotten in Asgard and it could escape to infect Earth where Thor better learn how to get his powers (and hammer) back in fighting shape.

This is a movie of zippy action mixed with genuinely funny laughs, but it never undermines itself. It frontloads a lot of dense exposition but manages to make it entertaining. It’s a movie with a high silliness quotient and sets out to prove that it’s worthy of using its set-up for some hammer-slamming, breastplate-knocking battles and some not entirely insignificant drama. It’s not primarily a movie of action, though it fulfills that promise, more or less. This is a movie of plot and noise that pays attention to its mood, off-kilter ponderousness that, when mixed with a healthy serving of intentional comedy, ultimately makes this lively effects-heavy blockbuster fairly addictive.

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