Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Thor

Thunder or blunder?

There's a narrative / gameplay trick in computer games that the gamers amongst you may be familiar with. It's when you start the game as a spectacularly overpowered protagonist, blasting through enemies without a concern. This, though, doesn't necessarily give the game many places to go, so often your avatar is cruelly stripped off their powers for one reason or the other. The vast majority of the game then becomes focused on building yourself back up to the original state by collecting the items you've lost. Only in the final moments of the game do you finally resemble the walking tank you did in the prologue - assuming you collected all the hidden power-ups, of course. It's a cheap trick to lengthen the game, but admittedly one that gives the game a solid structure to move forward with.

Thor - the first in a small blizzard of Marvel releases over the next year or so, culminating in The Avengers - is the cinematic equivalent of that old video game trope. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if the incoming (and probably shit) game adaptation of the movie follows that exact structure. The film introduces us to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the arrogant but good-intentioned heir to the throne of the Asguard. He's also the God of Thunder. For various reasons involving ice giants, he is banished from the technicolour kingdom by his (all) father Odin (a suitably majestic Anthony Hopkins) to the comparatively mediocre Earth, minus his powers of thunder and his trademark giant hammer (but that's sent along too should someone be worthy of its awesome powers). Teaming up with a duo of astrophysicists (Stellan Skarsgaard and the ever-gorgeous Natalie Portman) and their wise cracking intern (Kat Dennings, present for no other reason than to make three or four comedic quips), he sets out to regain his hammer, while his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gets up to his own shenanigans in Asguard.

It's the stuff of high camp, and it's still surprising to have to point out that Shakespeare fanatic Kenneth Branagh is in the director's chair. Yet, and this may be the strangest praise to lavish upon a film, it all remains impressively coherent. Once you get past the inherent silliness of the premise (would you honestly go to this film expecting thoughts to be provoked anyway?) it makes internal sense, and is pleasantly paced throughout. Branagh pushes it along nicely, minus the extraneous crap and characters that bogged down Iron Man 2. Considering the cast of characters here isn't particularly small - outside the ones mentioned already you have Thor's four warrior friends, a number of S.H.I.E.L.D agents, Ice Giants, Odin's wife etc... - it's impressive. The Earth scenes see the film at its best, Branagh and his many screenwriters embracing the absurdity of the content by adding lashings of comedy and never taking it too seriously. There are genuine laughs here, such as Thor's rough viking-like method of ordering another coffee. Kat Denning's redundant comic sidekick is the only thing really dragging the film down in these sequences, but she's rarely in the way. The Asguard scenes are a bit more po-faced, but the design is mostly pretty if unimaginative. Interesting ideas like an enigmatic blind gatekeeper also work better than expected.

There's not quite as much action as some other superhero movies, but when it comes it tends to be energetic and enjoyable. It won't make you re-evaluate your life or anything silly like that, but again having action sequences that at a bare minimum make some sort of sense and follow an internal consistency is a welcome development, perhaps saying something negative about the general quality of Hollywood's recent output. A blistering musical score from Patrick Doyle helps. The acting from all corners is grand too. As a self-confessed Portman fan, I welcomed her presence more than anyone elses - unsurprisingly, she portrays scientist Jane with a sense of independence and feisty energy often absent in 'generic love interests'. Hemsworth hams it up nicely in the main role, as does Hopkins as the father of the gods. Again, I can only point Dennings out as a weak link here.

Thor concludes with excitement and plenty of curious sequel potential, although there's a redundant Avengers teaser after the overlong credits. Indeed, it's almost disappointing that the next part of the story is going to play out in the packed Avengers movie, where Thor's tale is merely going to be one in a glut of subplots. Yet Thor has passed the first test, proving a capable screen hero. It was a hard sell - indeed, the name isn't quite as familiar to the masses as the bat, super, spider and iron men of the world. But Thor is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of trash. It's endearingly silly, and is far from the best blockbuster you'll ever see. That it is entirely aware of these facts is what makes it all so charming.

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