Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: "Thor"

I think "Thor" is going to produce mostly groans from professional critics and huzzahs from audiences -- at least the fanboys who grew up reading the Marvel Comics version of the Norse god of thunder.

I was not among them; as a youngster I read comic books, but not Thor, who struck me as an arrogant clod. However, I knew all about the gods of Asgard, reading gobs of Norse mythology (I was a strange kid) in visits to the local library. The Norse gods seemed simultaneously more accessible and badass than their Greek/Roman counterparts -- at least they wore armor instead of a sheet.

Like Thor himself, the movie about him is overly puffed up and self-serious, and suffers from moments of pomposity as it reaches for the grandiose. But the character experiences a satisfying arc of change, turning into a genuinely heroic figure whose magic hammer does some serious smiting.

Plus, I admit I'm a sucker for celestial rainbow bridges, evil frost giants, sorcerous trickery and all the other claptrap of Norse lore.

Thor is played by Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth (it seems like all the action stars are from Down Under lately), best known for playing Jim Kirk's dad in the reboot of "Star Trek." He packed on thick slabs of muscle for the role, and is convincing as a born warrior and crown prince of Asgard who still has much to learn about the humility and sacrifice required of a true leader.

Thor spends most of the movie on Earth stripped of his powers, a result of an action-packed 30-minute opening sequence in which Thor and some comrades invade Jotunheim, the world of their frost giant enemies. For his arrogance, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes Thor and confiscates Mjolnir, the all-powerful hammer that is the source of his power.

He falls to earth in the desert, where he meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) when she runs him over with her van. Thor is haughty and dismissive, until he finds out he's as vulnerable as any mortal.

Meanwhile, Mjolnir also appears, half-buried in rock, waiting Excalibur-like for a worthy hero to lift it free. It also draws the attention of some government spy-types (led by Clark Gregg) who place the hammer in lockdown.

The heavy is Loki, Thor's brother and a master magician who is supposed to be a trickster, despite a glum, self-loathing performance by Tom Hiddleston. Loki desires the throne for himself, though some family secrets are dredged up to complicate his plans.

As a sub-villain, I enjoyed Laufey, the frost giant king (played via CGI by Colm Feore), who has baleful eyes and a malevolent sort of patience.

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh from a script by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, "Thor" has about a half-dozen too many characters. Thor's four warrior buddies are about three sidekicks more than necessary, and Jane has her own duo of hangers-on, including Stellan Skarsgård as her scientific mentor.

There has been snide talk on the Web about some of the Norse gods being portrayed by non-Caucasian actors. I suppose they have a point -- I don't recall any Vikings showing up in the pantheon of African deities -- but for my money Idris Elba, as the Asgard guardian Heimdall, has an even more commanding presence than Odin. Heimdall guards the entrance to the gods' realm, and his sight can extend into other worlds.

That's much cooler than any silly hammer, if you ask me.

3 stars out of four

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