Review by Ryan Wilson

The summer movie season officially began with the release of Thor, and, by his hammer, let it begin. It’s been a long cold winter full of boxing and ballet dramas, so by May going to see a comic book movie is about as welcome as wearing shorts.

Thor might seem a strange movie to begin this silly season, mostly because the film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, best known for filming solid adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. By handing the project to Branagh, it feels as if Marvel Studios is asking for more Norse Myth and less superhero. I still haven’t forgiven Branagh for butchering Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so I was apprehensive yet optimistic walking into Thor.

Thor has always been the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Universe. With one foot in mythology and another in the contemporary, he’s sort of bipolar when it comes to where he belongs. Thor always struck me as a lonely hero simply because he’s so powerful that few understand him. I mean, can you get any more forlorn than being a nomadic god whom no one believes in anymore?

Branagh and his screenwriters go another direction. They make Thor act as if he’s a teenager on steroids demanding Dad for the keys to the car. Only for Thor that car is the mythical kingdom of Asgard and Dad is Odin. After some family squabbling, Odin banishes Thor to Earth, where he goes full-tilt grunge-rock, complete with his beard and a flannel shirt. He learns some humility. He also makes the girls swoon, especially scientist Jane Foster, who’s a bit slow to realize what she’s grazed with her monster SUV.

Looking like an Eddie Vedder version of the hero, Chris Hemsworth is pretty solid. Like a good lead singer, he can get angry and petulant, but he can also exude sensitivity when, say, he’s called on to sing a ballad. He even has groupies, both on Earth and in Asgard, willing to follow him on tour. Natalie Portman is less successful as his astrophysicist crush. Instead of playing Thor’s Courtney Love, she comes across as just another mousy girl in the back row with a lighter. Their chemistry together is lukewarm.

I enjoyed the family politics of Asgard the most, and this is where Branagh feels most comfortable. He makes the most of Odin, played by the always scene-chewing Anthony Hopkins, and of Thor’s brother Loki, played with subtlety by Tom Hiddleston. With Odin we see shades of Hamlet, as Thor at times feels haunted and in the shadow of his father’s greatness. Too bad that’s not explored more before he’s banished. With Loki, we see shades of Iago, whom Branagh played well in the 1995 film version of Othello. Like Iago, Loki is a manipulative liar, and like Iago, Loki gives us complicated motives for deceiving everyone in Asgard. I would have enjoyed a bit more trickster in Loki, a bit more playfulness, but, as with Thor, Branagh prefers to give Loki daddy issues with Odin.

The rainbow bridge of legend is simply breathtaking the first time we see it, reminding us that we’re in an epic place. And when the Norse warriors invade the realm of the Frost Giants, we forget all about this being a comic book and instead revel in the mythic action. I greatly missed the Frost Giants when they leave the script. Thor can never battle enough Frost Giants.

But for all of Branagh’s specific flourishes, Thor is still a comic book film. All of the action climaxes at the usual predictable overly inflated final battle. Like last year’s Iron Man 2, Thor feels like it really wants to be an Avengers movie. Fan-boys will no doubt recognize and exalt in a cameo by one future Avenger who’ll be in next summer’s anticipated Joss Whedon film. Before that, however, we’ll see Captain America later this summer, as well as another X-Men prequel. Aside from the promised action, each Marvel film is another opportunity to find Stan Lee making yet another funny cameo. Hitchcock used to do this in his films, but Stan Lee is so over-the-top on screen that it’s the cinematic equivalent of solving “Where’s Waldo.”

Thor doesn’t quite strike us like a lightning bolt, but the parts that work outweigh what doesn’t. Branagh even salvages the love story by simply pulling away from it at the end, proving that even in comics less can be more. 

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011.