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Thursday, 8 January 2015

REVIEW - THOR (2011)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman
Music by: Patrick Doyle
Release date: May 6, 2011

Thor was an important step in Marvel Studios' quest to world domination. Iron Man had already won his way into moviegoers' hearts and set the stage for a shared universe, and the God of Thunder was Marvel's first venture into the unknown with a built-in fanbase. With an inspired choice for director in one of the Bard's best buddies, Kenneth Branagh, and considering moviegoers' current appetites for superhero movies, Thor seemed set for victory. But is it a thundering success, or does it deserve to be smitten?

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is arrogant, irresponsible and impatient. In wanting to ascend to the throne of Asgard, his reckless actions of disobeying his father (Anthony Hopkins as Odin)'s wishes and causing strife between Asgard and their enemies the Frost Giants, causes him to be banished to Earth and stripped of his power. In Thor's absence, his silver-tongued brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) usurps the throne and sends dark forces to Earth, with further plans to overtake Asgard.

Thor is arguably at its best during its first thirty minutes. Almost everything in the first act is stellar. Once the obligatory introductory voiceover is out of the way, we're introduced to a shiny, regal new world, great production values and art design, and a strong and appropriately majestic score from Patrick Doyle, all while the seeds are planted for rich Shakespearean-esque elements such as sibling rivalry, family betrayal and a plot to overthrow the King to unfold. And who knew Kenneth Brannagh could do action? The fight scene with Thor, Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Joshua Dallas, Ray Stevenson and Tadanobu Asano) against the Frost Giants probably could've benefited from some better lighting, but it's exciting to watch and fairly creative, plus it's the only time you really get to see Thor let loose with his hammer. And while most of the following action scenes are solid, they never really live up to this one. 

Thor is banished to Earth around the half-an-hour mark (convenient how he ended up on our planet out of all the possible choices), and it leads to mixed results. The majority of the movie is spent here, and we're introduced to scientist/Thor's love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her father figure Erik Selvig (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), whose character is unnecessary, as she's only really there to occasionally be funny in a movie that's already quite funny to begin with. Thankfully Dennings is a lot more bearable here than she is in the sitcom Two Broke Girls which she's most well-known for, although that series' failure is more attributed to its dull and painfully hackneyed writing more than anything else. Selvig isn't particularly interesting - although there is an amusing scene featuring him and Thor boozing it up at their local bar - and while Portman's performance is as good as you would expect, don't expect any Black Swan-esque drama here. The relationship between Thor and Jane is as token as they come and the only apparent reasons she falls in love with Thor are because he displays his Asgardian Abs™ to her shortly after they meet, and he's hot 'n' stuff.

The Earth setting also makes way for quite a few jokes that give Thor its sense of fun and lets you know that it doesn't take itself too seriously. A lot of them are hilarious: "this mortal form has grown weak... I need sustenance" is the only way you should announce your thirst after watching this movie, and Thor being unable to grasp Earth customs and tossing a bunch of hospital nurses around the room for daring to attack the son of Odin is just great stuff. Some of the gags are also more than just a bit of comic relief, as they simultaneously serve to tell the audience more about Thor as a character. But with that being said, some of the comedic elements slightly overstay their welcome at times. The Earth setting is also arguably unneeded, at least at this level of prominence. Its implementation and the incorporation of more relatable elements are understandable as the source material is quite "out there", but at the same time, some of the sets look tacky, and what we saw of Asgard at the beginning seemed much more interesting. You don't have to play it so safe to be successful anymore. The highest-grossing movie of all time was almost entirely set on an alien planet where everyone was blue.

Nevertheless, the Earthbound elements do benefit Thor in some respects, namely in how its main narrative focus is Thor having to overcome the more undesirable aspects of his personality, learn humility and become a hero. Its framework ensures that the movie is able to run along smoothly and allows it to cut down on the exposition, which is always a plus. It's also enjoyable to see Thor's character grow and evolve throughout his journey from a bratty, hotheaded jock - albeit a fairly likeable jock - who lets his emotions get the better of him, to a more humble and honourable person (even if his arc is decidedly basic and he only undergoes any sort of change because he spent a long weekend with Natalie Portman).

The strongest aspects of this movie are the characters of Thor and Loki. Both of them battle for the approval of their father, but Loki has felt unappreciated and overshadowed by his brother his entire life. While watching movies like The Avengers, it's easy to forget just how much of a complex and believable character Loki can be. Maybe he could've been given just a bit more screentime, but Hiddleston absolutely smashes every scene he gets, and goes a long way towards making Loki a real character and not just a villain for the hero to scuffle about with. Chris Hemsworth also fits the role of the God of Thunder like a glove, and nails every aspect of his character, particularly the dramatic moments. It's great to see from someone who was previously unproven as a leading man.

The Asgardian elements and sibling rivalry also shows just how perfect Kenneth Branagh is for this kind of material. His input here is essential, as his knowledge and experience when it comes to the tradition of ancient pantheons comes across well, and the very human motivations of Thor's godly characters gives Branagh some strong and familiar material for him to sink his teeth into. 

However, the inhabitants of Asgard are a mixed bag. The aforementioned Warriors Three are all very underdeveloped and don't do much. Idris Elba doesn't get a lot of screentime as Heimdall, the Gatekeeper of Asgard, but he does make every scene count, and is not only an intense and imposing presence with his booming (yet... strangely soothing) voice, but there are surprising flashes of hidden layers to the character that will hopefully be explored a bit in future. Anthony Hopkins is a brilliant choice for the Allfather Odin, even if he does tend to chew up the scenery a tad, but there is one massive flaw concerning his character, and that is the concept of the "Odinsleep". Odin is little more than a walking plot device, who spends most of the movie's runtime in a coma so that things can go wrong. If you're familiar with the lore, you'll know that in the comics the Odinsleep is necessary so that Odin can regenerate and renew his powers (although it's still a plot device). But if you're not, then good luck figuring this stuff out, because the movie never explains it to you. The guy literally keels over out of nowhere and gets up just before the finale is over to save the day, and the movie expects you to just roll with it. The general audience - who are the vast majority of the people that will be seeing this movie - will never know why.

At the end of the day, Thor only really exists to set up The Avengers and isn't going to blow you away, but make no mistake, it's definitely an enjoyable romp. It is quite flawed: it suffers from variably successful character relationships, there never seems to be much at stake and overall it's just too unexceptional to warrant any particularly strong opinions on either side of the spectrum, but its strong central characters and entertainment factor ensure that it can still be worth your time. If a fun little medieval-styled coming-of-age story sounds like your cup of tea, then look no further than Thor.