'Thor' Review: A Blockbuster with Substance

Thor, perhaps the most Shakespearean of Marvel Comics heroes, is a refreshingly fun adaptation of another comic character destined for franchise glory. In an inspired piece of hiring, “Thor” is directed by Kenneth Branagh, famous for his numerous Shakespeare adaptations. His unabridged version of “Hamlet” was my favorite screen version of the Great Bard’s most famous work, and though it’s no surprise that he can stage a large production, it’s good to know he can handle the physicality of a CGI-laden blockbuster as well.

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In this one, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) hails from the realm of Asgard, and is apparently more of an alien than a god or deity. Cast out of Asgard by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as punishment for narcissism and disobedience, Thor’s stripped of his powers and banished to our little marble, landing in small town New Mexico. There, he’s confronted by a world that greets his stories of fantastic kingdoms and powers with scorn, and where his mighty hammer, containing the thundery awesomeness of his powers, remains inaccessibly stuck in a block of stone. Thor then must not only clash with a civilization that doesn’t respect his ancestry, but also with the machinations of villains back home and some surprisingly well-intentioned government agents.

Notably, this is the first Marvel film of the “Avengers” series whose hero is unburdened by the darkness and sorrow of a Tony Stark or Bruce Banner. Thor’s a proud, aggressive warrior, so merry that he manages to be pleasant even as he carelessly invades another planet to slaughter its monstrous inhabitants. Hemsworth, with his magazine cover physique and flowing blonde locks photographed to maximum effect, demonstrates an enormous likeability key to the film’s success. Coupled with his strikingly muscular presence, he doubtlessly has potential to be a common blockbuster presence for some time to come, provided he plays his cards right. He imbues the film’s best moments, in which Thor grapples with his ego and comes to put the welfare of others above his own hubris, with a dramatic heft that makes him an easy character to root for.

The aforementioned lightness of the tone doesn’t mean that the story is without weight, and Branaugh aptly balances the misadventures of the earth-trapped Thor with the royal intrigue on the other side of the galaxy. Back home, Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes moves to seize the Asgardian throne, and apt writing and acting make him seem more dramatically misguided than villainous, giving the final confrontation an extra dramatic kick that would likely be absent were he just a cackling evildoer. Branagh’s action scenes, though not as impressive as the tech-heavy sequences from Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” aptly render straightforward superhero combat, and with more flair than I had expected.

One of the film’s more interesting moments is also its most ideological, when Thor tells the government agents (or the SHIELD agents to us geeks) that he recognizes their benevolent intent and offers his hand in an alliance. It’s a brief but memorable moment from an industry that has spent much time demonizing the intelligence community, especially in light of their recent very public success.

Natalie Portman, apparently one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses, plays Jane, Thor’s love interest and possibly the world’s cutest astrophysicist. Portman doesn’t have much to do other than smile for the camera and fawn over this handsome extraterrestrial, which results in a romance that’s somewhat lacking in the intensity department. Their relationship seems better suited for a hard crush than the passionate love the dialogue later suggests, though it’s easy enough to forgive as the plot gains speed.

Comic films of the past decade, good and bad, all seem to be either serious or grim, and it’s almost startling to remember that to many, the medium represents colorful, lighthearted entertainment. Just as the story, with its otherworldly royalty and small town journey of discovery, is both epic and personal, it’s sufficiently heavy and certainly fun.

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