Marvel Studios continue their assault on our wallets with the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. And it might just be the best yet.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the Norse God of Thunder; residing in a photogenic Asgard presided over by eyepatch wearing Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But when he takes a hammer to some Frost Giants, he brings shame to his father and is separated from his powers and cast out of Asgard. Trapped in a horrible nightmare which sees him being generally buff and courted by Natalie Portman (the horror!), Thor works to regain his hammer while a sinister plot threatens the future of his people.
Lacking any knowledge of the original comic books and with a decidedly shaky grasp on Norse mythology, I wasn’t expecting to get much enjoyment from Thor. My other major handicap is the level of vehemence I have for most of what Marvel Studios has churned out since 2008 – the Iron Man series is a one trick pony (that trick being Robert Downey Jr.) and the less said about The Incredible Hulk the better.
And Thor does little to redeem itself early on, starting with a generally unnecessary prologue which seems like nothing so much as an excuse to feature a non-chronological structure. Then it’s off to exposition land as we’re brought up to speed on Thunder God: the Early Years. Here, Tony Hopkins looks young for a bit, some kids plan on taking over the throne (watch out for the dark haired one, he’s bound to be trouble. Because he has dark hair) and mass genocide passes without much comment. Then, amid many lens flares and endless CG flybys, Thor goes off to be homicidally petulant and we’re soon cast back down to earth and run over by Natalie Portman, Cat Dennings and a frequently confused looking Stellan Skarsgård.
It’s here the film finds its footing in a place we probably should have anticipated – comedy. It’s strange that the Marvel Studios films to date still haven’t got a handle on their action sequences, become turgid with CG creations beating up each other until one submits or explodes. It was especially problematic in Iron Man and its sequel and Thor doesn’t do much to reverse the issue. Instead, it focuses on delivering genuine laughs that don’t rely on the smarminess of its protagonist.
Thor is often charmingly hilarious, chiefly at the expense of the lead character and his attempts to understand the culture he finds himself in. The fish out of water storyline is hardly new but it gives the players the opportunity for comedy that is more broad and inclusive than a deluge of one liners. Thus, Thor frequently gets hit by things, smashes things and is generally dumbfounded by the curious creatures nearby – you almost expect a custard pie to hit him in the face at any second. It makes the character hugely ingratiating and is actually useful to the plot as well, showing us how the arrogant warrior learns to be less of a twat, thus getting closer to reclaiming his fallen hammer.
It’s Hemsworth that drives this charm assault, sporting enough beard and chiselled muscle for three regular men. He’s utterly delightful, surrendering himself to the buffoonery of the role and harnessing some serious eye twinklage when it’s necessary to dazzle the females in the audience. There’s a serious character arc here for a change, and you might just echo some of Jane Foster’s feelings for the demi-god by the end. Portman is fine as his human love interest, making it clear that she’s better as the straight man in a comedy act while Cat Dennings makes up the deficit by chiming in primarily for laughs. The Asgardians are a less memorable or downright cringe-worthy bunch. Idris Elba’s tasty role is botched while Thor’s playmates are openly ridiculous – not least Ray Stevenson’s fat suit wearing Volstagg. Hopkins shouts (and sleeps) a bit as Odin and Tom Hiddleston harnesses as much angst as he can as Loki.
The middle third of Thor is easily the most entertaining, mixing cheap seat comedy with shady dealings in Asgard to decent effect. When the action heats up again, things get a little dull with a lazy deus ex machina that is shot almost like a parody. Then it’s off for some serious hammer time. It’s at this point that you really have to wonder if anyone put any thought into how ridiculous a grown man looks twirling a lump of metal like a baton. Director Kenneth Branagh clearly had other problems on his mind as he can’t conjure a single memorable action sequence here. It’s been a regular failing of the Marvel Studios films to date and we’re served a dish of dark images filled with much flailing and the odd CG assisted wide shot to give a sense of the melee at hand. It’s pretty dire stuff, making no use of the unique weaponry for interesting choreography and little sense of danger. A rain washed incursion into a SHIELD compound is better and there’s certainly some fun destruction on hand in the Guardian fight but by the end you’ll be craving some proper god on god carnage. Well tough luck, because the final encounter is a damp squib. I’m fairly sure at one point Thor traps someone by placing his very heavy hammer on his chest. Oh the excitement.
Thor is a bit of throwaway fun with some solid gags and more character than you might expect. But this tone crushes the effectiveness of the darker scenes in Asgard and neuters the action as the audience waits for the next punchline. To its credit, the film consistently delivers on that promise and is bound to entertain audiences but it’s unlikely to linger in the memory – making this film feel once again like nothing more than an extended trailer for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, coming in 2012.