By Richard von Busack
Putting Chris Hemsworth in close-up on the poster for Thor was a big risk. A big risk for him, anyway: if the movie didn’t work, he’d have this comic book part hung around his neck for the rest of his career.
But Hemsworth’s face on the poster turned out to be a mark of justified confidence. The producers knew what they had: it’s a star-making performance for Hemsworth—another Australian actor who remembers the old ways of movie heroism, how to embody heartiness and bravado without looking like an arrogant slob. Admittedly Hemsworth played King Arthur at age 19, so he was prepared. It’s gratifying to watch the panache he brings to this old time Marvel superhero. I may not have seen anything like this since the first sight of Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.
Being Australian, Hemsworth is stunningly built; if you want to feel like a Morlock in the land of the Eloi, all you have to do is go to Bondi Beach and take your shirt off. When Thor takes off his own shirt, the film’s Velma Dinkley, who is called Darcy (Kat Dennings) exclaims, “He’s really cut!” But there’s a touch of gallantry and modesty in this hero. In addition to the handsome half-shaved beard that doesn’t look grubby. he has likable exuberance, unmistakable air of class. And his Thor has a simple heart.
This is a movie about voices as well as bodies. The other gamble, bringing in Kenneth Branagh to dirct, pays off nicely. There was a danger of stodginess or overinflation in working the Shakespearean tones of the Marvel comic. Nobody ever called Stan Lee a scholar of the Icelandic eddas; however, the dialogue in the 1960s run of Thor worked Lee’s prodigious vocabulary as far as it would go. Lee hedged his bets with plenty of asides to the reader, narrating the action like a radio announcer. The comic debunked itself.
Branagh does a few things to remind us of the comic book roots; there’s more than a few Dutch angles, as in the old 1966 Batman TV show. But the theatricality in the service of such elemental material works; there’s not a touch of campiness. Branagh wisely lets the actors loose. They get the rare opportunity to be bigger than life, and they revel in it. The players go big; they don’t look vaguely crestfallen behind their beards, like the denizens of Olympus in the recent Clash of the Titans. Idris Elba may have the deepest voice of them all as the giant, all-seeing gatekeeper Heimdall. Helmeted and carrying a broadsword seven feet long, Elba is as massive and mysterious a figure as Rex Ingram’s genie in The Thief of Bagdad.
(It’s probably better to ignore the blinkered fanboys who are moaning about Asgard’s policy of admitting non-Aryans. Note that in his film of Hamlet, Branagh directed an integrated Elsinore, with people of Asian and African descent among the Danes at court. What better visual send off for a story going all around the world…as Hamlet did, and as Thor will?)
Once Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of celestial Asgard, was a warrior on this planet. More than a thousand years ago in ancient Norway, he and his army drove back the savage frost giants, led by the azure faced, red-eyed King Laufey (Colm Feore, sighing with rage like Jack Palance). The war cost Odin an eye; he covers the socket with a quilted, cubist metal eye patch. After the final war, Odin returned to his kingdom of Asgard, having stolen the cube that is the source of the Frost Giants’ mystical power.
If Hopkins has stature as an actor, part of it is due to his great belief in the parts he plays. That’s true here, too. The father-God of the Norse may be the highest-ranking part he’s had (probably only playing Jehovah would rank higher).
But now Odin grows old and looks to his succession. There is his boy Thor, the oldest, a headstrong warrior. And the spare to this heir: the darker, smaller brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The child Thor prattles of restarting the war against the frost giants, subduing the old foe on their frozen home world.
When Thor becomes a man, there’s a dangerous, heedless look to him. He works the crowd like a glad-handing politician as he crosses the throne room. (Hemsworth has some of the slightly homicidal look Branagh’s Henry V had in moments of war-love.) Frightened tears brim in Loki’s eyes as he watches his brother’s swagger; Hiddleston, who is like a more furtive, vulnerable version of Alan Cumming, plants some doubt in our mind about Thor’s capability. Thor is unquestionably mighty and he possesses the mystical hammer Mjollnir, a cinderblock-sized mallet that draws lightning out of the heavens. But thinking things through isn’t one of Thor’s skills, and he hasn’t considered the cost of war.
Thor’s coronation is interrupted by the infiltration of a pair of ice giants in Asgard. They’re swiftly killed; all that’s left is one blue arm when the smoke clears. In retaliation, Thor and some of his comrades (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano and Jaimie Alexander among them) make a covert raid on the ice-world. Odin has to rescue them; in rage, he casts his son Thor out of the heavens and into our earth. The hammer that gives Thor is strength is lost, embedded in the desert rocks some miles away, stuck fast like the sword in Arthur’s stone.
The script makes glancing, clever parallels to the ordeal of George W. Bush. It’s less clever to spell it out, but I will: what is Thor but a story of a fallable son trying to impress a warrior father? But the shift of scene to New Mexico locations give the action some place to move. It grounds the legend, and it’s economical, too, because of the fabled tax breaks there…and, as the critic Mike Monahan suggest, the visuals recall those 1950s films about the perplexity of scientists in the bomb-haunted New Mexican desert, meeting a creature from another world.
Late in the film, a real monster arrives—from Asgard, the Destroyer, essentially a two legged, fifteen foot tall chromed blast-furnace, sent to earth to kill all and sundry. It opens its visor and flaming death-rays come out. Even though the Destroyer originates in the comic books, it resembles a far more lethal version of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still.
With all these visual references—the town where the action takes place full of fab 1950s, the atomic age, neon satellite architecture in the New Mexico town— Thor has a backbone. It has sturdy duality of those ‘50s sci-fi parables about the Cold War. We have the scientists who want to understand the alien threat. We have the government that wants to silence it or shoot it dead. The situation is mirrored nicely in as-above/so below thread of how Asgard ought to handle the frost giants, whether with containment or all-out attack: a cold war over an ice planet.
The story begins properly in New Mexico with a trio of scientists investigating singularities in the stars. Natalie Portman, refreshingly pert and quick, is the physicist Jane Foster. She’s aided by an older family friend Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) and a pal along for the ride, Darcy. In their van full of equipment, a mystery machine, they sideswipe the god as he plummets to earth. They take him to a hospital. This passage of the earthly encounters is smooth and comic; scenes of disbelief in sci-fi tend to be boring. So are the wise-ass little sidekick scenes, but not here: Kat Dennings (of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) has a cushiony, sure-of-herself smirk that salts the movie whenever it seems in danger of getting too awe-drunk, in the familiar Spielberg mode.
While Thor is considered a deluded local character for a time, these scientists later provide a reasonable explanation for his arrival: he crossed on what he calls the Rainbow Bridge Bifrost, and what physicists call an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Thor make some satisfying use of Clarke’s Law: any technology you don’t understand might as well be magic. Or to take it farther, any extraterrestrial (or interdimensional) with god-like powers might as well be a god.
Skarsgard looks slightly fidgety as the scientist who has to explain (albeit briefly) there has to be a reasonable explanation for this. He looks slightly nervous in this role. Let’s guess he was worried that he was supposed to be representing Scandinavia. No one wants to be stereotype. His Erik has a nicely quick way of tuning us in on the legends: a trip to the children’s section at the local library, where he flips through the pages that explain Thor’s story and strength (as well as such useful details as the fact that Thursday is named after Thor). The human and the Asgardian do get along eventually. They’re seen clinking a pair of giant schooners of beer at a local bar; in the next scene, Erik is brought home like laundry over Thor’s shoulder. The god explains, “He drank. He fought. He made his ancestors proud!”
Before long Thor hears of his lost hammer and goes to rescue it. The artifact has become an attraction to the locals; one of Thor’s limber shifts from classic tragedy to lightheartedness has the locals yokels trying to pull the great hammer out with trucks and drag chains, barbecuing hot dogs around the crater.
SHIELD, the CIA-like operation that’s essential to these Marvel adaptations (the organization figures in the two Iron Man movies), moves in to seal off the artifact. When Thor comes into retrieve it he’s captured by the authorities.
It’s slightly baffling that the authorities let Thor go as a mere crazy man, especially when he assaults about three dozen soldiers on the way to his weapon. Unlikely, but it spares us the protestations-of-innocence scenes that would be just as boring as the disbelief scenes.
Thor needs to be free, anyway; there’s trouble in both worlds. In the other world, Odin falls into a coma and Loki slouches onto the throne of Asgard. Crowned with mammoth horns like a Watusi bull, Loki accept the tribute of his new subjects. His new plan to bring it on to the ice world means unleashing a little collateral devastation on Earth.
Thor is a ripping, romantic adventure. On a different level, the seemingly foolhardy project of an Avengers movie seems a little more possible now thanks to its plausibility. The world of Marvel is starting to grow on screen before us, built by asides and cross references; a line about the fate of the unnamed Dr. Bruce Banner or the comment by a SHIELD agent seeing the Destroyer (“Is that one of Stark’s?”). The references don’t stick out like a sore thumb, and there’s a small part for one of the lesser Marvel superheroes as part of the guard around Thor’s lost hammer.
Busy but anonymous music by Patrick Doyle doesn’t leave much impression, but it’s not annoying. And in the dynamic (and blessedly normally edited) 3-D the fuzz of the CGI is acceptable, as are the usual digital whites that are the color of mayo that’s languished too long in the refrigerator. The tinted colors elsewhere compliment the artifice, and the heavenly disco affect of the Rainbow Bridge between worlds. Bo Welch, Tim Burton’s former production designer, fills the frame with Jack Kirby worthy spaces and Alex Ross-like senses of dimension and gleaming metal. There appear to be coral reefs in the waters surrounding this palace-city. Asgard is made of old gold pinnacles and bronze organ pipes; there’s a De Mille paganness of this hall of the gods, fit for the outsized gestures of those who live there (miffed, Thor turns over a banquet table for 25). Goddesses don’t make as much of an impression, sadly; Rene Russo’s mother Frigga doesn’t get more than a few reaction shots. As Branagh once said of Hamlet’s Gertrude, Frygga is an underwritten part. Russo might well have been cast for how well the her red hair looks against the shining walls of Asgard.
The film wins us, not with the realms of gold, but the gallantry in the disarming love scenes. Portman brings the story of a god among us to the ground level. She has a gleam of sweetly confused discomfiture when Thor gives her a courtly kiss on the knuckles. This is a rare experience for an actress who usually gets mated with geeks and rejects on screen: it’s not often Portman plays a love scene to someone as good-looking as she is. The nerves show; it could be her amusement at the slight fragrance of corn, or a modernness in her that makes her almost roll her eyes at old-movie manners. But the looseness of the romantic comedy is a surprise in the season of overcooked entertainments. One gets sense of worry, too, before Jane is certain of who Thor is. When he tells her of the Tree of Life connecting the Nine Realms, there’s a little bit of fixed bravery in her as always slightly hesistent smile. Oh, he’s a nutter, but let him talk.
I was sold on Portman’s three words of delighted blasphemy when she finally gets proof, when we watch Thor rise, and reclaim his regalia. Thor’s ascension gives us the first really strong patch of crimson in the picture: the cape that flaps around him as he’s drawn to the heavens by his enchanted hammer.