What It Is
What do you do when your car is slammed by a plummeting superhero? If you’re Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist looking for evidence of a wormhole, you’re jangled, but just for a moment. A second later, she’s clambering from the vehicle in the middle of the New Mexico desert, followed by her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), all rushing to check the damage done to the stranger lying splat on the sand before her.
This stranger (Chris Hemsworth) is the title character in Thor, the god of thunder. Blond and strapping, he’s been tossed from his home realm, Asgard, by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), falling through time and space with such force as to create a wormhole. When Jane learns this truth, she’s both startled and enchanted. “Your ancestors called it magic,” Thor explains, “You call it science. I come from a world where they’re the same thing.”
The film charts a few stories, including Jane and Thor’s fast-developing romance, her struggle to keep her research project alive when the U.S. government wants to shut it down, and his effort to return to his father’s kingdom and good grace. Each thread leads to the same lesson for Thor, who is mighty with his magical hammer Mjölnir, in particular when challenging the Frost Giants (Jotunheim), led by King Laufey (Colm Feore). The hothead Thor doesn’t understand Odin’s commitment to his truce with the Jotunheim, or why dad punishes his overstepping by stripping him of his superpowers. This includes taking away Mjölnir: when Odin, the All Father, casts Thor to one corner of New Mexico, he sends the hammer to another, thus making his son’s objective quite fully visible: he is unable to pull the hammer from the mud into which it has smashed until he learns to be a righteous, good king — much like Arthur and his sword.
That’s not to say that Thor is humble without the hammer. His adventures in New Mexico are laced through with comedy based on his arrogance and also his emerging compassion, with prodding from Jane and Erik. Soon he comes to see the value of compromise and community, as well as his own royal responsibility to care for, rather than coerce, his subjects.
His education occurs across two realms, as the film cuts between earth (circa 2011) and Asgard (circa the heyday of Norse mythology). Here Odin lies incapacitated and Thor’s adopted brother, the trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston), itches to ascend to the throne. At the same time, Thor’s trusted friends — the tough chick Sief (Jaimie Alexander), as well as the boys Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) — plot to bring him home, with timely help from the Gatekeeper Heimdell (Idris Elba). Though Thor falls in love with Jane, he must eventually return to Asgard, to restore order and serve his father.
Why It’s Fun
Based on the Marvel comic books character, Kenneth Branagh’s movie is loud and rambunctious, with lots of not-so-special effects (the armies look cartoonish and the wormhole effects look like they’ve been borrowed from Star Trek, the original TV show). To its credit, the film doesn’t take itself very seriously, an attitude helped along by Hemsworth’s charming performance — he mugs, he punches and kicks, he falls down and wrestles in the mud, and can still change up at a moment’s notice to play a straight-enough superhero, whether wielding his hammer or speeding like a human bullet across the universe.
Thor’s supporting cast is more mundane. Though Jane is lovely on principle, she also has too little to do, once she learns the truth about Thor and then must literally wait for him to get done with his god of thunder duties. Likewise, Darcy — who points out she’s a political science major, not a science major, and so can’t be held responsible for knowing details of the research, is a stereotypically sweet ditz, unhappy that her iPod is confiscated, especially since she’s only recently loaded it up with new tunes. Sif is plainly yearning after Thor, but also proud of her own formidable combat skills.
Thor’s boys are less easy to tell apart, as they mostly hang about like the Cullens in Twilight (or almost any supporting cast in a movie franchise based on stories with long lists of characters), complaining about what’s gone wrong and waiting for someone else to assign them a mission.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of other smart-alecky Marvel superhero movies will appreciate this one’s sense of humor, most often delivered via Thor’s fish-out-of-water adventures. As he marvels at modern customs (Jane’s tiny, cluttered trailer, parked at her worksite) or imposes his old-school manners on his new friends (his kissing Jane’s hand moves her, of course), he is again and again charming. At the same time, he acts out clever commentary on social conventions and romantic tropes.
Fans of Thor the character — in myth or in comics — may be split. The movie maintains some stories and characters crucial to both versions of the Thor story (or rather, Thor stories), but also cuts and pastes some aspects or sometime reimagines them altogether. The crossing from one realm to another can be hectic or clumsy, a device determined to make Thor as cool-and-hippish as Iron Man (whose franchise is huge) or the new Spideys (whose franchise is rebooting).
What To Be Aware Of
Mostly, the movie is loud. Even when battle scenes are dark — a problem exacerbated by the 3D glasses — the soundtrack is frenzied, with assorted whomps and clanks and roars and slams. While the point of a film based on comic books based on Norse myths is inevitably the celebration of well-muscled men with big weapons, that point is on occasion overstated here. The Frost Giants are especially inclined to thrust out their chests and show their scary faces for effect, and Odin is certainly not above showing up in a whoosh, atop a horse with sword held high overhead. Yes, yes, we get it.
The violence includes stabbing by swords and other sharp objects, explosions, and bodies turned to ice and sometimes breaking into shards, as well as the more common thud-thudding when they hit walls or mountainside, or fall from great heights.
In order to throw off authorities who’ve picked up Thor for breaking into a government facility (erected around his immovable hammer, it should be noted), Jane and Erik say his irrational behavior is a function of “steroids.” The joke passes without comment.
When Thor and Erik go out for a night of boy-bonding, they drink boilermakers. Thor must carry his new best friend home over his shoulder, as he’s extremely drunk.
5 out of 10
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings
US Premiere: May 6, 2011
UK Premiere: April 27, 2011