Thor may be the trickiest of the big Marvel characters to adapt. Both a Norse God, and an extra-terrestrial being, Thor doesn’t have the “normal person thrust into superpowers” hook – which is both good and bad. And to that end Thor is not really an origin tale, so much as a learning experience for the main character. There’s a lot to do here, on top of director Kenneth Branagh putting a big budget fantasy movie on the shoulders of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, both actors who – at best – had some notable supporting performances previous to this. Did they succeed?

The Players

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writers: Don Payne, Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz (Screenplay), Mark Protosevich and J. Michael Straczynski (Story)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard

The Plot

After nearly being crowned King of the other world Asgard, Thor (Hemsworth) is banished to Earth by his father Odin (Hopkins) until he learns some humility. There he meets Jane Foster (Portman), and falls in love. His hammer is also on Earth, but it can only be retrieved by someone who can use it correctly. Meanwhile Thor’s brother Loki (Hiddleston) is now in line to be king, but he learns some dark secrets that change who he is, and leads his father into a sleep that puts him in charge. But Loki is a bad leader, and the only thing that can save Asgard (and possibly Earth as well) is Thor.

The Good

  • Tom Hiddleston: Hiddleston compares his character to Iago, and what makes the film work at its best is when Hiddleston is on screen. It’s hard to get a bead on his character, in the best possible way – you keep watching him in hopes of getting a better understanding of machinations. But at the center of the character is a real person, who is lashing out in a way that is perfect for a younger, and possibly underestimated brother.
  • It’s Not an Origin Film: Though it is a lesson film, which in some ways is similar to the origin tale, the film spends little time showing Thor becoming Thor. He’s Thor.
  • The Cast: Though this leads into some of the problems, everyone is cast perfectly. Hopkins may be the only conceivable choice for Odin, Chris Hemsworth is pretty much perfect as Thor, and the supporting cast are note perfect. but…

The Bad

  • Talented Cast, Too Bad They Have Nothing to Do: Rene Russo is the wife of Odin, and she probably has about three lines in the film. The Warriors Three and Sif (Jamie Alexander) are in the film, and are defined by their look, or that one likes to eat a lot. Portman’s Jane Foster is sexually attracted to Thor, but other than being at the right place to meet Thor, she doesn’t have much else to do. This is the Thor and Loki show, and everyone else serve the plot to move the story forward. Only Idris Elba seems able to have a little bit of fun. The film is 114 minutes, and it’s possible that the film plays better with an additional half hour or hour of footage.
  • Empire Building: S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up in the film to build a tent around Thor’s Hammer, but nothing they do in the film is of any consequence, other than to give Thor someone to battle on Earth. Too much of the film is dedicated to things that are more important to the Marvel canon than the film itself. Like the last point – as Marvel has spoiled – Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye shows up in the film, but all he does is point an arrow at Thor and then disappear from the film. It’s cool if you know who Hawkeye is, but Renner has nothing to do but show up. This was fun when Sam Jackson showed up at the end of Iron Man, because it didn’t get in the way of the story, but here it’s the cinematic equivalent of standing behind a newscaster and waving.
  • Narratives That Are Self-Evident: The film is about how Thor got back his hammer, and the idea of a leader learning humility is a good plot, but how Thor learns humanity almost happens off screen, and the change – though apparent in the character – is not made cinematic. Something happens and Thor changes immediately. On top of that, Thor is kept from his hammer for the majority of the running time, but it’s not even a spoiler to say that he gets his hammer back. Because of that, the majority of the film is a slog when Hiddleston isn’t on screen because there’s little to latch on to, and the thing that would have made this more palatable are characters to care about. It also comes across as a cost-cutting  measure, as the middle then is mostly spectacle-free.

The Mixed

  • Kenneth Branagh: As a director, Branagh lost his way quickly after the great success of Henry V, and his work with the cast is excellent, but his sense of making this exciting is using canted angles, and he doesn’t use the massive amounts of CGI in interesting ways. I think that the film had to exist in some way that sets up the characters, and the film does introduce Thor to cinema in a way that suggests he’d be a good character to follow, and has a number of great friends and foes, but it feels more like a pilot than complete narrative. Sadly, that’s how so many of these comic franchises have been going.

Overall

Not so much terrible as all set up, Marvel seems more interested in getting to The Avengers than they are in telling great stories. Thor may have been toughest to crack cinematically, but that can’t defend a very uninteresting story that offers few grace notes outside of Hiddleston’s performance.

Score: 3.5/10

Thor opens May 6.

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