Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Norse Gods and Monsters

The Thor of comic-dom is the most risible character in the Marvel canon, the campiest of all their roster, second only in oafishness to the Hulk (who, of course, can’t help it). He’s given to aggressive histrionics, is silly to his core, and still somehow never draws too much attention to himself in Kenneth Branagh’s uneven, at times entertaining volume in the new Marvel Movie-verse.

Chris Hemsworth is perfectly adequate for Thor’s looks, but isn’t given much room to enunciate from a script that seems to want to cover only the basic ground of the story while never really having much fun. It’s mostly the clever, sometimes beautiful production design, and Kenneth Branagh’s light, barely noticeable direction that achieves the movie’s fairly blithe tone.

Branagh is man-for-hire here, and it’s easy to forget he’s involved in this at all. His films of Shakespeare’s plays have made him a good choice to handle the high mythology and lineal conflicts, but methinks total creative control of this franchise, handed to this director, would’ve been a high-camp experience to put the previous Wolverine entry to shame.

If Marvel has exerted its creative control, that hasn’t produced a movie that takes itself too seriously, either. The film is at its most entertaining in its God-out-of-Asgard scenes set in New Mexico, where Natalie Portman portrays a hunter for signals of extra-terrestrial life, assisted by her stock character/Juno wannabe, and Stellan Skarsgard (whom it was decreed had to be in a Thor movie with that name and lineage). The three main human characters frame the story of Thor’s banishment from Asgard when they discover his fallen body, only to have their backed up evidence taken from them by S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg’s cameo here, to frame everything with the upcoming Avengers movie, is welcome and dependable)

The story also involves the ages old conflict between the gods of Asgard and the snow-giants of Jotunheim (or somesuch realm). Anthony Hopkins plays Odin more or less in his sleep, until of course he’s literally put to sleep later on. There’s a trusty team of Thor’s Power-Ranger-like sidekicks who eventually escape to Earth during Loki’s ascendance to the throne, and Idris Elba plays Heimdall (a name I had to look up), guard of the realm.

That’s right, Idris Elba. Squint and you’ll see him through the armor. The true nature of Loki (Tom HIddleston) is revealed soon after Thor’s banishment by Odin, which sets in motion a plot that you will barely remember upon leaving the theater, unless you’re one of a handful of truly committed Thor fans.

The images of Asgard, the mystical (and kind of mystifying) interplanetary transport device, stood guard with dignified authority by Elba’s Hiemdall, the surprising inclusion of Rene Russo, and the general high-adventure feeling of this undertaking, make it better than you might expect. The rainbow bridge, the golden towers, the glinting armor, the not-overlong battle scenes, are all visually very beautiful and engaging. Asgard might be an excitingly memorable place in the movies.

It is possible that Thor has never been made into a film before due to technology being insufficient until recent times to render the final product something not laughably unwatchable. The awesome success of Marvel movies and the impending Avengers film have made this entry altogether inevitable. Hard to say whether more camp would’ve made it even more memorable, but then maybe after the experience of Wolverine, toeing the line was a good choice. In the direction of camp, this installment doesn't even come close.