Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thor / *** (PG-13)

Thor: Chris Hemsworth
Jane Foster: Natalie Portman
Loki: Tom Hiddleston
Erik Selvig: Stellan Skarsgård
Darcy Lewis: Kat Dennings
Agent Coulson: Clark Gregg
Odin: Anthony Hopkins

Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne. Story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich. Based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence).

During my junior year of college I was invited to join the Hofstra cast of Alpha Psi Omega National Theater Honor Society. During the induction ceremony the active members chose to assign a virtue to each of the inductees and one member spoke on how the virtue applied to the inductee. Humility was my virtue. A very dear friend of mine spoke of how it pertained to me. I wish I could remember exactly what she said, but I remember that I never understood the meaning of humility until that moment. It was the first time I ever felt unworthy of the words that were being said about me. Until that point, I equated humility with embarrassment. My friend made me realize that while embarrassment is a selfish emotion, humility is a selfless trait. That is the lesson the Marvel Comics character Thor must learn in the latest entry into the superhero movie genre.

Thor is a God of the realm of Asgard. Thor’s father Odin has ruled Asgard through a great war with the Frost Giants, but is hesitant about passing his throne on to his headstrong son. Thor’s brother, Loki, could also be named to the throne, but he seems to quietly support Thor.  When the three Frost Giants break into Asgard, Thor demands vengeance for breaking their truce. Odin insists on diplomacy. Urged on by Loki, Thor steals away to the Frost Giants’ realm to exact his revenge. Upon his return, Odin exacts his own form of punishment on Thor—banishment. He strips Thor of his powers, including the use of his magical Hammer, Mjölnir. He sends the hammer to Earth with Thor with a spell cast on it that will only allow someone with the character his son should embody to lift it.

I was never a big fan of the Thor comic book because I found so little to relate to about the character. He’s a Norse God who speaks in High English. He fights other Gods in different, often magical, realms. And when he comes to Earth, he never really seems to fit in. Director Kenneth Branagh, that master of Shakespeare film adaptation, is a rather inspired choice to bring this deity-oriented world to the screen. He handles the Asgard scenes with the appropriate amount of ceremony and reverence. With the help of his excellent production designer, Bo Welch (“Edward Scissorhands”), he provides an Asgard with all the grandeur a realm populated by gods demands.

The desert location to which Thor finds himself banished is in stark contrast with the brightly colored Asgard. Other than the scientist Jane Foster—who discovers Thor while conducting research on temporal anomalies in the atmosphere—and her impertinent assistant, Darcy (Kat Dennings, “Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist”), there is very little color in New Mexico. Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) continues her post-Oscar run of appearing in half of all 2011 releases as Jane, Thor’s love interest. Their particular Meet Cute involves Jane hitting Thor with her van repeatedly.

Also along for the ride on Thor’s adventures in the Earth realm is Jane’s mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig. Stellan Skarsgård (“Mamma Mia!”) is somewhat under utilized as the good doctor, which suggests Marvel has more in store for him in their upcoming “The Avengers” movie. Also appearing from the rest of the Marvel Universe movies is S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, “Iron Man”), who takes a keen interest in Thor’s hammer and why nobody seems capable of lifting it.

But, these are merely the details of “Thor”. What really struck me about Branagh’s vision and the screenwriting team’s script is how they were actually able to make me care about this character that I’d never really enjoyed before. Much of this is due to the casting of the relatively unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Hemsworth is probably best known for his brief role as Captain Kirk’s father in the latest “Star Trek” movie. That role did suggest he might have the chops to carry a film, this one proves it.

Equally impressive is the casting of another relatively unknown British actor, Tom Hiddleston, as Thor’s deceptive brother, Loki. Hiddleston worked closely with Branagh on the BBC television series “Wallander”. While Portman and Anthony Hopkins as Odin add important star power, it’s these two untested leads that carry the weight of the story.

Thor’s banishment to Earth is the key to the character’s success. Before we get to see him do too much superheroing, we see him stripped of his powers, and he must learn to be a normal human before he’s given his superpowers back. Hemsworth has quite a balancing act to pull off here. We have to accept him as the arrogant God of Thunder before we see him earn his mantle. Much of the comedy of the movie comes from his oblivion that he shouldn’t walk around Earth acting like a god. Yet he’s able to sell his transformation from a supercilious brat into a more humble version of a prince that commands the power of the gods.

There is a danger that, with its two vastly different settings, “Thor” could come off as two different movie mashed into the same film. Branagh expertly avoids this problem by showing his hero and villain gods with the same human weaknesses as the earthbound characters. Loki is manipulative and cruel, but we also feel sympathy for him and his predicament as the proverbial second fiddle to Thor. What we end up with is a peak into a world completely unlike the one we know but with the same passions and triumphs that we look to find in our own. Instead of Thor coming across as a hero better than everyone else, he becomes one who strives to be something better than he already is, and therein lies the usefulness of humility.

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