Boy meets girl? Check. Coming of age? Healthy dose. Cain and Abel? Got that too. But the age-old theme Thor wears most proudly on its chest plate is the hero’s quest to gain his father’s approval. And it works.
Director Kenneth Branagh was a deft choice to handle this material. Material that at times teeters into sappy melodrama, but always manages to get back on track. Branagh, known widely for his devotion to the works of William Shakespeare (see his films Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet), focuses the attention of the narrative wisely on the two sons of Anthony Hopkins’ ‘Odin,’ ‘Thor’ and ‘Loki,’ and their struggle to win the approval and subsequent crowning from dad, who happens to be the King of Asgard, aka “the beacon of hope.”
The film opens in the New Mexico desert with a trio of sleep-deprived scientists squatting in hopes of documenting another in a series of recent mysterious weather occurrences. Black Swan Oscar winner Natalie Portman leads the way, alongside the obligatory conscientious objecting mentor (Stellan Skarsgard) and the wise cracking underling (Kat Dennings). When one of these occurrences happens, the result is a crater with our hero, played with husky masculinity by 27-year-old Aussie Chris Hemsworth, lying unconscious in the center of it.
The newly banished ‘Thor’ rises defiantly and stumbles while summoning his trusty weapon of choice “Hammer!” Setting up Dennings’ for this: “Hammer? Yeah, we can tell yer hammered – it’s pretty obvious!”
At this point in the film I was getting a little nervous that we were in for an arduous romp, setting the Norse demi god in ridiculous circumstances contrived for lame pop culture references. I kept waiting for ‘Thor’ to lament his inability to return home and for one of the modern day wisenheimers to say “There’s an app for that.” Thankfully, I was wrong.
With the latest installment of the X-Men franchise just opening, and Green Lantern and Captain America on the way, it can be a little overwhelming trying to determine which of these Marvel Comics marketing onslaughts is worth your hard-earned cabbage.
Yes, Thor does get bogged down at times under such lofty platitudes as Hopkins’ opening narration “Once, man accepted the simple truth that they were not alone in the universe” and “A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it.” And how about this doozie from Portman: “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.”
When ‘Thor’ leads his posse of battle-tested chums across the bridge, a time warp portal manned and operated by ‘Heimdall’ (played memorably by The Wire’s Idris Elba), he defies his father’s current attitude of restraint towards their rival civilization of Frost Giants on the planet Yodenheim (sp). “You’ve come a long way to die, Asgardians,” snorts ‘King Laufey’ (Colm Feore) to ‘Thor’ and his Benetton crew of rainbow warriors. And then, unfortunately, the writers felt we needed this: “You’re nothing but a boy trying to prove himself a man.”
But these boilerplate themes do little more than lay the groundwork for the external conflict of the story. The guts of the story are in the feud between ‘Thor’ and ‘Loki’ (Tom Hiddleston) as they each jockey for the throne.
Newcomer Hemsworth is up to the physical task of the Herculean role, and he does an adequate job of locking eyes (and emotions) with the formidable Portman. But it is the British born Hiddleston, a decorated graduate of the famed London sanctuary Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and fellow Shakespeare devotee with Branagh, who steals the show.
The confrontation between Hiddleston’s ‘Loki’ and his ailing father, the King, reminded me of the wonderful work done by Joaquin Phoenix opposite Richard Harris in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). The anguish ‘Commodus’ displays in making his desperate argument for his “virtues” breaks your heart. Classic father-son clash.
Films like Thor and Gladiator are made or broken by the strength of their villains. When well cast and well written, the complexities of these characters challenge us to both cheer their demise but also empathize with their struggle.
Am I comparing Thor to the Oscar winner for Best Picture Gladiator? Not quite. But it’s a far cry better than the last Iron Man, the last two Spidermen, X-Men: First Class, either Hulk, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four.