WARNING: ULTRA NERD DISCUSSION ABOUT TO COMMENCE: Thor has always appealed to me the same way that Iron Man has, which is to say that neither has ever held any appeal for me as a comic book reader/collector. The only time I have cared to read these characters is when they have been members of The Avengers superhero team. My problem isn’t with the characters themselves as they’re both coolly conceived creations. Their lack of appeal stems from the fact that they have never had great story runs or an interesting rogue’s gallery like Spider Man, Daredevil, Punisher, Fantastic Four, or the X-Men have had. Consequently, Thor and Iron Man have usually been considered second-string characters in the Marvel Universe except in those instances where they have fought as members of The Avengers or have been involved in some huge comic book crossover like Secret Wars or Civil War.

For this, I have great admiration for Marvel Studios for being able to take these characters and craft superb film adaptations that equal if not surpass the Spider Man and X-Men movies. THOR in particular was a project that worried me the most. Unlike IRON MAN, who is basically Marvel’s answer to Batman, who has the advantage of being played by the larger than life Robert Downey, Jr., and whose costume/powers look very impressive to kids who love Transformers, THOR is kinda cheesy and lame. For one, its about a hammer-wielding dude who speaks in Old English and who comes from a magical place called Asgard that has a Rainbow Bridge. Second, Thor is a god from Norse mythology, a mythology that no one is familiar with and that is nowhere near as cool as Greek or Roman mythology. Finally, Thor is a somewhat arrogant fellow who thinks highly of his god-like status and who lacks the humor and charm of Iron Man. Suffice it to say that Marvel Studios had its work cut out for it in making sure THOR did not become a massive embarrassment for Paramount and a huge setback for next year’s THE AVENGERS movie.

I have to admit that despite the surprisingly positive reviews THOR received, I went into this film with low expectations. The trailers for the movie never managed to grab my interest and it looked like just another dumb, summer popcorn movie that would be weak on story and characters and big on unimpressive-looking CG effects. Also, the fact that Kenneth Branagh, a director who is known mostly for adapting Shakespeare to the screen and for directing the horrible FRANKENSTEIN, would be helming THOR didn’t help to assuage any doubts I had about the movie. However, after allowing a few days to pass so that I can properly gauge my feelings about the movie, I can confidently say that THOR is one of the best Marvel comic film adaptations to date and even surpasses X-MEN (but not X-MEN 2) and SPIDER MAN (but not SPIDER MAN 2).

THOR (Chris Hemsworth) is a Norse god and the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Odin is the ruler of Asgard, the capital of the Norse gods and one of the Nine Worlds. Thor is groomed to become the next ruler of Asgard, but at his coronation, a breach of security has occurred in Asgard by a group of Frost Giants, a race of beings that have warred with Asgard in the past and have maintained an unsteady truce with the Norse gods since their defeat at the hands of Odin. Thor decides to teach the Frost Giants a lesson and disobeying his father’s orders, he and his trusty band of companions head to the realm of the Frost Giants and engage them in battle. Upon learning of his son’s defiance, Odin denies Thor the throne of Asgard and banishes him from Asgard entirely to live upon Earth. However, unbeknownst to Odin and Thor, Odin’s other son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has struck a deal with the Frost Giants. Loki, who is jealous of his brother and the favoritism that has always been bestowed upon him, manipulated events to result in Thor’s banishment so that Loki could take over the throne. Meanwhile, on Earth, Thor befriends Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist who discovers him in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Along with her father (Stellan Skarsgard) and assistant (Kat Dennings), Jane helps Thor to reclaim his hammer and get back to Asgard so he can defeat Loki.

Even if you don’t care much for Marvel’s film adaptations of its properties, the one thing that Marvel has consistently pulled off with great success is in casting its superheroes with the perfect actors (exception: Ben Affleck as DAREDEVIL….no). I had no clue who Chris Hemsworth was before THOR, but I give Marvel huge kudos for finding an actor who flawlessly embodies the Thor character (despite the fact that the actor is Australian and the character is, well, not). I think in the hands of bad management, Marvel could have easily messed up this franchise by casting a UFC or wrestling star instead of someone who not only possesses the physique of an immortal, but also has the acting skills to portray the character convincingly. Hemsworth gives Thor a nice blend of humor and drama while maintaining a strong screen presence befitting a god/superhero. Although Thor possesses a streak of arrogance, Hemsworth is able to play it down enough that he doesn’t put off the audience. Like Christopher Reeve, who forever defined our perception of Superman, Hemsworth does the same for Thor.

As with any superhero movie, the quality of the film depends just as much if not more on its villain. Here, we have Loki, the god of mischief and deceit. Loki is to Thor as what the Joker is to Batman, but the former have a more interesting relationship by virtue of the fact that they are brothers. Loki is going to be the villain in next year’s THE AVENGERS movie so proper casting and development of this character is especially important. Again, we have a great performance from Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki as a quiet and thoughtful villain whose jealousy of his brother consumes him to no end. I have read various portrayals of Loki in the comic books and some of have really played up the mischievous aspect of his character to the point of making him sound like The Joker. I like that Branagh decided to veer away from that portrayal and present Loki as a more serious and cunning villain with a mad streak. It makes for a more menacing antagonist and such a character strikes a stronger contrast with Thor’s braggart, outgoing personality. I also think Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean background really benefits in drawing out the complexities and nuances of the relationship between the two characters in a way that we might not otherwise have seen in the hands of a lesser director.

The remaining cast does a serviceable job in filling the rest of the roles. I was actually a little surprised that Natalie Portman decided to take the role of Jane Foster. I’m sure the opportunity to co-star in a high profile, franchise picture like THOR was Portman’s primary consideration because I can’t imagine how anyone would see this character as presenting an acting challenge. Jane Foster is just like any other superhero love interest. Foster is an intelligent and ambitious scientist who finds Thor in the middle of the desert one night. Like Lois Lane, Vicki Vale, and countless other superhero love interests, Foster falls for Thor and she’s eventually put in a situation where she must be saved by him. I think the challenge for Natalie Portman was in trying to find a way to take her pedestrian dialogue and spice it up any way she could and avoid creating a two-dimensional character. Another character worth noting is that of Heimdall (Idris Elba), who is the gatekeeper of Asgard’s Rainbow Bridge. Elba does a fantastic job portraying the character as a noble, fierce, and loyal warrior. The scenes with him are all high points in the movie and I hope to see much more of him in the sequel or maybe even in THE AVENGERS.

The best part of THOR (and many of the other Marvel films) is the scenes that connect the character to the rest of the Marvel Universe. After this summer’s release of CAPTAIN AMERICA, we will be ready for the culmination of Marvel’s efforts in next year’s THE AVENGERS. Each of these individual Marvel superhero films (IRON MAN 1 & 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and now THOR) have given us clues to THE AVENGERS. We have been introduced to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. Each of the films have also interconnected with each other (i.e. IRON MAN 2 showed Captain America’s shield) and we see more of that in THOR. By the way, make sure you stick around for the end credits as another glimpse of what is to come next year will be shown. My favorite scene in THOR is where we get introduced to Hawkeye (for you comic fans, you no doubt know who Hawkeye is as he’s the leader of the West Coast Avengers). Hawkeye is played by Jeremy Renner, who is one of my favorite actors working today. The scene with Hawkeye is brief, but unbelievably cool.

Sadly, THOR isn’t perfect. There are a few problems that I already knew would be present just from seeing the trailers alone. For one, the depiction of Asgard looks like a giant blob of multicolored CG. The world lacks a consistent design and delineating any of the buildings or other features of the realm is confusing. I wouldn’t put Asgard on the same level as Oa, the world that is depicted in the upcoming GREEN LANTERN and that looks absolutely horrendous, but it nevertheless smacks of something you would see on the SyFy Channel.

Furthermore, I wish the action scenes had been staged by a director or DP with action experience. The scene where the giant robot attacks the small town in THOR completely lacks any suspense. Branagh clearly relies on CG effects to impress his audience rather than create a sequence that truly raises the stakes for our heroes. The problem recurs later in the film when Thor battles Loki. Although this battle was far more suspenseful and engaging than the end battles in IRON MAN 1 and 2, I was still hoping of something along the lines of the final battle sequence in SUPERMAN 2 when Metropolis gets completely destroyed.

Aside from these minor criticisms, THOR is an entertaining film and it marks a great start to the 2011 summer movie season. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but at the same time its dramatic enough to give both kids and adult comic nerds like me a satisfying experience.

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