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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu: Thor

As a Mother's Day gift to my wife, I took the Boy to see Thor Sunday afternoon. Strangely enough, I tend to take the Boy to a movie on Father's Day, too. Hm... Well, back to Thor.

First off, the movie is very well cast. Chris Hemsworth is completely believable in the title role. He's big. He's strong. He's got a good voice for the god of thunder. The viewer can easily accept his Thor as a being who lusts for battle and glory, relying on his muscles and his hammer, Mjölnir, to win the day.

Natalie Portman is fine as the blandly named Jane Foster, though she's only somewhat more believable as an astrophysicist than Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist. Fortunately, Jane just has very little terminology to spout, spending much of time trying to figure out and keep up with the blond giant who literally falls out of the sky before her.

Thor's Asgardian companions -- Volstagg, Hogun, Sif, and Fandral -- reminded me of an actual group of friends. They followed Thor's lead, but didn't hesitate to argue with him if they thought he was in the wrong.

Tom Hiddleston did a fine job playing Loki but every time he appeared on screen I couldn't help thinking he should be cast as Data if Star Trek: The Next Generation is ever rebooted as a movie franchise.

There are some spoilers below, though mostly from the opening of the movie.

The movie starts a bit slowly. We open with astrophysicist Jane out in the desert with her assistant and her physics mentor watching for an odd, weather event. Or maybe it's a space event, the movie doesn't dwell on that. Just as Jane is about to lose hope that her predicted event will occur, it begins. Driving through sand kicked up by the event, her research vehicle hits Thor just after he fell to earth.

Then, in what I considering a jarring transition, we get a flashback to the Norse people 1000 years ago and the gods they worship. The picture rushes through space or time or whatever to show us Asgard. We get the short version of the Asgardians war with the frost giants, telling how Odin led Asgard to victory, etc. Soon we meet Thor and Loki and learn that Thor, as eldest, is to be named heir to Odin's throne. Just before Odin can name him heir, though, frost giants attempt to steal something, ruining the moment for Thor. With his dander up, Thor rushes off to teach the frost giants a lesson, his band of friends and Loki in tow. Odin is forced to save Thor and his friends and decides Thor's actions show he is not ready to be named heir after all. Odin banishes Thor to earth (Midgard) and throws
Mjölnir down there, too, though only after proclaiming that only one worthy of the power of Thor will be able to wield the hammer from now on.

At that point, we go back to the desert and replay the last minute or so of the opening scene in the desert. I described these opening scenes because I don't think they work well in that order. I think they'd have been better off running the scenes chronologically, opening with the war against the frost giants, Thor's impetuous battle, his banishment, and then the desert scene with our astrophysicists. For me, the transition from a New Mexico desert in the 21st century to the Norse in the 11th century to Asgard was jarring. I'm sure the director, well-known actor Kenneth Branagh, was specifically trying to avoid just that sort of chronological opening for artistic reasons or something, but I didn't care for it.

From this point, the movie moves back and forth between earth and Asgard. On earth, we have the stranger-in-a-strange-land bit, as Thor learns about the 21st century. This kind of thing can be really painful to watch if done poorly. The character broadly misinterprets everything going on around him then misinterprets everyone's reaction to his mistakes and so on until you want to crawl under your seat and make the whole thing go away. Branagh completely avoided this. Thor is out of place but not stupidly so. He makes a few mistakes but does not insist that everyone treat him like a god. It's obvious Thor is trying to fit in and listens when his earthly companions tell him of the local customs.

The scenes in Asgard drive the movie's plot forward as the repercussions of Thor's banishment ripple through the city. The true nature of the threat isn't revealed for a good while though only an idiot won't know who's behind it all.

Eventually, all becomes clear to Thor. By then, he has learned humility and sacrifice, becoming worthy to wield the hammer once again. He returns to Asgard, faces his enemy, and saves Asgard from the betrayer and the realm of the frost giants from destruction.

Roll credits. The end.

So, what did the Boy and I think of the movie? The Boy has been amazingly unhelpful in this regard. I couldn't get anything out of him other than, "It was good." I couldn't get him to compare it to any previous superhero movies or provide any other useful comments.

I enjoyed the movie as well and agree that it was good, not great. I will compare it to other superhero movies, though. It didn't have the sense of fun that the original Iron Man had, though it was more focused than Iron Man 2. It didn't get tied up in lots of everyday-life introspection like Spider-Man and will probably be more enjoyable to children as a result. It never matched the fun and wit of The Incredibles (the best superhero movie ever made, in my opinion), but it had its clever and fun moments. It does surpass The Fantastic Four in every possible measure I can think of, though that's less of a compliment than Thor deserves. I don't think it's going to rack up the ticket sales of some of the previous superhero movies racked up, but it also features a less popular character than any of those movies.

Thor is a good start to the summer movie season, just not the slam bang movie I was hoping it would be. I give it three and a half stars out of five.
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