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Monday, March 18,2013

Mighty -- and flighty

'Thor' soars, thanks to a smart screenplay, a great cast and director Kenneth Branagh's balancing of humor and heroism

by James Sanford
Bringing a superhero to the big screen is not unlike staging a Shakespeare play: You want to be faithful to the source material, of course, but there's also a temptation to do something a little different with the story, to find unusual angles on the characters and to make it accessible to viewers who aren't familiar with the original work.
So perhaps it's not completely bizarre to find Kenneth Branagh, who made his name with acclaimed cinematic versions of "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet," directing "Thor," the big-screen launch of Marvel's venerable warrior drawn from ancient Norse legends.  Branagh's Thor, played winningly by former Australian soap opera star Chris Hemsworth, remains sufficiently mighty, but he's a bit flighty, too. Banished to Earth after creating friction among the denizens of his celestial home in Asgard, Thor doesn't adjust easily: He's puzzled when diner customers stare at him after he smashes a coffee cup to indicate his approval of the beverage, and he puzzles the clerk at a pet store when he strides up to the counter and bellows, "I need a horse!"
The goofiness might have become grating in the wrong hands -- remember that horrendous "Fantastic Four" movie, or the groan-inducing jokiness of "Batman and Robin"? -- but  Branagh and screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne always seem to know the difference between funny and fatuous.  The sequences in Asgard, where Anthony Hopkins rules the roost as an aging yet still domineering Odin and Tom Hiddleston plays Thor's slightly cryptic brother, Loki, are not the usual put-on-funny-costumes-and-camp-it-up-'til-the-cows-come-home foolishness. While there are touches of humor, the filmmakers don't overlook the royal sibling rivalry, poorly timed comas or the abruptly exposed family secrets that Shakespeare would have savored.  Although "Thor" is by no means slavishly devoted to Marvel lore, it's also sharp enough not to ridicule the legions of readers who've been following Thor for nearly half a century.
Most of the first third of the film takes place in the ethereal palaces of Asgard and the desolate wastelands of Jotunheim, where the Asgardians' mortal enemies, the Frost Giants, dwell among jagged rocks and crumbling stalactites. It's here that we're introduced to the pummeling power of Thor's magical flying hammer, known as Mjolnir, which easily crushes the skull of a roaring behemoth and then returns to Thor's hand, like a boomerang.
The Asgard interlude is enjoyable on its own terms, but "Thor" truly finds its groove when the action moves to the New Mexico desert, where astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who reportedly did this film to unwind after her psyche-shredding workout in "Black Swan") and her associates literally run into Thor while investigating strange lights in the sky. Jane already has enough headaches, thanks to a next-to-useless intern named Darcy (a juicy role for Kat Dennings) and a visit from colleague Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, also quite funny). Taking in a dazed, albeit dazzling, stranger is not high on Jane's list of priorities.
Instead of a megalomaniac trying to take over the world, the bad guys in "Thor" are not so much evil as they are government agents trying to do their jobs. They're led by Clark Gregg, who's something of an expert when it comes to portraying controlling types that always seem to be a breath away from losing it. His men has zeroed in on Mjolnir, which crash-landed in the sand soon after Thor did; Thor, naturally, wants his weapon back.
While "Thor" is action-packed and driven by marvelous visual effects, it has a brain as well. There are actual discussions of scientific theories and witty in-jokes for those who know the Thor comic books. Jane even quotes "2001: A Space Odyssey" author Arthur C. Clarke -- "Magic is just science we don't understand yet" -- and attributes the quote to him. The summer is often a prime time for mindless, noisy movies that feature plenty of flash and not much else. Cheers to Branagh, his terrific cast and his wonderful team of filmmakers for making a sure-to-be blockbuster you won't feel embarrassed to stand in line to see.
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