Friday, May 6, 2011

"Thor" brings a hammer of awesome

Thor is the first superhero movie of the summer and my second most anticipated film of 2011. As of now, it's the best movie I've seen this year. I mentioned before that I was looking forward to Captain America blending the superhero genre with the World War II film. Well, it turns out Thor pulls a similar trick. It's a classic superhero story blended with Lord of the Rings-style epic fantasy and healthy dash of Stargate-style science fiction and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes even one of those genres. Director Kenneth Branagh--yes, the man that played Gilderoy Lockhart--brings his Shakespearian sensibility into play managing the father-son-brother story that's heart of the movie, and isn't half bad when it comes to the action sequences either.

I fully expect Thor to stay in my top 10 for this year. There's nothing conditional about that (unlike The Eagle), and I'll probably buy the DVD as soon as it comes out.

Quick note: If you see Thor (and this goes for all of the Marvel studios movies), STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS. They've raised that 30-second clip to an art form.

There'll be some SPOILERS in the next section, so don't read on if you're worried about that kind of thing.

[secondary spoiler warning]

One of the things Thor pulls off (that Iron Man 2 struggled with), is incorporating aspects of the larger Marvel universe without making them feel forced. It heavily features S.H.I.E.L.D., includes a great cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, appropriate references to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, and it all fits perfectly into the story.

The film's casting is excellent. Chris Hemsworth as Thor actually has the least opportunity to shine, since he's playing a pretty traditional role, but he still does a great job at mixing arrogance with charm. The standout is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the most complex and sympathetic villain I've seen in a while. The key to a good villain is making him think he's the hero, so the audience can understand--if not support--him. The writers and Hiddleston make Loki work in way that the villains in Iron Man and even The Dark Knight did not (and that's not blasphemy, the point of The Dark Knight was that the Joker could not be understood).

Besides that, there are the expectedly good performances from Natalie Portman as Jane Foster--Thor's love interest who has thankfully been upgraded from a nurse to Hollywood's favored profession: Astrophysicist--and Anthony Hopkins as Thor's father, Odin. He gets an eye patch, and he's Anthony-freaking-Hopkins. The only better alternative would have been Sean Connery.

For the supporting cast, there's a pair of great comedic performances by Stellan SkarsgÄrd and Kat Dennings as Foster's mentor and assistant, respectively. Neither plays a character from the comics, though Skarsgard's character seems set to return next year for The Avengers. And I'd feel remiss if I didn't mention one of the best things about the movie: Sif and The Warriors Three, played by Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), and Josh Dallas (Fandral). Sif especially--well I guess I have a thing for warrior princesses. But the four of them get to participate in most of the best action and funniest scenes.

Now there are a couple potential drawbacks to Thor, I'm not claiming it's perfect. One is the occasionally cheesy special effects of the Asgard magic and world in general. It doesn't look real--and true, it's not supposed to--but it just felt too computer generated. A related issue was the very sterile, clean Asgard world. It didn't have that lived-in quality that the original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings pulled off so well. Again, it's not necessarily supposed to, because it's not a medieval alien world, it's an advanced alien world that happens to have things like armor and weapons that we associate with medieval periods and vikings. Still, I found the shiny plastic-ness of Asgard to be off-putting.

The other thing, that wasn't an issue for me, but could be to a lot of people, is that Thor introduces the extraterrestrial aspect of Marvel comics (well, technically Spider-man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer did, but we don't talk about those). For years, the comics have sent teams to other planets, had heroes battle alien threats and all-in-all, included the greater cosmos as a matter of course. However, the more recent Iron Man seemed to work because it focused on telling a fairly believable story. I didn't have a problem with the idea that some super-rich genius might be able to build an armored suit. However, if that level of believability is why you liked Iron Man or Christopher Nolan's Batman films, and you don't believe in life on other planets, you might have a problem with Thor.

But regardless of those points, let me reiterate that I was definitely not disappointed and there's a good chance I'll see it again before it leaves theater, though checking the upcoming release schedule, it looks like I'll be seeing a movie every weekend for quite some time.

Oh, one final note: I saw Thor in 2D. It seemed great. I don't know what 3D would have added, but I'm guessing not too much. It's my experience that awesome CGI worlds just look great on the big screen and the 3D doesn't actually add very much (yes, Avatar, I'm talking to you). That said, I think if I had the opportunity to see Thor in IMAX 3D, I'd take it. 

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