(dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
For starters, I was a major skeptic of this thing. Just goes to show was a little restraint can do to an overblown genre.
Kenneth Branagh's surprisingly subdued superhero film, Thor, is something godly indeed. Living within a genre that recently has been known for CGI-injected heroes, Chris Hemsworth has proven himself apt as the titular God of Thunder. Much like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Hemsworth's stalwart performance is grounded in his earnest acceptance of the situations. That sounds a little Acting 101, doesn't it, but it actually makes the fantasy elements within the genre seem more believable. He's never amazed that he's a God, never in awe of himself or his surroundings, and that is where the character of Thor is crafted.
One can credit this to Branagh, but also credit must be due to Hemsworth and the writing. From the script up, this is a character study. Not an origin story, or something rooted in a climactic battle, but rather a small tale of a god becoming the man he was meant to be. Again, much like Iron Man, the heart of the film is in the characters. You care about Thor, and halfway through, you don't even realize that you haven't witnessed an enormous battle on Earth yet, and even when you do, you don't care all that much that it was relatively lame. The beauty of Thor is that you see the change a normal, more bloated battle would tell you...but Branagh and Hemsworth show you instead. Like that less-than-awesome RDJ vs. Bridges fight to close out Iron Man, this Thor vs. Hot Laser Machine is more of an means to and end than an attention grabbing climax. The greatest of all superhero movies hold their climaxes for off the battle field—Iron Man, Spider-Man 1 & 2, The Dark Knight, etc.—because they know the hero is what really matters.
Sure, some of the secondary acting is flat and useless, but that all goes back to Thor being the only character we need to worry about. All the Asgard—Thor's home
planet, er realm—scenes have their touch of silliness, but most of them don't last long enough to be too obnoxious. When Asgardians visit Earth, however, hilarity truly ensues. There is much intentional comedy within this action film, which adds to the heart of the picture. When Thor's quartet of friends travel to Earth complete in their Dungeons and Dragons convention costumes, a lesser filmmaker wouldn't have noticed the inherent absurdity in that situation, but Branagh did. Even the "can you repeat that?" Thor lore is spiced up with comedy, since no one can pronounce let alone understand what Mjölnir is. It's rare, but some of the dialog is actually clever! A pretty predictable but nevertheless rewarding ongoing gag about stealing computer equipment actually made the audience laugh—every time.
But basically where the film excels is where it isn't heavyhanded, where is allows the words and the actors to move the scene instead of CGI or battles. The soft scenes outweigh the bombastic ones in both quality and interest; you hardly care that Thor is fighting some laser machine, you just want him to beat it and get on to the next scene. The least interesting scene in the whole film is probably the most CGI-ridden, where Thor and his comrades travel to an ice planet to beat-up some Ice Giants and a faux-rancor monster. Totally boring.
From a technical standpoint, the cinematography was exciting if not typical of the current action film lens flair style. The Costumes are absurd, yet appropriately absurd, I think, the best someone could do to recreate the style present in the comics. Set designs for Asgard are gaudy at best, but it's again the Earth scenes that are the highlight; while hearkening back to 1950s-style small-town-in-the-middle-of-a-desert look, designers Bo Welch, Maya Shimoguchi, Lauri Gaffin create a distinct atmosphere in Thor that somehow helps with the believability of a God landing in the desert.
Overall, though it has many faults, Thor has the chops of not only a great superhero film, but a great film. For me, it ranks somewhere in the league with but below Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman Begins, and handedly above The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Wolverine. The wonderful Natalie Portman and the underused Kat Dennings are luminous as the human counterparts to Hemsworth's Thor, yet any and all Asgard residents (sleepwalking Anthony Hopkins' Odin and iron-jawed Tom Hiddleston's Loki) could have done much, much more. For the many inside references to the upcoming Avengers, they all play too much into the hand of super-fans to actually be entertaining. There's a scene where a soon-to-be Avenger appears, that falls totally flat by virtue of the unknown nature of both the actor and said hero.
Nevertheless, with Hemsworth and Downey Jr. on board for the Avengers project, I'm slightly less critical about this than I initially was. If they can capture the magic that Thor did, I think we'll be in fine condition. GRADE: B+