Marvel Comics’ ‘Thor’ hammers out summer fun

May 10, 2011

I must admit, for all the Avengers amassing, "Thor" was the character for whom I held the most doubt.

For the uninitiated, Marvel Comics is toiling away at an epic comic concoction filled with its bankable superheroes. Over the past few years, it has been skillfully crafting the wildly diverse origin stories of these crusaders, starting in 2008 with "Iron Man,'" followed by "The Incredible Hulk," and concluding this summer with "Thor" and "Captain America." They will unite next summer onscreen under the direction of geek overlord Joss Whedon (“Buffy, The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and author of several comic book miniseries) in what is anticipated to be one of the biggest nerd-gasms the box office has seen in quite some time.

While the first two films were fairly easy sells ("Iron Man" = Robert Downey Jr.'s life story + a dash of Batman, "The Incredible Hulk" = make everyone forget Ang Lee's version three years prior), and it would seem a civic duty to see "Captain America."

But the story of a Norse god traveling through time and space to fling with America's sweetheart, Natalie Portman, just did not seem as marketable.

I am relieved to report my fears were unfounded, thanks largely to the Brit wit of director Kenneth Branagh and the undeniable appeal of the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth.

Nestled somewhere between the glittery camp humor of "Flash Gordon" and the almost-serious "Iron Man," "Thor" knows it's own mythology is a tough swallow, and decides to swing wildly within its own little universe, without disrupting the overall momentum building for "The Avengers."

Anthony Hopkins acts with one eye tied behind his back, (which, when seen in the trailers, immediately sent shudders down my spine with memories of his hammy Popeye-esque performance in "Legends of the Fall."), co-starring as daddy-god Odin, who must banish his son Thor from his heavenly kingdom for being vain, greedy and cruel.

Of course, on Earth, those qualities are seen as normal young-adult angst, but his talk of magical hammers, rainbow bridges and Midgard (aka Earth) has attracted the interest of three astrophysicists (Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings and, in particular, Portman).

The film includes the typical fish-out-of-water setup, where Thor realizes he’s not in Kansas anymore and his godly ways fail him on terra firma. And this is where Branagh has the most fun. It is also where Hemsworth displays his most winning ways with his character.

Let's start with Branagh. The classically trained actor-director has long soaked in the Shakespearean pond, from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to "Hamlet." In "Thor," he is able to see the drama in comics and the comical side of its drama, measured with a chemist's precision. The script with which he has to work is a far cry from The Bard, but Branagh knows this and decides to have a little fun while blowing things up in the process.

He seems comfortable melding the classic themes and structures of literature into the modern framework of an expected summer blockbuster. It’s the kind of world where we can reasonably accept Portman as an astrophysicist.

His vision of Thor’s homeland of Asgard resembles a glittery suburb in “The Lord of the Ring’s” Middle Earth. Think of it as Mordor’s Las Vegas.

And, as Thor, Hemsworth is more than just a buff bod with golden locks and a big hammer. He skillfully handles the comedy of adapting to modern-day Earth (specifically America). He gets tasered, sedated, and stomps into a pet store and demands a trusty steed. It’s a gamble, as our hero could have come off looking like a bumbling boob or a pretty boy who takes himself far too seriously (*cough* Sam Worthingon), but Hemsworth is as armed for light comedy as he is for battle.

“Thor” also throws in a few cameos, a diverse gang of Thor’s homies who teleport to Earth (their arrival announced by a federal agent is one of the film’s most humorous moments), and - most importantly - slips comfortably into the “big picture” plan with Marvel.

In other words, “Thor” is on the right Nordic track.

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