'Thor'

Kenneth Branagh invests this comicbook epic with a weighty yet never overbearing Shakespearean dimension.

Neither the star pupil nor the dunce of the Marvel superhero-to-screen class, “Thor” delivers the goods so long as butt is being kicked and family conflict is playing out in celestial dimensions, but is less thrilling during the Norse warrior god’s rather brief banishment on Earth. With Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth impressive in the lead and helmer Kenneth Branagh investing the dramatic passages with a weighty yet never overbearing Shakespearean dimension, pic looks sure to reap big B.O. on the strength of its ready-made audience, but faces a tougher time attracting viewers for whom this type of fare is the exception rather than the rule.

Although the comicbook has been in print since 1962, Thor hasn’t scored much more than supporting roles and guest spots in various toons and telepics since. With this in mind, scripters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne have wisely penned an unhurried but engrossing half-hour setup of the lesser-known Marvel character and the three worlds he inhabits.

Opening snapshot in New Mexico finds astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her gal-pal/assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Jane’s mentor, Dr. Erik Sevig (Stellan Skarsgard) investigating a twister-like atmospheric disturbance. In their haste to discover what’s come down in the storm, their RV knocks down Thor (Hemsworth), a buff and bearded stranger.

Bulk of the action in the first couple of reels sets up Thor’s fall from grace in his homeland, Asgard, a heavenly realm ruled by his supremely wise but aging father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Just moments away from peacefully ascending the throne ahead of brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor leaps into an eye-popping interdimensional portal and leads an unauthorized attack on Jotunheim, home to their enemies, the Frost Giants, led by reptile-like Laufey (Colm Feore). Odin’s punishment: Thor is dispatched to Midgard (Earth) with his magical hammer, Mjolnir, but cannot use the mighty instrument until he overcomes the classic mythological shortcomings of arrogance and impetuosity.

Speckled with amusing fish-out-of-water humor as Thor marches around a dusty New Mexico town like he’s still in Asgard, the story promises much from the attentions of government agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Thor’s brewing confrontation with the Destroyer, a hulking creation that resembles a high-tech suit of armor and shoots fire from its eyes. He’s joined in this endeavor by Asgard warrior pals Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano).

Yet Thor’s smackdown with the Destroyer is all too brief and anticlimactic when stacked up against the spectacularly rendered rumbles in other dimensions. Though Thor’s romance with Jane is passable, thanks largely to Portman’s sterling work in a thinly written role, the couple isn’t given enough alone time or meaningful dialogue to raise the relationship above the ordinary.

It’s a different matter in the heavens. Hopkins rises to the occasion with a restrained yet powerful portrayal of a father forced by conscience to deal the bitterest of judgments upon his chosen heir, and Hiddleston gives a finely tuned perf as the sibling whose loyalty or otherwise to Thor remains a tantalizing question until deep into proceedings. Almost unrecognizable as the star of Aussie soap “Home and Away” in the mid-2000s, Hemsworth holds his own in distinguished company and will serve the series well in any sequels and “The Avengers,” Marvel’s all-star superhero bash skedded for 2012 release. Given only a handful of lines, Rene Russo is under-used as Odin’s wife, Frigga.

As the living actor and director most closely associated with Shakespeare, Branagh may seem a surprise choice for such material. A childhood reader of the comics, he brings a fan’s enthusiasm and his skill as an actor’s director to the table here. Fitting Hemsworth out with a classical but never pompous British accent and shooting emotionally charged sequences with elegant simplicity, Branagh succeeds in rendering his mythological characters deeply human.

While no fatal missteps are taken along Thor’s path to redemption, pic has a slightly choppy feel, as if it’s trying to squeeze an origin tale and at least part of its sequel into a single entity. Most of the material motors along just fine, though the editing occasionally seems a bit too hurried in moving from one dimension to the next. An extra reel of Earth-bound story might not have gone astray.

Assembled by A-list artisans in non-gimmicky 3D (the first such Marvel superhero entry to utilize the stereo format), “Thor” looks great. Production designer Bo Welch, costume designer Alexandra Byrne and lenser Haris Zambarloukos present striking visions of Asgard as an otherworldly utopia constructed from gleaming golden materials and bathed in a warm amber glow, and Jotunheim as the dank and forbidding lair of the mythical world’s most malevolent outcasts. Effects work is on the money, with the suspended, glowing Bitfrost gateway from Asgard to other worlds an eye-catching highlight. All other technical credits are thoroughly pro.

Thor

Production

A Paramount release presented with Marvel Entertainment of a Marvel Studios production. Produced by Kevin Feige. Executive producers, Patricia Whitcher, Louis D'Esposito, Alan Fine, Stan Lee, David Maisel. Co-producers, Craig Kyle, Victoria Alonso. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay, Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, based on the Marvel comicbook by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen, 3D), Haris Zambarloukos; editor, Paul Rubell; music, Patrick Doyle; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Bo Welch; supervising art director, Maya Shimoguchi; art directors, Kasra Faranahi, Luke Freeborn, Sean Haworth, A. Todd Holland; set decorator, Lauri Gaffin; costume designer, Alexandra Byrne; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/Datasat), Peter Devlin; supervising sound editor, Richard King; sound designer, King; visual effects supervisor, Wesley Sewell; visual effects, BUF, Fuel VFX, Evil Eye Pictures; special visual effects and digital animation, Digital Domain; animation supervisor, Eric Petey; stunt coordinator, Andy Armstrong; assistant director, Luc Etienne; second unit director, Vic Armstrong; second unit camera, Christopher Manley; casting, Randi Hiller, Sarah Halley Finn. Reviewed at Event Cinemas George Street, Sydney, April 17, 2011. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Thor - Chris Hemsworth
Jane Foster - Natalie Portman
Loki - Tom Hiddleston
Odin - Anthony Hopkins
Dr. Erik Selvig - Stellan Skarsgard
Darcy Lewis - Kat Dennings
Agent Coulson - Clark Gregg
King Laufey - Colm Feore
Heimdall - Idris Elba
Volstagg - Ray Stevenson
Hogun - Tadanobu Asano
Fandral - Josh Dallas
Sif - Jaimie Alexander
Frigga - Rene Russo

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