Less than Marvelous
by Glenn Lovell
I’m not sure it’s an improvement on “Beam me up, Scotty.” After all, we’re talking about riding the business end of a lightning bolt here. Still, you can’t quibble with the real estate covered. The bifrost bridge/teleportation device in Paramount’s clamorous new “Thor” allows the Nordic hunk of the title to genre-jump: He starts out in the mythic realm of Asgard and, after being betrayed by his brother and banished by the old man, is sent hurtling to ‒ where else? ‒ New Mexico, a.k.a. UFO Central.
Not too shabby, eh? The filmmakers double their chances for raking in a pile by following Marvel’s lead and scooting back and forth between fantasy and sci-fi, Norse mythology and “The X-Files.”
The last super hero to do this with aplomb was the Man of Steel himself. Which may explain why Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in midflight, red cape flowing, brings to mind Superman as played by Christopher Reeve. Subbing for Marlon Brando’s Jor-El? A bearded Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father, Odin. “Do you swear to guard the nine realms ‒ cast aside all selfish ambitions,” Odin asks his arrogant first born in what we immediately peg as a coronation deal-breaker.
Once on this Superman kick, director Kenneth Branagh ‒ yeah, that Kenneth Branagh ‒ never lets up. He even includes a variation on the Lois Lane-Superman courtship flight. Only this time it’s an astrophysicist named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who’s swept off her feet, but, darn it, we don’t go along for the ride.
If you’re sensing that “Thor” is the latest in a string of whatever-sticks action-hero franchises, we’re coming in loud and clear. Asgard’s glistening organ-pipe skyline? Equal parts Metropolis, Emerald City and the crystalline Krypton. The jealous black-sheep brother (Tom Hiddleston) plot owes as much to LOTR as Shakespeare. The Nordic battle gear worn by the Gate Keeper (Idris Elba) and Thor’s four cohorts (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander) will be familiar to anyone who has seen Kurosawa’s “Ran” or, for that matter, Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” The storm-chasers opening and Main Street face-off between Thor and a hot-under-the-collar gigantor bring to mind, respectively, “Twister” and “The Iron Giant.”
And when Thor’s favorite weapon comes crashing down behind him, it’s not much of a stretch from “The Sword in the Stone” to the hammer in the stone.
I can hear the slumming Branagh admonishing us, “Give me a break ‒ it’s an amusement-park ride movie. Let ’em eat cake!”
Where Branagh excels is in the romantic comedy department. It was a stroke of luck to get Oscar-winner Portman for his heroine/love interest. Portman, ably supported by Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings as research assistants, brings just the right light touch to her incredulous but game scientist. You can sense that she’s having a good time and glad the masochistic rigors of “Black Swan” are well behind her. This certainly shows in her rapport with Hemsworth, who has his best moments dealing with local vendors in Viking-speak. “I need a horse!” he tells a flummoxed pet-shop owner.
The hunky stranger in a strange land bit is so much more entertaining than the Asgard palace intrigue and murky battles with the Frost Giants that we can only hope the emphasis changes in that inevitable sequel. Proposed title: “Me Thor, You Jane.”
THOR ✮✮ Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Kenneth Branagh; scripted by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne. 114 mins. Rated: PG-13 (for CG battle scenes, sword-and-hammer violence)