Friday, May 6, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: Thor

THOR-- 4 STARS

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Since DC Comics gained popularity in the 1930's and Marvel Comics followed in the 1960's, people have always salivated and wondered if any movie based on superheroes was even possible to film, let alone do the source material justice.  TV took their cracks with actors jumping into camera to look like they flew (The Adventures of Superman) or settled for camping it up (Batman).  It wasn't until movie-making technology slowly caught up to imagination in 1978 when Richard Donner's Superman lived up to its marketing campaign in stating "You'll believe a man can fly."  That film was the game-changer. It brought pulp to life and showed that fantasy could become reality.

Looking back on that original Superman and the first round of Batman films that followed, you can see how they shocked the world during their time.  But even those pale in ability to the most recent comic book film renaissance, taking place of the last decade or so, in creating those fanciful and colorful worlds into living and breathing reality.  Starting with Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000, special effects have begun to make the impossible possible.  For the initial miraculous dazzlement it was to see Christopher Reeve fly over 30 years ago, it clearly pales in comparison anytime the camera follows Spider-Man swinging around New York nowadays.  You can see that each comic book film is out to top the one that came before it.

That path of one-up-man-ship has brought us to 2011 and Thor.  The popular trend lately (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) has been to create comic book movies that tone down the superpowers and focus on the realistic qualities and plausibility of human heroes capable of existing in our real world.  Thor, unapologetically, does the absolute opposite.  It's a grand, epic, and galaxy-bending display of gods among men.  Never before has a superhero movie been so, well, super in its scope and size, yet still leaving room for a little dose of humanity.

Thor begins by illustrating the Asgardians, lead by their great king, Odin (a perfectly-cast Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins) and their long-standing war with the Frost Giants from a neighboring realm.  When their conflict spills past their heavenly home, Asgard, and down to Earth, Odin defeats the Frost Giants on Earth during the time of the Vikings in the A.D. 900's.  From that day on, Odin and his people are revered by the Scandinavians as triumphant mythological Norse gods that fade to fill only our storybooks a millennia later in the 21st century, where science has replaced the belief in gods and magic.

Odin has two sons, Thor and Loki, that he mentors and grooms to take over his kingdom one day.  Thor (Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth) is the older brother, a born and driven warrior who seeks fame and adventure, thinking little of the consequences to his actions.  He brashly wields the mighty hammer, Mjolnir, the source of his power.  The younger Loki (English newcomer Tom Hiddleston) is second fiddle to Thor and relies on his cunning and trickery to get his way.  When Thor arrogantly disrupts the peace Odin has brokered with the Frost Giants, Odin berates his son's misguided ways, strips him of Mjolnir, and banishes him to Earth to teach him a lesson.

In a bolt of cosmic disturbance, Thor crashes to Earth as a man instead of a god and is found by astronomer Jane Foster (recent Academy Award winner Natalie Portman) and her team, Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard of Good Will Hunting) and temp assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist).  The hammer Mjolnir crashes as well, but is soon discovered and quarantined by S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, reprising his recurring Marvel movie role).  Thor's sole focus becomes getting Mjolnir and returning to Asgard, but many obstacles block his path, from his mortality, his growing connection to Foster, the government entanglements of S.H.I.E.L.D., and what his trecherous brother Loki is up to while he is gone in Asgard.

As aforementioned, unlike other superhero films recently, Thor goes for broke and spares no expense in creating an otherworldly setting of godly might.  (On a side note, DC's upcoming Green Lantern doesn't seem to be shying away from it's larger-than-lfe intergalactic setting either.)  Asgard's grandness, from a skyline of etheral castles to the famed "rainbow bridge," is unlike any world seen on-screen this side of Star Wars prequel and a Lord of the Rings film.  It blows the Clash of the Titans update away.  That scope is balanced by a small, yet suitable New Mexico human homeland for our main character to grow in.  The back and forth between the two opposites is amazing.

While the movie isn't wall-to-wall action, Thor and Mjolnir's powers and abilities are recreated from the comic book with incredible special effects and to remarkable accuracy.  Stay out of the Thunder God's way when he starts twirling the rock!  The "wow" moments are everywhere and even Natalie Portman drops an in-character OMG at the sight of Thor in action.

Experienced director Kenneth Branagh, normally a specialist of William Shakepeare not Stan Lee (by the way, watch for his usual Marvel cameo) delivers solid performances from his ensemble cast that are better than most comic book films.  Portman and Hopkins elevate the material, but it's Chris Hemsworth's job to win us over.  For a rookie, he commands the screen and carries the film far better than other unknown comic book film first-timers like Brandon Routh or Tobey Maguire did before him.  Hemsworth has a charisma and stature that, at one moment, can be huge and godly yet, in another, can be jovially and humbly human while conflicted to grow from a petulant prince to a real hero.

For the comic fans out there, Thor brings a world and a character thought to be impossible to pull of on film to rich cinematic life with great success.  Yes, this movie also has the elements (cameos and the obligatory post-credits scene) that set the table for an even bigger (and incredibly audacious) show to come when Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton), Thor (Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans, whose own solo hero film drops this July), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and more all come together in The Avengers, currently filming for a Summer 2012 release.  Marvel Studios is on absolute hot streak of creating well-made and exciting films that bring in both the fans and the general public.  Now that they are owned by Disney, that muscle and appeal should only grow.

LESSON #1: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FATHERS AND SONS-- From Cain and Abel to Dostoyevsky's Karamazov brothers to the Corleones of The Godfather and maybe even your own family, brothers seem to be competitive by nature.  They duel for respect, approval, and position.  The patriarch of those boys can be a uniting or dividing force in that competition for affection, success, and recognition.  The theatrics of Odin, Thor, and Loki match those classic examples of a complicated family triangle.

LESSON #2: THE DEFINITION OF BEING WORTHY-- The famed inscription of the hammer Mjolnir states "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."  Our eldest son of Odin loses his worthiness and is too arrogant to see that.  The paths of humility, redemption, and self-discovery people go on throughout their lives to be worthy for the things they desire, be it a job, a spouse, or a goal, can define their heart, soul, and character.  Those that succeed earn their worthiness while others grow needy, entitled, or never get the point.  

LESSON #3: FINDING THE REAL REASONS TO BE A HERO-- Our Thor begins the film as a vain and self-indulgent individual who seeks out victory solely for self-glorification.  Like an athlete that plays for his or her own statistics and not the team effort and cause, those are the wrong reasons to be a hero and no one will respect you for it.  The real and non-fictional heroes like firefighters, soldiers, police officers, and (dare I say it) teachers don't do what they do for the glory or spoils.  They do it for the noble cause of helping others and making things better.  Heroes like that know the real reason to be what they are is by putting others before themselves.  They'll be forever remembered for going about it that way, too.