Saturday, May 14, 2011

MOVIE - Thor.

Thor is the latest in Marvel's attempt to own the superhero genre and assemble an awareness in modern popular culture of the characters who will eventually feature in their ultimate goal - a blockbuster Avengers movie. You know they've been doing this, right?

Iron Man - which was successful enough to allow for a sequel, The Incredible Hulk - which was not, and now 2011's Thor and Captain America. The question is, does Thor successfully stand on its own as an entertaining popcorn-muchin' summer flick, in the same way that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk did?

Yes. In fact, I'm inclined to suggest it's actually better than its eventual-Avenger predecessors - though its strengths do not precisely line up with theirs.

First of all, Thor was directed by the celebrated Kenneth Branagh. He's a gifted actor (you may remember him as professor Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film) with a penchant for directing more high-brow affairs - he made his name directing film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. Thor is his first foray into popular culture - and it pays large dividends.

Structurally, Thor is a classic three act show - but its bookends are grand, opulent, operatic affairs of booming voices, grand set pieces and melodramatic political intrigue. To put it simply - very Shakespearean. The meat in this sandwich of style is a bit of trial and comedy for our hero - both of which are equally effective. By the end of the film, we are wholly onside with Thor. We can't wait for him to claim his place in the universe and start kicking ass - and the film delivers on all its promises.

It only falters, I feel, in the relationship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane (Natalie Portman) and its action. Take a peek above, and check out Hemsworth with his shirt off. Sure, I believe this dude came from the heavens. Likewise, Portman is as gorgeous an ethereal as we've come to expect - but their chemistry is tepid, and their relationship given little time to develop onscreen. It feels like a bullet-point.

Also in the admirably-attempted, but not-quite-there category are the action sequences. They're visually engaging. In the same way that Branagh paints an incredible picture of Thor's home of Asgard, he is able to give us a few gorgeous tableaus of special effects and staging, but he doesn't have a great handle on how to choreograph combat sequences.

That's not to say the action in Thor is bad - it's certainly better than the often-unwatchable sequences in Iron Man 2 - it's just not the best part of an otherwise very fun film.

Thor is better-constructed than any of its future-Avenging kin. Thanks to the gorgeous set pieces and visual arts employed to render Thor's otherworldly home, it's a blast to watch. Thanks to Hemsworth's capable performance - violent, stoic, charming and cool in equal measure - it's a charming romp. Thanks to some clever writing and a light touch in act two (helped along by the hilarious Kat Dennings), it will occasionally have you laughing out loud.

Thanks to director Kenneth Branagh, it's the best Marvel hero film yet.

Now, to those of you who think Iron Man takes that cake, I must protest. The Iron Man movies are reasonably fun to watch (thanks largely to Robert Downey Jr, and dialogue that takes advantage of his talents), and as in Thor we know precisely where their stories will end up - but at least with Thor I was occasionally surprised by how we got there.

It's just a better movie.

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