Hammer Time with “Thor”

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

This summer, one particular type of film is aiming to sweep the season off its feet — the superhero genre. In fact, four superhero films will have smashed into theaters by the end of July. Of these, one has chosen to grace us a bit early by releasing this past weekend. While “Thor” is an underdeveloped and almost superfluous attempt to bring yet another renowned Marvel hero to the big screen, its moments of fun and humor manage to compensate for its shortcomings.

Centuries after his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) waged war against the Frost Giants and established a fragile peace, the mighty yet arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth) reignites hostilities when he retaliates against the Frost Giants after a few of them conduct an incursion into Asgard. Furious, Odin strips Thor of his armor, powers and the hammer Mjolnir, and finally casts him down to Earth.

Upon landing in New Mexico and discovering that he is now mortal, Thor meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and, while attempting to adapt to this new world, tries to figure out a way to return to Asgard. Meanwhile, his calculating and mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) executes a devious plan to place himself on the throne of Asgard.

In some respects, “Thor” feels like a film that had to be made just because its titular hero is one of Marvel’s most popular characters and more importantly, one of the key members of the Avengers, the team of Marvel superheroes. With that being said, there are some instances when the film seems like a preview of the upcoming Avengers film, which is currently scheduled for a 2012 release. Indeed, the majority of the film’s weaknesses lay in its narrative, and many of them hint at a lack of passion in Thor and his story.

Director Kenneth Branagh, best known for his film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays, guides and handles the film’s subject matter well, especially when it comes to the relationship between fathers and sons — a theme that he is very familiar with. However, despite working with a fairly simple and straightforward story, he moves the film along in a very fast pace, which results in the lack of a smooth flow from scene to scene. By the time “Thor” ends, it hardly feels like a film that runs for a little under two hours.

Minimal character development is the root of all the film’s narrative problems. Although it’s fine to accept the fact that underdeveloped characters are inevitable in a film like this, there is a particular complication at hand. Underdeveloped characters lead to rudimentary relationships and our indisposition to be emotionally involved, and those in turn lead to unconvincing events. This perfectly describes the love story between Thor and Jane.

In the film, Thor spends literally two days on Earth, and from that period of time, he spends only several hours with Jane. During the span of those hours, they slowly fall in love with each other. This sounds a bit far-fetched, especially when we take into consideration that not much is known about Jane other than the fact that she’s an astrophysicist and she had an ex-boyfriend. On top of all this, so little time is given to their romance that it seems contrived.

However, all this doesn’t mean that “Thor” is a film that you should absolutely skip — not even. In its best moments, the film is enjoyable popcorn entertainment. Branagh always ensures that the film keeps our attention, and does so by adding touches of humor — mostly in the form of witty one-liners and obvious yet cynical observations uttered by secondary characters — and placing delightful but short action sequences after scenes of exposition.

Relatively unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth — whose most well-known role until now was Captain Kirk’s father in “Star Trek” — is quite impressive as the god of thunder. He nails Thor’s arrogance well by commanding the screen with a bellowing, authoritative presence and communicates a good range of emotions.

Another unknown in the cast is English actor Tom Hiddleston, who plays Thor’s cunning brother. He portrays his character’s malevolence with a quiet yet manipulative personality, and he too hits all the right emotions.

Surprisingly, Anthony Hopkins actually chooses to take his role seriously and is rather fun to watch. Recent Oscar winner Natalie Portman isn’t given enough material to work with but shares a convincing chemistry with Hemsworth. As for the rest of the cast, they too have little to work with, but most of them attempt to be memorable, so kudos to them.

While the costumes and set design are rather hammy upon first look, it must be kept in mind that they are an integral part of the film’s world, particularly Asgard. That said, they do express a feeling of grandeur and majesty, which sweeping camera movements deftly communicate as well.

The visuals themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. The environment of Asgard is pretty cool to look at, but villains like the Frost Giant and the Destroyer, as well as effects like lightning, seem like half-baked efforts.

The film is available in 2-D and 3-D formats. This critic watched the film in the latter, and recommends that you watch it in the former. While the 3-D effects are good in that they don’t throw things in our faces, they are unnecessary, since there aren’t any scenes that absolutely need to be in 3-D.

“Thor” is the first of many superhero films that Marvel is launching in preparation for the Avengers film, and there are times in which we feel that the film was made solely for this purpose. The film does need development in several areas like the characters and narrative, but ultimately proves to be entertaining due to its humor, action and effective cast.

Rating: 3/5 Stars