With Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo and Idris Elba; Directed by Kenneth Branagh; Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence); 114 minutes
Kenneth Branagh’s mother must have needed an operation. Why else would the esteemed actor-turned-director – responsible for such top-shelf Shakespeare film adaptations as “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and the way-ballsy “Hamlet” – go mercenary for a by-the-numbers comic book adaptation like THOR? Perhaps only the Gods know.
Spunky girl scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is investigating anomalies in space-time in the New Mexico desert one evening when an exceptionally good-looking Viking man (Chris Hemsworth) falls from the sky and collides with Jane’s science-mobile. After suspecting that he may be a crazy homeless person who may at any moment decide to wear her pretty outsides as a hat, she comes to realize that the exceptionally good-looking Viking man is who he has been claiming to be all along – Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. You know, the standard immortal blond himbo-meets-groundbreaking-smart-girl story that Hollywood has been making for a century.
If “Thor” existed in a vacuum – and “Spider-Man” helmer Sam Raimi had designs on the project as early as 1990 – it would be far freer to be its own animal and develop its themes and deep-rooted mythology a bit better. Instead, too much of its duration is spent opening doors to other Marvel Comics story lines. For example, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of the benevolent hero-wrangling organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is here, connecting “Thor” to the two “Iron Man” movies in which Coulson has already appeared (Robert Downey’s “Iron Man” character Tony Stark is also mentioned). “Iron Man” returnee Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a cameo in one of those maddening after-the-credits scenes. A peripheral mention of Bruce Banner (The Hulk’s pre-green alter ego) is made. Military crack shot Clint Barton, aka “Hawkeye,” shows up (in an uncredited cameo by Jeremy Renner, star of “The Hurt Locker” and future Jason Bourne). Of course, this is all primping for “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon’s 2012 the-gang’s-all-here blowout “The Avengers,” but for us, here, watching “Thor,” now, they add up to one shiny thing too many.
One thing that can be said for Branagh is that he attracts the acting talent, and thesp-peepers will not be disappointed. Anthony Hopkins plays Thor’s father, Odin, with Shakespearean relish, and Stellan Skarsgård (aka “The Swedish Liam Neeson”) is no slouch, either, playing Jane’s boss, Erik Selvig, and giving the otherworldly action some needed terrestrial rooting in humanity and reality. Rene Russo, after laying low for more than five years, appears (as lovely as ever) as Thor’s mother, Frigga. Perhaps the most interesting casting choice, however (or the most profane, if you ask white-power organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens) is Idris Elba (Russell “Stringer” Bell in HBO’s awesome “The Wire”) as Heimdall, the keeper of the trans-dimensional Bifröst Bridge. Elba, while from England, is a black man, without the blond hair and blue eyes that many would deem prerequisite to playing an Aryan god. This, like Morgan Freeman proved while matter-of-factly playing the President in “Deep Impact” and God in “Bruce Almighty,” is immaterial, as Elba is such a commanding presence, even if he is relegated to playing the guy who flips the switch on the drawbridge to make it go up.
Still, “Thor” is little more than a big-budget cartoon, full of bluster and over-amped CGI visuals, and curiously, an ultimately boring one, at that. Watching the battle scenes between Thor’s crew and the Frost Giants, all of which look like unreal extracts from a video game or a “Lord Of The Rings” movie, one cannot help but lament that this is all from Kenneth friggin’ Branagh, who, in “Henry V,” committed to film the most incredible computer-unassisted battle scenes, coupling it with a sweeping tragedy that engaged an audience fully. While the numbers that “Thor” is posting at the worldwide box office are impressive, they only suggest that the marketing department at Paramount has done its job effectively, tricking us into the theater, where earlier than halfway into the movie, we start checking our watches to see when we can leave it to go home and read the comic books and pulp novels that made us love stories like Thor’s in the first place.•••