‘Thor’ the Best Superhero Debut Since ‘Spider-Man’

Chicago Sun Times, 6 May 2011
By Richard Roeper

All due respect to the Norse legend and the whole God of Thunder thing, Thor has always seemed like a B-lister among comic book superheroes — nowhere near as complex and compelling and prone to dark moments as the Supermans and Batmans and Spideys.

Let’s face it. With that oversized hammer and the chiseled pecs and the flowing blond locks, Thor looks like he could be the lead dancer in one of those “Thunder Down Under” all-male reviews you see advertised in Las Vegas. The Dark Knight would take one look at the guy and growl in disapproval.

But here’s the good news: Thanks in large part to a charming, funny and winning performance from Australian actor Chris Hemsworth in the title role, the big-screen version of “Thor” is the most entertaining superhero debut since the original “Spider-Man.” Director Kenneth Branagh brings his Shakespearean cred to the table, but he balances the speechifying about loyalty and betrayal and father-son issues with breathtaking action sequences, dazzling special effects and some wickedly funny moments as well. (We even get at least two references to “The Avengers.”) The result is wall-to-wall entertainment that sets the bar high for the 2011 summer superhero season.

Your move, Captain America.

Of course, Thor’s not just a superhero — he’s a god in the making, son of the aging but still powerful and wise King Odin and the loving Queen Frigga, brother of the resentful Loki, and friend to a merry band of warriors who look as if they’ve wandered off a “What’s in your wallet?” commercial.

Other than a loyal guardsman who monitors the bridge to other worlds and thousands upon thousands of faceless CGI extras who appear in a few scenes, the aforementioned handful of folks appear to be the only residents of Asgard, a fantastic and wondrous world that nevertheless doesn’t appear to be all that much fun. (Isn’t that always the way with these other -worlds? Sure, there are gleaming towers and flying machines and amazing sunsets, but you don’t get the sense these people/gods/creatures would know what to do with their spare time if they weren’t fighting intergalactic wars. Are there any good restaurants or taverns? Anything good on TV?) Thanks to Thor’s ego and bloodthirst, war now looms between the Asgardians and their historic, bitter rivals the Frost Giants of Jotunheim (and yes, I know how silly that sounds), so a heartbroken Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes his son from the planet until he learns the ways of a true king. Thor plunks down in New Mexico as a mere mortal — albeit a mortal who looks like he’s spent a LOT of time at the gym and at the GNC store.

Without his hammer (which has landed in New Mexico separately from Thor and has drawn the attention of a mysterious government agency that believes it to be some kind of electromagnetic meteorite or something), Thor is but a man among men. In classic alien-on- Earth fashion, he learns the joys of Pop-Tarts and coffee, befuddles the locals with his talk of his distant homeland and his magic hammer, and conveniently finds clothes that fit him just perfectly.

The great Stellan Skarsgard, the adorable Kat Dennings and the priceless Natalie Portman are the trio of scientists who find Thor and take him in, all the while debating whether he’s a delusional hunk reciting childhood fairy tales (Skarsgard’s take) or just maybe, possibly, crazy as it might sound, a visitor from Far Beyond.

Branagh knows this material is borderline camp, but he doesn’t condescend to it, à la Seth Rogen and Co. with “The Green Hornet.” Without ever getting too cheesy, “Thor” has a lot of fun with the lighter, earth-bound sequences while alternating with scenes of violence and betrayal on Thor’s home planet. The Frost Giants aren’t the only enemy waiting to destroy Asgard as King Odin slips into a coma and lingers near death. There’s an even more dangerous foe lurking much closer, and this enemy’s obsessions could mean the end of Asgard and the death of Thor.

It’s Portman’s Jane Foster who teaches the arrogant Thor how to care for others and how to sacrifice his personal ambition for the greater good. Amidst all the lightning and the thunder and the raging battles, there’s a sweet love story here. Hemsworth can flex and pummel and punch with the best of them, but he also brings the banter in his scenes with Portman. He’ll have a career beyond the cape and hammer.

Not that “Thor” should be a one-and-done effort. There’s the upcoming “Avengers” movie, and surely more solo Thor films as well. We need more Hammer Time.

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