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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Screen /  Hammer time
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Thursday, May 12,2011

Hammer time

By Michael Phillips
At this point in the Marvel Comics-derived superhero cycle, audiences can be forgiven for feeling a tad worn out, both for reasons of quality and quantity. My rear end’s thor just thinking about how many more we have coming. Yet sometimes a product exceeds expectations.

I like Thor, for example. This is remarkable, considering the lameness of the first 25 minutes of director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Marvel character introduced in 1962.

A stolid visual stylist at best, Branagh lays out the early scenes in this interplanetary saga with as little cinematic interest as is humanly and digitally possible. Computer-generated hordes mill around while the King of Asgard gives a speech; crushing action sequences full of fire and ice place the actors far too close to the camera; hacky, nervous editing (by Paul Rubell) neither propels nor maximizes the flow of the action.

Then, as if by decree from the Beard of Odin itself, your X-Men Origins headache recedes, the mighty intergalactic Thunder God travels to Earth, and Thor acquires a sense of humor and becomes that thing that all creatures from all realms crave: a good time. The last 25 minutes of Thor aren’t much better than the first. But that hour in between — tasty, funny, robustly acted — more than compensates.

It helps having strong actors fully invested in their expositional blather. On the planet Asgard, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and queen Frigga (Rene Russo, barely verbal) must choose an heir to the throne. Odin’s options come down to Son One, Thor, a hot-tempered pinup played by Chris Hemsworth, and his undermining brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, looking like Shakespeare’s Iago). Thor’s impetuous streak leads his posse into battle with the Frost Giants from the neighboring planet Jotunheim, pronounced “Vodenheim,” which sounds like a classy Norwegian writers retreat but is in fact a cold and forbidding place, much like the University of Minnesota’s Duluth campus.

Banished for his bloodthirsty actions, Thor and his mighty hammer are whooshed to New Mexico, where the more engaging half of Thor unfolds. Astrophysics research team members played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat “Just Gliding Through” Dennings have their eyes on the skies, when down comes this hunk of hero. He’s a space-Norse fish out of water, in need of a comeuppance before he can become a true hero. In one choice bit, he charges into a pet store unsuccessfully demanding a horse. (The screenplay starts with Thor’s arrival and then flashes back to Asgard and Jotunheim.)

As with the first Iron Man, it’s the humor that seals the deal, not the action. Branagh’s strengths clearly lie in the interpersonal scheming and glowering between Thor and crimson-eyed lizard baddie Laufey (Colm Feore), and the sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki, a relationship of welcome ambiguity. As Odin, Hopkins brings purpose and steel to what could have been a routine assignment. As for the hammer, well, it’s a pip: It works like a supersonic boomerang, and as someone says, “’Tis a fit companion for a king.” Hemsworth was a fine pick for this role. He’ll be back on screen next summer in the all-star Marvel bash The Avengers.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com

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