By Todd Matthy

Marvel’s done it again. Since the appearance of a hammer after the closing credits of last summer’s Iron Man 2, anticipation has been high for the arrival of a certain god of thunder to the big screen. So does Thor live up to the hype? Thanks to a charismatic cast and the direction of one Kenneth Branagh, it does.

The story of Thor is a story about a father and son. Thor begins in the past with Odin (Anthony Hopkins), King of Asgard, narrating to his young sons Thor and Loki, the story of how he defeated the Frost Giants and brought peace between the mythical realms of Asgard and Jotunheim. From there we move to the present where during a lavish ceremony, Odin proclaims that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) will inherit his throne. Unfortunately, the ceremony is interrupted when a group of Frost Giants infiltrates Asgard and attempt to steal an ancient weapon called the Casket of Ancient Winters. His big day ruined, Thor and his friends Sif (Jamie Alexander), and the Warrior’s Three, Fandral (Josh Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) go to Jotunheim to confront the Frost Giants. After being called a princess, Thor attacks their leader, Laufey (Colm Feore), with his hammer forcing Odin’s intervention and reigniting an ancient war. Angered by his son’s arrogance and foolishness, Odin banishes Thor to Earth, casting an enchantment upon his hammer that none may hold it unless they are worthy.

On Earth, Thor meets scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor, the fatherly Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and their lovable assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) who take him in and try to acclimate him to life on Earth. Meanwhile on Asgard, Odin becomes sick leaving the throne to Thor’s manipulative and hateful half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleson) who has plans for his older brother. Back on Earth, the government agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken an interest in a hammer no man can pick up.  Whew…a lot huh? Don’t worry it moves fast.

One of the reasons Marvel’s movies are so strong is because you watch the hero’s grow and mature. Thor begins the movie as an arrogant braggart who needs to be taught a lesson. The heart of the movie is watching him learn this lesson and how it changes him as a person. The Thor at the beginning of the movie is not the same as the one at the end.  This is accomplished not only through Branagh’s directing but also through the acting of Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth portrays Thor as a charismatic, loud, boisterous rock star, who’s so caught up in himself he fails to see his shortcomings. There’s actually a child like innocence to Thor, in that he really doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. Hemsworth’s performance is so strong is he makes you believe it. Through his delivery, you actually believe that you are seeing Thor on screen rather then an actor playing Thor. This is also a testament to director Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is not afraid to let his characters be emotional. When a character is angry they express anger. There is no subtlety, you know they are angry, and in a story about big characters and big emotions Branagh should be praised for his overt approach, not allowing his characters to waste time but get right to the point by expressing their emotions.  The only character who needs to express subtlety (and expresses it well mind you) is Tom Hiddleson’s Loki. Loki is a manipulative character and Tom Hiddleson flawlessly portrays him as such through his delivery, body language, and facial expressions. Loki always says one thing and means another and Hiddleson lets us know it through the little things like his tone of voice and facial expressions.

As for the other performances, I could sing praises about the majesty of Anthony Hopkins’ Odin. I can talk about the curiosity of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. To me, the performance that stood out (from as early as the trailer) is Kat Denning’s Darcy. Darcy is witty and adorable. You will fall in love with this character. She is always there with a one liner, whether it’s tazing Thor or worrying about her iPod, Darcy brings a fun, human, perspective to a grand story about gods and power. Kudos to Kat Dennings for her performance. Marvel, I think we can make room for this character in our comic book canon, can’t we?

As for the director, believe or not Kenneth Branagh was right at home directing this movie. The emotions, the political machinations, the familial struggle, all are themes that should be familiar to a Shakespearian actor/director of his caliber.

Special effects wise, Asgard is breathtaking. Bright, beautiful, majestic sets, painted with CGI. You have to see it to believe it. It really is gorgeous. A painting come to life.

Alan Moore once said life is like an escalator in that there are points that you want to spend more time at and savor but ultimately you have to keep riding nonstop until the end. Thor is like that. There are many parts you want to savor and explore in greater depth but ultimately can’t because of a two-hour run time. I would love to have spent more time in Asgard. I would love to have spent more time hanging out with Darcy but that’s what DVD’s are for.

Yes, Thor follows a formula. But it’s one that’s not broken and therefore doesn’t need to be fixed. (Ang Lee, I’m looking at you.) In the end it comes down to what the director does with the formula. Kenneth Branagh was able to bring a Shakespearian sensibility to a formulaic comic book origin story and make it work. He didn’t change anything but instead added his own ingredients. I hope he’s back for a sequel because I’d love to see how he’d handle Balder the Brave, Hela, the manipulative wiles of the Enchantress, and the apocalyptic presence of the fire demon Surtur. Thor is a good old-fashioned, beautiful, movie going experience that is a perfect opening salvo to the summer movie season. See it!

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