Hammer Time

'Thor' offers excellent action, charming humor and fine performances

Director Kenneth Branagh brings his Shakespearean pedigree to Thor, easily his best effort since his epic Hamlet. The superhero genre is indeed suited to Branagh's grandiose sensibilities.

The perfectly cast Chris Hemsworth (Kirk's heroic father from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) brings mountains of muscle, charm and good humor to the role of Thor, the hammer-wielding son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Right from the beginning—when Odin banishes Thor from his godly realm to the land of Earth, and younger son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) begins his villainous rise—echoes of Shakespeare's King Lear are prominent. Thor and Loki wind up being the Marvel equivalent of Lear's Edgar and Edmund.

This is an origin story, like the first Superman and Spider-Man films, replete with a triumphant musical score by Patrick Doyle that would make John Williams blush. Thor is a complete experience, with eye-popping action (Branagh uses CGI and 3-D technology to maximum effect), a sweet love story (a little actress named Natalie Portman stops by to provide romantic interest) and many solid laughs.

Branagh's films have sometimes suffered from pretentiousness, occasionally getting so overblown that they become goofy. While he hit a perfect balance with Hamlet (still his best film), misfires like Frankenstein and Much Ado About Nothing (Keanu Reeves doing Shakespeare ... oh my) have laced his career. With Thor, Branagh is able to be as overblown and goofy as he wants, because the character accommodates him.

We first see Thor in his silly Viking helmet, sporting a cape and bellowing his lines with the force of a young Laurence Olivier. After he disobeys, and Odin banishes him, Thor finds himself smashing coffee mugs in an old-town American diner, with Kat Dennings (contributing excellent deadpan comedy) clicking a picture of him to post on Facebook.

The contrast between Earth and Thor's mythological hometown (the action switches back and forth throughout) is one of the movie's great joys. As part of his banishment, Thor is stripped of his powers, and there's nothing more intriguing in a superhero movie than the main hero losing his juice.

Of course, a good superhero movie needs a delectable super villain, and Hiddleston, a relative unknown, brings much treachery to the role of Loki. Loki isn't pure evil; he's misunderstood and confused, and his descent into villainy is the film's great tragedy. Credit Branagh, Hiddleston and the writers for creating a monster with humane elements mixed in. It makes Loki all the more interesting.

While the battle pitting Thor against Loki is the main thrust of the story, the film does stop to breathe every now and then, slowing its pace for the budding love story between Thor and beautiful scientist Jane Foster (Portman), or for simple banter between Thor and mere mortals. I urge patience in watching the slower moments, because they are quite good, and heart-racing action always follows.

I bring up the notion of patience, because the dipshit critic I sat next to during the screening began huffing, puffing, cracking his knuckles and biting his nails every time the movie stopped for some intelligent and funny conversation. Then, as the credits played (and stay for those credits, because there's more movie after them), the dipshit critic blathered on and on to those around him about how the talky parts were boring.

Hey, Mr. Critic: Keep your damned mouth shut until you sit down at your computer to write your review. The credits count as part of the movie, so put a sock in it, asshole.

Sorry ... back on track.

If you should take in the experience with 3-D glasses, Thor is an example of post-production 3-D done right, as opposed to slop like Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland. Branagh and crew apparently learned that producers would be doing a 3-D conversion fairly early on, and I suspect Branagh shot his movie with 3-D in mind, rather than haphazardly changing the film in post-production (the mistake made with Titans).

The movie has a solid, shimmering look that suits the format well. No, these aren't the best 3-D visuals that cinema has to offer, as in Avatar. But Thor does play like a movie that had 3-D in mind, especially during some of the epic battle scenes and flying sequences. Here's hoping this summer's Captain America follows suit.

The summer movie season is young, but Thor kicks it into high gear, and is a nice primer for the upcoming The Avengers. Hemsworth stands alongside Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire as an actor who has brought true depth to a superhero role.

As for Branagh, he brings a majestic grace to the genre and instantly joins the Superhero-Film Director Hall of Fame, alongside Richard Donner, Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan.

I thought the character of Thor would make for a boring film. I was wrong.