The super hero universe grows on the silver screen with the upcoming Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures release of " Thor," but in a decidedly non-super hero fashion. Where previous films featuring super powered beings focused almost entirely on the players, the shift in this film takes a bold step towards world building, which helps makes this the best Marvel film release yet.
Director Kenneth Branagh does well with what is essentially a pretty simple origin story - powerful son disappoints father, struggles to learn the lessons his father imparts, yet finally overcomes his own arrogance and over confidence to grow as both a man and hero. We've seen this story played out in literature and film numerous times, but Branagh skillfully manages his cast and brings out performances that make the somewhat mechanical storyline feel both new and engaging.
After a short sequence on Earth, the film starts by taking the audience immediately to Asgard, the home world of Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth. We're given a brief Asgardian history lesson focusing on their deadly war with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, ruled by Laufey. The story is told by King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to his two young sons, Thor and Loki, and brings the audience up to speed in quick fashion by telling the tale of an incredible battle between Odin's forces and the Frost Giants. Great sacrifices are made on both sides, but ultimately the Frost Giants are defeated and what follows is a tense but peaceful period between the two worlds.
Questions have dogged this production from the start of whether or not audiences would accept a super hero film where much of the feature takes place on a fantastic world very unlike Earth. Once your through the back story and brought in to the present day, you're left wanting to know more about Asgard's history and are blown away by its majesty. Hopkins' brings great strength to his role as a wise old leader and helps ground Asgard and makes it relatable for the audience.
The film moves back and forth comfortably between Earth and Asgard. Thor's ascension to the throne is interrupted when he convinces his friends Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three - Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) - to confront the Frost Giants after they breach Asgardian security in an attempt to steal a powerful weapon. This brings about a second war between Jotunheim and Asgard and for going against his father's express wishes, Odin banishes his son to Earth. This is a powerful moment between the defiant son and a very disappointed and troubled father. It's here we see Hopkins shine and he helps rise the performances of all those around him.
When Thor arrives on earth we meet scientist Jane Foster played by Natalie Portman. The chemistry between Portman and Hemsworth is instantly evident, but Marvel smartly chose to not over state the romantic storyline. It's there, in the background, but never forced and develops naturally. It's clear this love affair will be explored more either in "The Avengers" or the potential sequel to this film.
Foster is witness to the event that brings Thor to earth, an incredible wormhole which transports our heroes from Heimdall's Observatory on Asgard through the use of bifrost AKA the Rainbow Bridge. While the design and look of Asgard is awe inspiring, the most impressive design has to be the Observatory and how this jump through space takes place. Idris Alba's Heimdall is an imposing and powerful figure in the film who watches over this incredible observatory that spins to life with great speed and beauty. Space travel has never looked so cool.
Foster's research in to these events on Earth is interrupted by SHIELD, that mysterious government agency headed up by Nick Fury. It's SHIELD's investigation that allows this film to set up "The Avengers," giving us a glimpse of characters appearing in that film and setting the table for what's to come. Agent Phil Coulson, played smartly by Clark Gregg, is at the center of this storyline. While he was seen in "Iron Man" 1 & 2, he plays a much larger role in "Thor" and brings a likeable touch to this clandestine organization.
While Foster tries to better understand who this new being is that magically appeared in her life, Loki's story is revealed back on Asgard. With Thor out of the picture on Earth and powerless to act, this allows Loki to seize control of the throne through manipulation and trickery. Finding Loki's ascension impossible to accept, Sif and the Warrior Three journey to Earth in an attempt to find Thor and bring him home. The performance of these actors makes them instantly likeable, but their lack of character development is one of the great missed opportunities of the film. We're given brief glimpses in to who these players are and what meaning they have in Thor's life. When we do see them they're mostly fighting in impressive action sequences by Thor's side on Jotunheim or back on Earth against the massive Destroyer, but you're left wanting to know much more about who they are.
Hemsworth plays Thor as a powerful, confident general and he'll fit well alongside the likes of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in the upcoming "The Avengers." For a young actor who's never carried a movie of this scale on his own, it's an impressive performance that plays up the iconic features and power of the character.
While there's not a weak performance by anyone in "Thor," the standouts are the two villains played by Hiddleston and Feore. Tom Hiddleston's Loki is played with great subtlety. While he may appear almost half the size of Hemsworth, at no point do you doubt his power when he goes up against Heimdall or battles his brother in the final action sequence. His deviousness and duplicity make him an instantly memorable villain.
It's Colm Feore's role as Laufey that audiences may come away from this film remembering best. Having met Feore on set last May in full make-up, it became apparent that the actor was transformed by the intricately designed costume. Through the magic of digital effects, Feore puts on a good foot or two in height, making him one of the most imposing physical creatures seen on film. Laufey simply shines in a stirring final battle with Loki and Thor.
Seeing the film in 3D was nice, but only half effective. Aside from an outstanding action sequence in New Mexico with the mechanical and quite deadly Destroyer, the 3D is lost on the Earth bound sequences. On the other hand, Asgard is majestic in 3D and special attention should be paid by audiences to these scenes, especially those in Odin's throne room and anything involving Heimdall's observatory.
Patrick Doyle's score at times helps convey the grandeur of Asgard and nicely accentuates the action set pieces, but at times it's the weak link in the film, playing up the drama with a melodramatic tone that may leave you rolling your eyes occasionally. It's these moments that remind me of Branagh's early directing attempt "Dead Again," a favorite of mine, but ultimately the melodrama that works so effectively in that film doesn't go over as well in "Thor."
It's on Asgard that this film takes on a more "Lord of the Rings" quality and that's very much a good thing. Where "Iron Man" 1 & 2 felt like traditional super hero films, with "Thor" Marvel is clearly universe building. At no point do you really look at Thor like you do a traditional super hero like Iron Man, Spider-Man or even Batman. This is not to say one is better than the other, but only to illustrate the point that the style of presentation seen in this film is different from what we've seen before and helps to expand the brand.
Blink and you may miss references to other events in the Marvel Studios universe or the brief cameos of Stan Lee, J. Michael Straczynski, Walter Simonson and Louise Simonson. Comic fans will absolutely want to stay to the end of the credits for what has to be the best teaser from Marvel Studios.
While "Thor" is not a perfect film, it is the best from Marvel Studios yet. The lessons learned from their previous attempts are evident here, with a strong storyline that doesn't have any major weaknesses. The film deftly expands the Marvel Universe in film, taking bold steps to set itself apart from the pack, with a great set-up for what may be the ultimate super hero cross over.
"Thor" opens in the US on May 6th.