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Thor (2011)

Boroughly Thored

In the 1960s, comic book pioneer Stan Lee created what would come to be known as the Marvel Method. Instead of a writer handing over a script to an artist, Lee provided a plot synopsis from which the artist would illustrate an entire issue. On completion, the writer (often Lee) dove into the artwork, adding sound effects and captions to layouts and visual beats; and writing dialogue for the characters that helped make sense of what was happening on the page. In some cases, they had to create personalities for characters they'd never requested, but which the artist had included either on a whim or as a way of clarifying parts of the visual story.

I'm sad to say that the Marvel Method has transcended print and made its way into the movies based on the publishing giant's popular superheroes. The latest powers-and-popcorn spectacle is Kenneth Branagh's Thor, a movie whose high-falutin' cast, state-of-the-art 3D special effects, and two-plus-hour run-time do nothing to disguise its utter averageness. If reading the name "Kenneth Branagh" gave you the impression that this would be a challenging, adult take on the classic superhero origin story, I hate to be the bearer of bad news: Though I can't confirm it, I'm convinced the Kenneth Branagh that directed this film is a twelve-year-old video-games-and-comics nut who won some sort of contest.

The biggest problem I have with Thor is that Marvel Studios apparently banked on the idea that no one in the audience has seen another superhero movie--even the ones they produced themselves in the last decade. With the exception of Ang Lee's Hulk (its merits are debatable; its uniqueness is not), all of the Marvel movies have followed a distinct formula of boy-gets-powers; boy-uses-powers-for-good; boy-doubts-powers-and-runs-away; boy-returns-to-fight-super-powered-villain-and-save-the-day. Some filmmakers have concealed these inner workings by cluttering the playing field (X-Men), or relying on a larger-than-life personality to distract from the familiarity (Iron Man), but we have yet to see anyone try to deliver an origin story that doesn't look, feel, and drag on like every other one in the Marvel stable.

In Thor, Chris Hemsworth plays the Norse god of thunder--sort of. In an effort, I guess, to avoid the sticky issue of why gods need capes, the suits made all of the ancient deities into aliens from a distant universe. Thor is a smirking, over-confident brat, a brawler who loves to destroy things and pummel the enemies of his father's kingdom. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) worries about his son, but trusts him enough to name him successor to the throne over his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). During the coronation, the castle of Asgard is broken into by a team of ice giants looking to steal back a glowing block of energy that was plundered during a war between the kingdoms years earlier.

Against his father's wishes, Thor leads a raid on the ice giants' homeworld to find answers (i.e. seek revenge for their audacity) and winds up starting another war. Odin steps in to make peace, and banishes Thor to Earth for some much needed lessons in humility. A trio of scientists discover Thor and take him in. Jane (Natalie Portman) shows off her PhD in Gushing Over Hot Abs; her assistant, a poli-sci major named Darcy (Kat Dennings) shows off the horrors of No Child Left Behind; and their mentor/professor (I think?), Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) shows off his ability to babysit.

Thor sets out to retrieve his hammer, a mighty boomerang of ancient power that Odin cursed and sent to Earth as a test of his son's worthiness: When the time comes, Thor will be able to lift the hammer from out of a crater in the middle of the New Mexico desert and get his powers back. Complicating matters, the secretive government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. has located the hammer and built a makeshift military base around it.

Back on Asgard, Loki makes a power move after Odin has a heart attack and falls into a coma (?); his first order of business is to re-start the war with the ice giants because...um...

Anyway, Thor's friends get wind of Loki's nefarious ideas and venture to Earth via a giant rainbow bridge that's powered by what looks to be an over-sized, golden airbrush compressor. Loki hears about this and sends a fire-breathing robot-monster called The Destroyer to Earth in order to destroy Thor, his traitorous buddies, and half of New Mexico. This leads to a penultimate climax in which a powerless Thor must protect innocent citizens from a rampaging, unstoppable force, before ultimately regaining his abilities and kicking ass in both realms.

If all of this sounds familiar, congratulations on remembering Superman 2. Thor is nothing but thirty-year-old archetypes and plot points that have been Mad-Lib-bed into the most tiresome screenplay you'll likely see put to film this summer. Though the arrogance angle is a nice touch, the fact remains that we're still dealing with a super-man sent to Earth from an alien world who falls in love with a ballsy Smart Chick and befriends a Nerdy Goofball and Grumpy Boss; the super-man must overcome cultural struggles and his innate physical superiority, and defeat a brutal dictator who wants revenge against his father.

Granted, those are all conventions established in the DC Universe (a Marvel competitor), but there are plenty of instances where Branagh and screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne crib from the Marvel vault, too. As in 2004's Spider-man 2, Thor ends with a giant spinning death machine emitting crazy bursts of energy being plunged into the ocean.

Additionally, we have villains with daddy issues; the tragic, climactic moment where the romantic leads are separated by their diverging destinies--followed by the glimmer of hope for a rekindling in the sequel; and, of course, the bajillion references to other Marvel movies that will lay the ground-work for the forthcoming mega-team-up Avengers movie (in a particularly lame cameo, Jeremy Renner shows up as sharpshooter Hawkeye; much has been made of this appearance, but I'm sad to report that after a lot of shadowy jumping and getting into position to strike at Thor, Hawkeye is ordered to stand down; it's like announcing a Wolverine cameo and having Hugh Jackman show up to ask a gas station attendant for the men's room key).

There's nothing to recommend here, unless you've literally never seen a Marvel Films movie. This is one of those rare PG-13 blockbusters where the age recommendation is meant as a maximum, not a minimum. I think you'd have to be a child in order to appreciate Hemsworth's non-presence as Thor--which is a shame, because he lit up the screen as Captain Kirk's doomed father in the 2009 Star Trek remake. Here, he glowers and smirks and poses very well. But he's got nothing on Robert Downey, Jr. in the Charming Braggadocio department, and does little to combat the notion that Thor--like Wolverine--is just not interesting enough of a character to support an entire movie.

As for Portman, I can only hope that this role, along with her parts in Your Highness and No Strings Attached were filmed prior to her (ugh) Academy-Award-winning performance in Black Swan. Otherwise, I fear she may be the victim of the Oscar Curse--that puzzling downward slide into crap films and derision that has claimed the likes of Hilary Swank and Halle Berry (who, don't forget, played Catwoman in a Batman spin-off). She has little to do in this movie, and no chance to display her alleged acting chops; as a character, Jane is a damsel in distress whose main job seems to be reinforcing the lead actor's hotness through a series of blushes, quivers and the most unconvincingly rushed budding romance since Knight and Day's Cruise/Diaz hookup. Rene Russo rounds out the "I Guess We Gotta Put Women in this Thing" quotient, playing Thor's mother as a series of concerned looks masquerading as a personality.

The only performer to rise above the material (by about a millimeter) is Hiddleston. Loki has some interesting motivations and I really enjoyed his subtle villainy in the beginning; it's a shame that he's reduced to yelling and shooting things in the climax like the foe in a Die Hard knockoff.

Which brings me back to the Marvel Method. Branagh and Company have created a wholly generic action movie that could have been written by an iPhone app. There's no personality in the directing, no stamp that indicates we're watching the work of a great actor/director; how much of that is the fault of the screenwriters' ineptitude or the studio's desire to maintain a high asses-in-seats rotation by not challenging anyone's notions of what a superhero movie could be is anyone's guess. All I know is that Thor is all lightning and no thunder.

Note:  I should mention that this is another one of those 3D movies where seventy-five percent of the film is actually in 2D, and the extra-dimensional effects pop up every once in awhile. It used to be that you had to wear the special glasses throughout an entire movie in order to avoid seeing squiggly splotches on the screen. With Thor, as with TRON: Legacy, you can watch most of the movie with the glasses off; some might call the four-dollar up-charge on such films a rip-off.  I call it dark financial genius.

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