The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
The tenets of the martial arts as they apply to Fred Simmons (co-writer Danny McBride)--a self-absorbed self-deluded strip-mall Tae Kwon Do instructor--are explored in this appealing indie farce. When Fred’s not belittling or berating his students he’s espousing his loony philosophies and demonstrating his own (mediocre) prowess at Tae Kwon Do--utterly convinced that he is the living embodiment of the art. Life throws him a curveball--or gives him a karate chop to the neck if you will--when he discovers that his bimbo wife Suzie (Mary Jane Bostick) has been playing around. His inner strength shaken to the core Fred tries to apply the very teachings he espouses to his own mess of a life succeeding only in making it messier. Nevertheless as befits come-from-behind stories like this fate has a way of smiling on the underdog--no matter how stupid he may be. McBride soon to be seen in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express plays it perfectly straight as the pompous boor who’s not nearly as smart sexy or savvy as he thinks he is. Instead he’s smug smarmy and would be utterly unbearable were it not for the clueless charm that McBride plays him with. It’s a splendid comedic performance. Bostick complements McBride perfectly as the bubble-headed salon-tanned stereotypical dumb-blonde wife who just can’t seem to keep her hands to herself--and we’re not talking about the martial (or even the marital) arts. Ben Best who also collaborated on the screenplay with McBride and Jody Hill comes into the game late as Fred’s chop-socky idol the equally smarmy Chuck “The Truck” Wallace whose own adherence to the contemplative and spiritual nature of the martial arts is as bogus as Fred’s. As the most stalwart of Fred’s students Spencer Moreno and Carlos Lopez IV stand out with director Hill himself rounds out an enthusiastic cast of up-and-comers. The true success of the film is its confident execution which belies Hill’s first-timer status. The Foot Fist Way is consistently funny not because of the slapstick gags--although those work too--but in the pitch-perfect realization of characters that in other hands might well have been insufferable. Instead they’re amusing and appealing--even more so the worse they behave. The Hollywood landscape is littered with slob comedies that mistake lowbrow idiocy for inventiveness. The Foot Fist Way never makes that mistake and it moves speedily and entertainingly enough that its slow patches are quickly forgotten and forgiven.