Latest super hero movie is all fun

Posted: Thursday, May 12, 2011


Ap Photo/Paramount Pictures-Marvel Studios, Zade Rosenthal
Ap Photo/Paramount Pictures-Marvel Studios, Zade Rosenthal
In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Chris Hemsworth, left, and Natalie Portman are shown in a scene from the film, "Thor."

Paramount Pictures

1 hour, 54 minutes

You really have to hand it to Marvel Comics. As far as the comic books go, the company has always been quality, though it's a toss-up for most people as to whether it, or DC was the better company. You have your Spider-Man fans and you have your Superman fans, and never the twain shall meet.

But cinematically, Marvel was the pits until just recently. While DC has been exploiting Batman and Superman to one degree of success or another since the 1950s, Marvel gave over the rights to their most lucrative characters to the lowest bidders. Low-budget, schlocky, and incredibly poor quality is what marked the early "Spider-Man" TV series of the '70s. There were a few clever Saturday morning TV shows, and a couple of fun after-school cartoon series, but that's not quality. That's not seeing Christopher Reeves fly or Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Those early Marvel shows amounted to just enough effort to keep a 10-year-old amused. There were also terrible attempts at big-screen adaptations such as the little seen 1990 "Captain America" and "The Punisher" starring Dolph Lundgren.

But in the last few years, the company's got it all turned around, shopping their most popular characters out to the big studios and netting major directors and major stars. "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" paved the way, and then the floodgates were open. Sure, some of the stuff that's come out recently has been a little sketchy -- the "Fantastic Four" movies were pretty dumb, and the "X-Men" series has gotten a little rocky. But even these mediocre movies are so far and away better than what came before, that there's no comparison.

In fact, Marvel has gotten the movie-making bug so bad that they've even started a studio of their own, which leads to an interesting irony. The rights to the biggest Marvel characters -- "Spider-Man" and "The X-Men" -- belong to now rival studios.

Not to be dissuaded, Marvel trotted the tier-two characters to, so far, amazing success, starting down the path to make one of the most ambitious super-hero movies of all time. "Iron Man" and its sequel were not only hugely successful financially, but critically as well. "The Incredible Hulk," though less successful, was nonetheless a very entertaining movie, and those three films, in addition to this week's Norse mythology extravaganza, "Thor," all interweave into a larger storyline. That storyline will be enhanced further in a month or so when "Captain America" comes out, all four films leading us to next summer's epic "The Avengers," including every hero and villain you can shake a stick at. It's a huge gamble and it could fail horribly, but when you look at the quality of the movies they've put out so far, I'm betting Marvel can pull it out.

"Thor," for those of you who skipped the Viking section of world history, is the story of the Norse god of thunder, who, in the Marvel Comic's version, gets banished to Earth to be a superhero. Actually, in the comic, it was weird. There was a kind of split personality, cosmic transversal thing going on, where a wimpy doctor got turned into Thor whenever he grabbed the magic hammer, but he wasn't the doctor anymore, and you could never figure out where Mr. Wimpo went when the blond behemoth appeared to battle for justice and the American way.

In the movie version, directed by Shakespearean veteran Kenneth Branagh, things are much more straightforward. Thor is a brash, charismatic prince of Asgard. In mythology, Asgard was like Olympus or Heaven -- the realm of the gods, but a little undefined as to the where. Branagh locates the realm of Thor in the known universe, setting it up as a planet of sorts, a far-away place where science and magic are two sides of the same coin. Asgard is connected, via rainbow bridge or wormhole, depending on your reading, to various other planets, including Earth and Judenheim, realm of the terrifying Frost Giants.

When Thor, in an ill-conceived attempt to impress his father, tries to wage war on the Frost Giants, shattering a precarious peace, Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, is furious. Off to Earth goes our hero, with no powers to help him, until he can learn humility and selflessness.

In addition to Thor, played very well by Aussie Chris Hemsworth, there's the duplicitous and scheming Loki, as well as a host of other gods and goddesses. Though the principals do well, and all the Asgard stuff is really cool, the sidekick warriors and their comic relief did get on my nerves a little. As well, the love story between Natalie Portman's researcher and Thor stretches credulity just a bit.

Small issues aside, however, I was very entertained by "Thor." Shifting effortlessly between sci-fi, fantasy, and good old earthbound action, the tone is very much like "Iron Man," though I have to say this new movie isn't quite as good as its predecessor. Also exciting, at least for geeks like me, is watching the action ramp up for "The Avengers," with little hints and tidbits thrown in here and there, including a peek at one of the side members of next summer's super-team.

The best thing I can say about "Thor" is that it's fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and despite having a fairly convoluted plot, doesn't get bogged down, thanks to Branagh's steady hand. Marvel is certainly on a high right now, and if luck holds out, this universe they've created can keep on expanding indefinitely.

Grade: B+

"Thor" is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, and mild language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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