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REVIEW: Thor

Chris Hemsworth and Clark Gregg in Thor

Asgard, Earth, Asgard, Earth...

You know how the new Transformers movies are all about this kid named Sam Witwicky who’s a plucky young lad just graduating high school when all of a sudden, robots show up? You’d never know it to look at it, but those movies are actually based on a property centered around the high-stakes, high-impact and epic drama that those robots are going through on their home planet that spills over onto Earth. They aren’t supposed to feature a lot of humans worrying about their parents–they’re stories about the robots. And in a way, that’s the perfect thing to remind you of with Thor: It’s an epic movie about people so powerful that our lives should not be any of their concern. Indeed, the main drama of Thor is so far removed from Earth that it finds a new, more raw connection to our humanity. After all, that’s what the finest Shakespeare is about–casting aside all pretense to find the human essence at the heart of every situation. Kenneth Branagh being the director of the finest original language Shakespeare adaptations I’ve ever seen, I’d say he’s the director for this.

I went to see this movie for two reasons. One being the obvious obligation to this blog to see new and relevant movies to review in addition to my old stuff. The other being an amateur curiosity: how would a superhero movie play out if directed by Shakespeare? And really, that’s the story you get in Thor. It’s not the tale of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a young physicist from New Mexico and her quirky friends. It’s a tale of the Gods, the immortals, and their struggles against each other. Even the doorman is near omniscient. Thor is an adaptation of the Marvel adaptation of Norse mythology, recasting the Norse Gods–Prince Thor (Chris Hemsworth), King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), second son Loki (Tom Hiddleston)–as comic book heroes by having Thor fall to Earth–banished by his father for being hotheaded and quick to anger. He has yet to learn the wisdom of a king, and thus is stripped of his power. Only when he is worthy may he again wield the hammer of Thor.

And even in this, the first sequence of the movie, you can see something different about Thor. When watching the battle between Thor, Loki, the four warriors and the Ice Giants, I expected the movie to cut away to a montage of their action. I expected the movie to fast track itself to get back to Earth, where Thor had landed before the credits began. Yet, it took its time in establishing the world of Asgard, the Nine Realms, the tension between Thor and Loki over the throne, Odin’s quiet pride in and love for both of his sons. Whereas any movie that takes itself this seriously in a realm this far from Earth is most likely to be viewed with scorn–or worse, open mockery as with Avatar–Asgard was not treated as a minor trifle to be done away with before the adventure came to us petty humans. This is the seat of the high drama, and this is where characters speak in ornate, old language, as though cast in The Lord of the Rings. And it works.

There’s something classic about this movie in the best sense of the word. It sells you on the high drama. It sells you on the antiquated linguistics. It sells you on the games of power between sons over ascension to the throne. And all of that drama imbued in the rich colours and textures of Asgard spills over to Earth with Thor’s banishment. And here’s another part of this movie that’s unashamedly classic and all the more fantastic for it. William Shakespeare understood, as does Kenneth Branagh, his greatest living fanboy, that high drama is useless unless contrasted with low comedy. Shakespeare did this in Hamlet with the titular prince’s bawdy humour and masquerade. Branagh does this by including the very necessary fish-out-of-water humour throughout Thor’s time in exile. How would an actual God react to the mere politesses of men? What does it mean to hold limitless power in your every muscle, yet not know the wisdom of restraint? This makes for some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a superhero movie since Iron Man.

And the fight scenes, my GODS the fight scenes–the fight scenes! They are absolutely fantastic. There is none of that shakey-cam, enforced reality nonsense. People punch and get punched. People throw and get thrown. The choreography is simple, brutal and elegant in an otherworldly sense. The battles give you a true feel for the scope and stakes of everything involved. When Thor is ripping apart a SHIELD facility to retrieve Mjolnir, he does so with such ease that we might dust off our shoulders. And yet, when he wages war on the Ice Giants in the prelude, we feel the effort with every swing of his mighty hammer, and we feel the dreaded consequences of his actions weighing on him when he returns to Asgard.

The acting is superb, in case you thought I was holding something bad back. Natalie Portman carries the weight on Earth along with Kat Dennings for comic relief and Stellan Skarsgard for gravitas (and Norse heritage). Tom Hiddleston is utterly deviantly brilliant as Loki. Clark Gregg is again brilliant in his understated and straightman-y way as Agent Coulson of SHIELD. Really, of all the characters in this new continuity, he’s the one I appreciate most. But there’s the rub: does Thor hold up well as a movie on its own, or does it need to be viewed as part of the new Marvel Avengers series of films? I have good news for you, friends: not only is Thor the biggest, baddest and most epic superhero movie I’ve seen since Iron Man–it works entirely independently of silly things like continuity or the Avengers. If you don’t see Thor in theaters this weekend, you only have yourself to flog. FOUR STARS

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