'Thor' a mighty good time
It takes cinematic chops to make an earnest adventure movie about a Norse thunder god finding himself in the American West.
While it sounds like something out of a Douglas Adams novel, director Kenneth Branagh ("Hamlet") keeps "Thor" surprisingly well grounded, despite the science-fiction take on Norse mythology and, of course, all the flying around the universe with a magic hammer forged in a dying star and that.
It seems an unusual project for a director better versed in Shakespearean film adaptations than superheroes - though to be fair, both character sets wear tights - but Branagh's sturdy foundation is a perfect fit for sound storytelling.
Put simply, "Thor" is fun to watch.
The story alternates between present day Earth and the Marvel Comics' vision of mythical Asgard, home of the Norse gods, cosmic entities who safeguard the universe. In Asgard, which looks like a glittery combination of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," the Death Star and fantasy scenery you'd see on an airbrushed T-shirt - but in a good way - science and magic are one in the same, and those who wield it have managed to maintain galactic peace for eons.
It's a fragile peace, however, as their longtime enemies, the Frost Giants, attempt a desperate attack on Asgard. While the gods' wise king, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, "The Silence of the Lambs"), would rather live and let live, his son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, "Star Trek"), disagrees. Strongly.
Unquestionably heroic, but hardheaded and arrogant, Thor ignores his father's counsel and - with the goading of his brother, god of mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston, "Conspiracy") - plans a hasty attack on the Frost Giants' home world.
This effectively shatters the peace, and a furious Odin subsequently strips Thor of his power (and hammer, Mjollnir) and banishes him to Earth, effectively stealing his thunder. Unbeknownst to Thor, he can only regain that power through an act of selflessness - something that doesn't come naturally to the brutally honest, and admittedly battle-hungry, thunder god.
His sudden appearance in the desert is a dream come true to astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"), who's studying the cosmic anomaly that brought him to Earth. She agrees to help Thor find his hammer, while Thor connects the dots in her research.
But something's rotten in the state of Asgard, as a traitor seeks to assassinate Odin and claim the throne. This also means eliminating Thor, putting not only him, but also his newfound friends at risk.
The plot is far-fetched, what with all the alien gods, Frost Giants and rainbow bridges, but Branagh balances the fantastical components with a surprisingly human story. At the film's heart is a story of redemption and, in light of the source material, it's a pager-turner.
Hemsworth is perfectly cast in the titular role, and his fish-out-of-water antics in rural America bring well-written levity to the story, like his discovery of coffee at a greasy spoon.
Portman, who could easily have slipped into the post-Oscar tripe phase, a la Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball" to "Catwoman") is delightful as Jane, a sensible woman of science who melts like a lovestruck school girl under Thor's noble charms.
Hiddleston brings a surprising depth to Loki, while Hopkins maintains his welcome habit of never disappointing no matter what role he takes.
"Thor," of course, is another chapter in the lead-up to the A-Team of superhero ensemble movies, "The Avengers," with previous entries including the celebrated "Iron Man" and the brain dead "Incredible Hulk."
But unlike "Iron Man 2," which seems more like an "Avengers" prequel than a self-contained story, "Thor" stands mightily on its own, a couple hours of visually captivating, story-driven escapism.
Though presented in 3-D, "Thor" doesn't get all gimmicky with the technology, and Branagh spares us the obligatory "objects arbitrarily flying at the screen" nonsense. While the 3-D presentation adds some visual depth, a 2-D viewing should be just as enjoyable, not to mention more cost-effective.
And be sure to stick around after the credits, especially if you like Samuel L. Jackson and eyepatches.
"Thor," rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, is playing in 2-D and 3-D at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 35 or visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.