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Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in a scene from "Thor."

Zade Rosenthal/AP

2 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

Thunderation, these are some mediocre gods. I'm referring, of course, to the first blockbuster of the season, always a seminal event on any calendar and thus worthy of prompt report.

Alas, the news is mixed: Thor ain't much of a movie but it's a great career move. Both movie and move belong to director Kenneth Branagh, heretofore best known for interpreting the Bard. Now obviously, as cinematic franchises go, Shakespeare and his paltry canon pale before the might of Marvel Comics. So credit Branagh with much shrewd ambition in trading up from iambic pentameter to cartoon balloons, from that melancholy Dane with his dull soliloquies to this Norse behemoth with his really mean hammer. Too bad the credit stops there.

The pre-title sequence sees Thor dropping from the skies as the gentle rain from heaven upon this place ... oops, sorry, that's the old Branagh. Here, a flashback quickly returns us to the "eternal realm" of Asgard, where the gods reside in what, thanks to a shoddy CGI shot of crooked golden spires, looks rather like a messy celestial pawnshop. Speaking of resemblances, there's Anthony Hopkins playing the god-in-chief with a spiffy metallic eye patch and a long coiffed mane - yep, it's Odin looking like True Grit's Rooster Cogburn all dressed up for a formal hoedown.

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Don't worry though. Thor, essayed by Aussie newcomer Chris Hemsworth, is cut from more conventional Nordic cloth - blond, chiselled, ripped, and awfully keen to make war on those frosty neighbours to the north. Cue the first battle sequence, where Branagh proves that, behind a moving camera, he's altogether conventional too. Know this: If cluttered, badly edited action is boring, then cluttered, badly edited action in 3-D is suffocatingly boring. And the rule holds throughout. Whenever the action breaks out, so does our suffocation - we're just buried in antic motion and noise.

Happily for us, if not for Thor, the mania abates when Odin takes exception to his son's bellicose ways, strips him of rank and superpowers and even his trusty hammer, then banishes him all the way to our good Earth. New Mexico, to be precise, where Natalie Portman, fresh off her gig as a black swan, pops up as a beige astrophysicist. Yet not so beige that she doesn't take a shine to this muscled E.T. dropped like manna from heaven. Even minus his superpowers, the hunk is quite a catch. But if you're expecting romantic chemistry, prepare for disappointment - Thor may be flinty but he's not much on sparks.

At this point, Branagh starts taking pains to put the comic into the comic book - stuff like our busted god chugging down a brewski with the locals, or stomping into a pet shop and demanding a horse. Briefly, the picture picks up some breezy momentum, but at the loss of its mythic dignity. Even in blockbuster-land, maybe especially in block-buster land, a myth has to hold its head high. It's fine for Iron Man to have his irony but, last time I checked, Norse deities weren't big on yuks. It's as if Branagh, fearful that his artsy reputation precedes him, has gone to the opposite extreme and low-balled the material. Even the mighty hammer appears small and mingy - all that CGI frippery at his disposal, and Thor's thunderstick looks like something pulled off the bottom shelf at Home Depot.

Oh, well. Back on the inflationary front, our hero still has a giant robot to face down, a colossally evil brother to tend to, and, with his powers plugged in again, another suffocating battle to fight back in that celestial pawnshop. And that's pretty much the finish, at least until the weekend rolls by and the real business begins - toting up the box-office receipts to see whether this mediocrity will earn superior bucks, enough to justify Branagh's upward mobility and even make good on his final-frame promise of a sequel. If so, hey, all's well that ends well.

Thor

  • Directed by Kenneth Branagh
  • Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne
  • Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins
  • Classification: PG
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