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“Thor” a welcome addition to character-driven Marvel canon

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns the pain and value in being humbled in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor."

Natalie Portman was so astonished that Kenneth Branagh signed on to direct “Thor” she decided she had to be involved with the production. How many people, I wonder, saw the movie for that very same reason? Because let’s call a spade a spade and say that idea of a “serious actor” like Branagh directing a Marvel film is wacky and weird (or just weird). But in taking that unexpected leap, he’s joined other directors (Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi) who made Marvel adaptations about more than special effects and fight scenes. “Thor” takes a strutting peacock (Chris Hemsworth) and strips off his feathers to see what he’s really made of.

“Thor” doesn’t match the emotional depth of “Spider-Man 2” or possess the crackling wit of “Iron Man,” but the film has enough heart and dazzling visuals (a bit of advice: see them in 2D) to make it feel right at home alongside its Marvel predecessors. Branagh, just as fans might suspect, has more in mind for Thor than a blonde beefcake who wields a big hammer. While the director never skimps on the scenery (particularly the Bifröst Bridge, the stunning, resplendent gateway between Asgard and the other eight realms, including Earth), he makes sure Thor emerges from his trial a changed man. It’s the muscle-bound Hemsworth who makes the transition believable, even poignant. He may look like Australia’s answer to Fabio, but Hemsworth is not light on talent. He demonstrates a level of vulnerability that wouldn’t seem possible in a man with such meticulously sculpted abdominal muscles. 

Hemsworth, of course, is Thor — son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgar, and Queen Frigga (Rene Russo). Arrogant and short-tempered, he seems less suited to take the throne than his quieter adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Odin’s doubts about his eldest son’s leadership capability are confirmed when Thor ends a long-standing truce between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, led by the malevolent Laufey (Colm Feore). Stripped of his hammer, Mjolnir, Thor is exiled to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert and in the lives of scientist Jane (Portman), her bumbling assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and fellow researcher Erik (Stellan Skarsgård). With his bizarre manners and formal speech, Thor seems like a certifiable kook; however, Jane wonders if he knows something about the interdimensional wormholes she’s researching. When Thor tries to reclaim Mjolnir, he catches the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, droll as ever). Back in Asgar, Thor’s band of Warriors Three — Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) — and longtime friend Sif (Jaime Alexander) begin to suspect that Loki isn’t as harmless as he appears. 

As origin stories go, Thor’s fall from grace is more interesting than most purely because of the costumes (kudos to costume designer Alexandra Byrne) and stellar design and effects. “Thor” rivals “TRON: Legacy” in terms of scenes that inspire awe and wonder — it’s marked by a terrific use of fluorescent colors and lighting that render Asgar the kind of mythical kingdom told of in Norse mythology books. The sinister Frost Giants and Heimdall (Idris Elba, for once correctly cast), the gruff gatekeeper of Bifröst Bridge, are striking as well. There’s something emblematic about the image of Heimdall, with his piercing yellow eyes, horned helmet and formidable staff, presiding over a bridge that connects the worlds. Heimdall, even more than Odin, seems possessed of a calm certainty in his purpose that Thor is unable or unwilling to seek out.

Herein lies the rub, where Branagh aligns “Thor” with other comics-based movies that don’t skimp on development. That extends to secondary characters. Portman gets to step away from her tortured “Black Swan” persona, and Skarsgård brings his trademark low-key humor (though it’s Dennings and Hemsworth’s stranger-in-a-strange-land antics that provide most of the comic relief). Hiddleston is subtle but effective as the diabolical and tortured Loki, chameleon-like in his ability to assess his circumstances and change accordingly. His devolution makes him a fitting foil for Hemsworth. Hiddleston is the stronger actor; Hemsworth, though, provides more perceptiveness than he has to. He lets us see the flaws behind the beauty.

Grade: B+

Quick Picks: “Valkyrie,” “Yes Man”

“Valkyrie” (Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson)

In “Tropic Thunder,” he did the unthinkable: resurrected an air-sucking, headed-toward-the-light acting career. Does he do it again in “Valkyrie,” Brian Singer’s tense, understated thriller about a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, seize control of Germany and wave a white flag to the Allies? Not quite. Then again, Cruise’s in-control performance as party loyalist-turned-traitorous schemer Col. Claus von Stauffenberg isn’t meant for show. Neither is Singer’s somber, commendably even-handed creation . Every scene is measured and precise, planned and executed with military-like precision. The same goes for the film’s best performances — Wilkinson’s buttoned-up, duplicitious Gen. Friedrich Fromm is bone-chilling, while Branagh practically sweats sheer desperation. If it all seems a little too muted and by-the-book, beware: the tension surprises you, and so does “Valkyrie.”

Grade: B+

“Yes Man” (Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Terence Stamp)

A movie about a man who says “yes” to every question? Sounds like the makings of a) Eddie Murphy’s moronical, pratfall-heavy next project or b) a tender, smartly observed comedy about life and learning. Wrong. But either movie might be better than the disappointingly blah “Yes Man.” Carrey tries hard as Danny, a sourpuss who keeps life at bay until a self-help guru (Terence Stamp) convinces him to open up. Enter the ever-quirky Deschanel as Allison, Danny’s polar-opposite love interest. Shock of shocks, Deschanel and Carrey have a delightfully peppery chemistry. And Carrey has a zippy rapport with Brit Rhys Darby, who plays Norman, his adorably zany dolt of a boss (think Michael Scott a la “The Office”). But don’t expect the same kind of zing from “Yes Man,” which tries so hard to be ingratiating and cute that it’s about as sincere as, well, a real-life yes man.

Grade: C