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A long time ago, in a realm far, far away Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the king of Asgard, waged war against the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, and their bloodthirsty leader Laufey (Colm Feore), to prevent them from conquering the nine realms – a branching series of dimensions connected by a rainbow powered bridging unit called the Bifröst. The Frost Giants were beaten, and their main source of power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, was taken. Now, Odin’s oldest son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is preparing to ascend to his father’s throne. But the ceremony is interrupted when a group of Frost Giants attempt to steal back the Casket, and against his father’s wishes Thor gathers his friends, The Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Joshua Dallas and Tadanobu Asano), Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to invade Jotunheim. After causing a fair amount of damage, the small invasion force is stopped by Odin himself, who in his anger strips Thor of his powers, and exiles him to Midgard, aka: Earth. Meanwhile, an astrophysicist named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), along with her assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) search the New Mexico sky for astrological anomalies, and find themselves in the presence of a fallen god.
 
Thor
Marvel seems to have really built a brand for their independent productions, for better and worse, as this brand is best defined by steep hills and cavernous valleys. So far the odd movie out is Incredible Hulk, which despite being my least favourite of the studio’s releases, features the most consistent all around quality terrain, but otherwise the rest of the studio releases have followed the general rules. The hills usually include great central casting, including lead actors that transcend the scripted material (Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, etc), amusing character interactions, attractive production design that is true to the source material without being slavish, and some well executed action set pieces. The valleys are usually delegated to weak screenplays, which include sagging middle sections that don’t quite bridge the first and last acts, extraneous subplots that attempt to connect the entire series, and generally disappointing climatic action scenes. Thor follows this rule book quite closely, apart from its climax, which is actually close to its strongest element on basic filmmaking levels.

The first rule, that of a great central cast, is fulfilled in spades, most likely in large part due to director Kenneth Branagh’s pull in the acting community, along with his ability to direct actors. Chris Hemsworth isn’t a Robert Downey Jr. sized slam dunk (when I read Iron Man comics these days I hear Downey Jr.’s voice), but he nearly-perfectly embodies important elements inherent not only in over 40 years of comic books, but in hundreds of years of the character’s mythological origins. Hemsworth looks the part, and walks a delicate line between contemptible swagger, and loveable flaws. Tom Hiddleston is the even bigger ‘find’ for this particular cast, however. He plays both sides of Loki with balance, making his pain as believable as his evil. Loki is so compelling that even if none of the other components worked Thor would still be worth watching as a set-up for the main villain of the upcoming Avengers film. Anthony Hopkins seems a logical choice for Odin, and likely thanks to Branagh’s influence, he doesn’t sleepwalk through the role, as seems to be his default setting recently. Ray Stevenson, Joshua Dallas, Jaimie Alexander and Tadanobu Asano (best know as Kakihari in Miike’s Ichi the Killer) aren’t given much screen time, but all manage to covey what is needed with The Warriors Three and their friend Siff (nerd baiting: the Marvel version of Wonder Woman). There really isn’t a weak joint in the cast, though poor Natalie Portman, who we all know can act quite well, is incapable of making Jane Foster anything but a distraction from the infinitely more interesting Odinson family dynamic.

Thor
This brings us to Branagh himself, who is the best director Marvel has scored yet as a lone studio, and the best to touch a Marvel product since Ang Lee. I doubted his chops in the arena of epic comic book adaptation when his name was announced (and lamented the loss of Matthew Vaughn, whose pitch was apparently astronomically expensive), but the more I thought about it, the more the choice made sense. An actor/director obsessed with recreating Shakespeare ad nauseam was an obvious fit for the melodrama of godly angst. Branagh’s action chops haven’t been in question since Henry V (insert stupid ‘ Henry IV wasn’t as action-packed’ joke here), but his work with action and special effects is suspect. The early scenes featuring gods battling frost giants make little visual sense thanks to unnecessary camera movement and a lack of lighting. Overall, though, I’d say his showing here is better than expected, despite some silly and weightless CG creatures. The Destroyer scenes on Earth work much better, but any action scene, no matter how decently executed, feels like a stop-gap between infinitely more interesting character interactions. Besides the iffy CG action Branagh’s work with Asgard and the spacey realms is quiet enjoyable, both in terms of production design (this is a fine adaptation of a difficultly oddball source material) and camera work, but his choices aren’t nearly as successful in our world, specifically all the ridiculous Dutch angles, and continuously floating steady-cam. The production staff takes pains to create a stylistic divide between the design of the two worlds, but Branagh doesn’t change up his camera work, leaving the occasionally brilliant design to flap in the wind. I’m not saying the Earth scenes should require raw, grainy film, or even a shaky, hand-held look, but more subdued and ‘realistic’ framing would’ve gone a long way.

In fact, the entire film is more comfortable in Asgard than it is on Earth. The comedic elements driven into the Earth bound sequences (which I’ve heard did not go over well with many fans) sit fine (I guffawed plenty), and the juxtaposition of the realms is appreciated, but the utter melodrama plays naturally in the fantasy realms of Asgard. When drama hits Earth it feels forced, inorganic, and it’s a whole lot easier to laugh at the film instead of with it. This brings us to the third rule of a Marvel Studios’ adaptation: a weak script with a saggy middle section. Iron Man 2 still dazzles far more intensely with its numbingly slow second act, and overall Thor is perhaps the tightest plotted film the studio’s independent history, but Thor’s powerless adventures on Earth are certainly the film’s weakest moments. Despite silly special effects during the frost giant fight, the first 30 minutes are a testament to efficient storytelling, as are any moments we are taken back to Asgard throughout the film, but as Thor settles so does the pacing. More troubling is the fact that Thor’s relationship with the humans, specifically Jane, who is supposed to be the love that changes his entire outlook on life, is pleasant at best, fatiguing at worst. Marvel’s need to make SHEILD a unifying element of all of these films (something I was originally looking forward to when it was hinted in Iron Man) also damages the flow of this section, especially during the awkward introduction of Hawkeye. It makes sense for the story (Thor is treated like an alien, and movies have taught us to expect a pretty consistent human reaction to alien arrivals), and is better integrated than the narrative halting SHEILD scenes in Iron Man 2, but stammers Branagh’s flow enough to burden the onset of the climax.

Thor

Video


Based on the differentiation in the looks of Asgard and Earth I was thinking that perhaps Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos used a mix of digital HD and 35mm film in making Thor, but under the imdb.com specs list are only a few different 35mm camera rigs. Behind the scenes footage seems to reveal that there wasn’t even all that much digital grading involved, but the divided looks define this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer. For the most part the realms of the gods are clean, sharp, and are generally exemplified in the form of limited, but vibrant colour schemes. The Midgard is dirtier, and features a livelier palette. As stated in the review, early action sequences are too dark, but these were just as dark in the theater, so I can’t really blame the disc. During the dark Jotunheim scenes the red of Thor’s cape, and of the frost giant’s eyes stand quite nicely against the otherwise blue backdrop. Loki’s green outfit does the same back in the otherwise gold and yellow sheen of Asgard. The detail levels are also generally sharper in Asgard, or at least more consistent. I am especially impressed with the complex backgrounds of the Bifröst set. Earth features more shallow focus, and blown-out natural lighting. Details here are still quite sharp, especially in those wonderful beards, things are just less impressive overall. The Earthbound sequences also occasionally feature minor issues with colour blending, specifically the bleeding green tints, which create some edge noise. The widest helicopter shots especial have noticeable digital sharpening artifacts (look closely around 53:00), though there is plenty of reasonably obvious haloing in close-up as well, especially around the white/green interiors of the temporary SHIELD base.

The good folks at Paramount did send me the 3D version of this release, but I am unable to review it at this time.

Thor

Audio


When I saw Thor in theaters it was really damn loud. Too loud. So loud people where holding their ears to escape genuine pain. This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is also mighty loud, but this time I have control over the volume, which made it much easier to appreciate the intricacies of this brand of loudness. The whole film is awash with noise (I really dig the zippy whatever that sound is when people fly through the Bifröst), but the big fight scenes are the noisiest. The frost giant fight is impressive in its directional movement, the Destroyer fight is impressive in its dynamic use of sound (the Destroyer’s blast being a bit too loud, frankly), but it’s the climax that I enjoyed the most for its more unique choices, especially the metal on metal scream that accompanies the hammer and spear clashes. Occasionally the aggressive nature of the mix overwhelms the on-screen action, and pulled me out of the film. The sequence in which Thor attempts to retrieve his hammer from the SHIELD base features some awkwardly separated elements. The front channels feature all the action of the sequence, while the rears are almost exclusively reserved for thunder effects. Patrick Doyle's score is passable, and rarely intrusive, but not particularly memorable either. I did like the end credit theme quite a bit, but couldn’t hum it for you even if you had a gun against my head.

Thor

Extras


The extras begin with a solo commentary track from director Kenneth Branagh. I’m guessing Branagh gives seminars on the subject of drama, or at the very least he must speak to college students regularly, because he’s great at this kind of public speaking. His thoughts are precise and concise without seeming terse, his tone is warm, without being silly, and the track is educational without being dry. It’s genuinely heartening to know that Branagh wasn’t just a director for hire, and that he enjoyed working with effects, designing action scenes, and delving into both the Norse and Marvel mythologies. I really enjoyed his discussion on the film’s deeper themes, and their connections between classic and contemporary storytelling. His description of some of the films more fantastical elements are much less interesting, but Branagh’s spirit makes even these low points easy to traverse. Branagh also covers his thoughts on the 3D post conversion process. He expresses skepticism, but puts on a brave face, and discusses what he hoped it brought to the film.

The disc features six behind the scenes featurettes. These start with ‘From Asgard to Earth’ (19:40, HD) which covers the production design of Asgard, the architecture, building the sets, working from the comics (specifically Kirby’s), costume design, character design, the rainbow bridge design, the juxtaposition of the Earth designs, and location shooting. This features interviews with Branagh, producers Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso and Craig Kyle, production designer Bo Welch, costume designer Alexeandra Byrne, various members of the art department, and actors Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleson, Jaimie Alexander, and Ray Stevensen, and features plenty of production images, along with a touch of behind the scenes photography. The shorter featurettes include ‘Our Fearless Leader’ (3:20, HD), a chance for most of the major cast and crew members to discuss their love of Branagh, ‘Assembling the Troupe’ (4:50, HD), which covers everyone’s love of Hemsworth, Portman and Hopkins, and Hemsworth’s training, ‘Hammer Time’ (6:10, HD), which covers producing the physical hammer prop and the mythology behind (including Stan Lee misremembering his part in the creative process), ‘Creating Laufey’ (5:30, HD), on hiring Colm Feore and designing the frost giants, ‘Music of the Gods’ (2:00, HD), on Patrick Doyle’s score, and ‘A Conversation’ (2:20, HD) featuring Stan Lee and J. Michael Straczynski filming their cameos.

Thor
Next up are 11 deleted/extended scenes with optional Branagh commentary (24:34, HD) including some really fun character introductions and interactions, some incomplete digital effects, and a better explanation of the Odin Sleep for the newbies in the audience. Every brief piece of Thor being a good person on Earth probably should’ve been reinstated. Next up is the first of what will apparently be two Marvel One-Shots starring Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson of SHIELD (3:30, HD). Here we discover that Blonski (The Abomination) is wanted by SHEILD (meaning he’s still alive), and then witness the Tony Stark scene from The Incredible Hulk replayed in the proper context. ‘Road to The Avengers’ (3:00, HD) is an ad for the new movie featuring footage from all the other movies, footage from the 2010 Comic Con, and Joss Whedon talking up his film, along with members of the cast and production crew. Things are completed with a trailer, a teaser trailer, and an Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series ad.

Thor

Overall


I went into Thor with very little hope of really enjoying myself. I have only vague interest in the character, and the busy nature of Iron Man II left me weary of the turns this burgeoning movie universe was taking. I had also hoped that Marvel would take the Ultimates line’s slant on the character, where it isn’t clear if Thor is an actual Norse god, or just a crazy neo-hippy with extraordinary powers. But whatever its problems, and it has many problems, Kenneth Branagh’s film has made a believer out of me, and I very much look forward to Thor and Loki’s continuing adventures in next year’s The Avengers. This Blu-ray release looks pretty good, though it seems some of the style has gotten in the way of the image quality at some points, sounds just about perfect, and features a nice collection of extras, topped by a solid solo commentary track from the director.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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