Kenneth Branagh's Thor Is a Bore

After more than a decade of high-profile Hollywood reboots, the shelves at Marvel and DC are starting to look empty. First came the obvious candidates: comic book vigilantes like Batman and Daredevil transformed seamlessly into action/crime anti-heroes. Then came teen idol Spider-Man, social-pariah supergroup the X-Men, righteous rageaholic Hulk, and the warmongering peacemaker Iron Man, all fitting analogues for the American aughts.

Now, however, we're on to characters adapted neither for topicality nor timelessness, but for the simple fact that they're next in line. An astonishingly awkward marriage of ancient Norse mythology and 21st-century nonsense, Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, works too hard at simply functioning to assert why it, or we, should bother.

A headstrong young prince known for smashing heads first and asking

questions later, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is set to be anointed king of

Asgard--a fanciful, otherworldly realm populated by Scandinavians who

talk like Englishmen--by his revered father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But

after his grand coronation is interrupted by an invasion of the dreaded

Ice Giants, Thor defies Odin's pragmatism by fighting back (with four

costumed compadres, as extraneous and flat as a Hanna-Barbera B-team)

and disrupting an uneasy peace.

As punishment, he's stripped of his powers, separated from his

weather-taming hammer, and banished to the American desert. Soon

thereafter, Odin falls into a coma, elevating scheming stepson Loki (Tom

Hiddleston) to the throne and setting into motion rusty wheels of

intrigue, betrayal and redemption. On Earth, Thor teams up with a trio

of star-chasing scientists, including skeptic Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan

Skarsgård), dreamer Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and superfluous

hipster Darcy (Kat Dennings, whose every line is a Facebook or iPod

reference), who all gradually grasp the big bloke's true identity and

stand aside as he battles intergalactic giants and judo-trained feds.

Asgard seems realized from storyboards rejected as too tacky for

even Star Wars 2.0 and Avatar, evoking instead the epic chintziness of

Peter Yates's Flash Gordon--another B-movie bomb helmed by a seriously

slumming Brit. But what's surprising isn't that Branagh took on Thor;

his once-promising career hasn't really re-railed since his Frankenstein

monstrosity of 1994.

It's that there's scant evidence that a classically trained dramatist

had anything to do with what's on screen. The closest he comes to a

visual signature is a sophomoric preference for slanted frames,

forsaking actual shot-making for Schumacherian funhouse shenanigans. The

CGI landscapes are monumentally lifeless, a verdict that unfortunately

also applies to his un-doctored two-shots, bloodless faces fixed in IMAX

3D space.

From the cast, Branagh gets exactly what you'd expect: Hopkins shows

up in a strapless eye patch like an even more wizened Rooster Cogburn,

briefly aroused by his own loud-quiet-loud vocal modulation; Skarsgård

always seems faintly embarrassed or soused, or both.

Portman is stiffer

than usual, delivering catchphrases on the downbeat like an early,

phonetically dependent Schwarzenegger; and newcomer Hemsworth, a

strapping Aussie with ocean-blue eyes, is a charmless hunk of meat.

Which opens the door wide for Hiddleston to steal the movie, for

whatever it's worth, as the dandy baddie.

Unlike the muscled-out, metalhead, beach-blond (from head to candy-corn

eyebrows) hero, Loki's like a walking Spandau Ballet music video, with a

trim, bottle-black New Wave shimmer, pale, angular features,

mirror-trained smoldering affect and custom -tailored, dance-ready

formalwear. He's a fresh-faced villain, unflappable in antlered headgear

and trapped in his more famous beefcake brother's yarn about

responsible might, the regality of humility and the galaxy-saving love

of Natalie Portman.

I wouldn't expect a Loki spinoff anytime soon--too moody, too cosmo, too

intellectually elite--but that may be just the problem. Marvel continues

to polish off its mid-century hyper-masculine heroes when what we really

need is a new mythology for this more ambiguous age.

--Eric Hynes

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