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A Mediocre Superhero

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Superhero Summer, 2011 edition, officially kicks off with the first big-screen appearance of Marvel Comics’ Thor, the Norse god of thunder re-mythologized for the Marvel Universe as a super-powered, trans-dimensional, godlike alien.

Despite Thor’s second-tier status in the Marvel Universe, the powers that be at Marvel Comics (pre-Disney buyout) decided Thor and Captain America merited standalone, feature-length films of their own before moving on to next summer’s superhero team-up, The Avengers. Less a standalone film than an appetizer for The Avengers, Thor feels small for a superhero film, especially in the earth-bound scenes.

Thor briefly opens with a de-powered Thor (Chris Hemsworth), awakening in the New Mexico desert, before jumping into a half-hour flashback set in Asgard, the celestial, trans-dimensional home of the Norse-mythology-inspired super-powered aliens. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and rival, convinces Thor that the Frost Giants, ancient Asgardian enemies, pose an immediate threat after several Frost Giants attempt to breach Asgard’s weapons vault.

Thor (a literal rock star god) enters Jotunheim with the Warriors Three, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Thor’s lifelong friend and warrior, Sif (Jamie Alexander), through the Bifröst (Rainbow) Bridge that connects the nine realms. In response, Thor’s father and Asgard’s ruler, Odin All-Father (Anthony Hopkins), banishes Thor and Thor’s Excalibur-like, magic-empowered hammer to Midgard (a.k.a. Earth).

Post-flashback, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist and the obligatory non-Asgardian love interest, almost runs a dazed Thor over while Jane, her assistant/part-time comic relief, Darcy (Kat Dennings), and Professor Andrews (Stellan Skarsgård) are out late at night investigating an odd astronomical occurrence. What they don’t realize is that they’ve just witnessed Thor’s banishment from Asgard. The stranger identifies himself as Thor (no last name), but they naturally assume he’s mentally ill (an idea lifted in the Ultimate Comics’ iteration of Thor).

Led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), SHIELD, the super-secret, transnational, espionage agency, descends on the small New Mexico town to investigate the strange, atmospheric phenomenon that accompanied Thor’s exile to Midgard. SHIELD also functions to connect Thor to Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger (due in July), and The Avengers, part of Marvel’s grand plan to create a shared superhero universe, minus Spider-Man and the X-Men, of course (rights to those characters are held by Sony and 20th Century Fox, respectively).

Coulson and his agents subdue Thor with relative ease. He’s still bodybuilder strong, but he’s no match for a squad of highly trained SHIELD agents. Coulson takes Thor to a mobile SHIELD facility for interrogation and a complimentary physical.

The Asgardian and Earth-bound story lines run fitfully in parallel before converging, first on Earth, then on Asgard. The ending unsurprisingly sets the stage for The Avengers film that will team up Thor with Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Rufalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and many, many other characters plucked from the Marvel Comics’ universe.

Thor introduces Clint Barton/Hawkeye, adding the now obligatory post-credits scene hinting at future plot elements, and making Thor and his convoluted back story manageable for regular moviegoers and semi-exciting for longtime comic fans eager to see four plus decades of Thor stories condensed into a two-hour film.

As a standalone film, however, Thor falls short, slipping into mediocrity all too frequently. The mix of campy humor, underdeveloped romance, and CG-heavy action scenes, and the climactic battle feel like director Kenneth “Dutch Angle” Branagh re-watched Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy one too many times. He pulls Thor in too many directions simultaneously, ultimately resulting in incoherent, muddled mediocrity.

The decision to set Thor’s Earth-bound scenes exclusively in and around a dusty, nondescript town, a town so small it has exactly one central street and a few outlying buildings is, at best, a dubious one. The New Mexico town meant as an intentionally contrast with Asgard’s soaring, gleaming spires and cavernous halls (created via sound stages and borderline dull, non-awe-inspiring CG extensions). The contrast also serves to keep Thor’s budget from straining Marvel’s finances (Thor was greenlit pre-Disney buyout).

Regardless of the purpose behind the New Mexico setting, however, the Earth-bound scenes feel too small and unimportant for a superhero film because, sadly, they are, like so much else in Thor.