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Critical Mass: 'Thor' swings his hammer and the critics scream

May 6, 2011 |  2:55 pm


Bridges are the key theme of this weekend's "Thor," a film that bridges us from the doldrums of spring releases to the flashier, if not better, world of summer blockbusters. It also serves as another step in the bridge from the first "Iron Man" in 2008 to next summer's superhero all-star jam, "The Avengers." And within the film itself, a superhero actioner about the Norse god of thunder and his adventures in his home of Asgard and on Earth, a rainbow bridge connects the well-regarded Asgard sections of the film with the less successful Earth sections, set in Puente Antiguo, N.M. (which means "Old Bridge").

According to Times critic Kenneth Turan, the film also attempts to bridge director Kenneth Branagh's high-minded Shakespearean intentions with Marvel Entertainment's bottom-line-oriented need to crank out entertainment product. However, Turan doesn't exactly see it as a bridge: "Think of 'Thor' as the ultimate Superhero Smackdown." Surprisingly, he finds no winner. Both titanic forces fight to a draw in his estimation. He writes, " 'Thor' has its strengths, but it is finally something of a mishmash with designs on being more interesting than it manages to be."

"Thor's" hammer-swinging and 3-D derring-do seem to have had an adverse effect on poor A.O. Scott at the New York Times. He stumbled out of his screening "seeking shelter: in a nearby bar; under a passing bus; in the velvet shadows of an art house playing the longest, slowest, most obscure movie imaginable." Not even Branagh, Mr. Shakespeare himself, could save the film in Scott's eyes. Instead, he says, "you are hammered with one cliché after another, from the architecture of Asgard, with its floating stone staircases and vast, vaulted chambers, to the computer-generated monsters."

But not every critic disliked it as much as Turan and Scott. Others, while finding fault with the movie, found much to enjoy -- particularly Thor himself, blond-maned Chris Hemsworth, who acts appropriately god-like, according to NPR's Bob Mondello.  "[W]hen the screenplay gives him something besides arrogance to work with, he owns the movie too -- a frat-boy god-out-of-water, amusingly clueless about when throwing his weight around is manly and appealing, and when it just makes him a jerk. In a diner, say, smashing coffee cups."

But these are critics, who spend just as much time watching Ken Loach films as they do Marvel comic-book films. What about "Thor's" core audience? Those who know Mjolnir from a mojito? Who dream of visiting Asgard with Aslan and know which is which? What does noted internet geek Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News think? Though his day started off as kind of a bummer (his review opens with a description of his eye condition upon waking up on the day he saw "Thor"), Branagh's film soon cheered him up. A lot. We'll just let Knowles speak for himself: "The second you see Hemsworth’s Thor begin twirling Mjolnir -- the classic circular way -- and you begin to see what it does... I swear -- I squealed like a little girl playing with her older brother’s cooler toys for the first time unsupervised."

Surprisingly, it's the 3-D battles that most appealed to USA Today critic Claudia Puig, rather than the fish-out-of-water romance between Thor and Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman. Puig notes that Hemsworth and Portman have good chemistry but says his best lines are just jokes. Much more impressive are "the electrifying battles between the Norse gods and their nemeses, the imposing Frost Giants. Sharply honed icicles vs. Thor's mighty hammer create massive, crumbling mayhem.This is where the 3-D comes into play stunningly, along with Thor rocketing to Earth amid what looks like the aurora borealis."

But like all strong bridges, "Thor" serves both sides well, despite the faults they may find. Minneapolis Star-Tribune critic Colin Colvert gave the film one of the weekend's biggest raves. He writes, "Happily, 'Thor' feels specific and complete, less an obligatory link in a continuing tale than a handsomely engineered, hugely enjoyable standalone... 'Thor' bridges the gap between high culture and low, between fanboys and mass moviegoers."


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-- Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: Chris Hemsworth flexes his super-muscles as "Thor." Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios.