By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 18, 2011 at 1:02AM
The summer of superheroes is about to kick off, and it's only a matter of days until the world gets its first look at "Thor," Marvel's latest piece of an insanely ambitious five-film plan building towards next summer's team-up movie, "The Avengers." And for some time, it looked like the film had an uphill battle ahead of it -- last year's "Iron Man 2" was, at best, a disappointment, and early looks at "Thor" had veered from the underwhelming to the silly. But ahead of its release in some parts of the world next week, and the States on May 6th, the film has now screened, with the world premiere taking place in Sydney last night, and critics there, as well as in London, where the film unspooled last week, and L.A, where a very select group of geek press were shown the picture, have weighed in. So, what's the word?
It's a pleasant surprise, but the noises are almost uniformly positive, albeit with some reservations. Interestingly, there's a certain consistency to the reactions so far, and a picture's starting to emerge of what to expect when the film opens. Coming in for praise first and foremost so far is the film's lead, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth. Easily the least well-known of the Marvel movie leads, having only really racked up a brief appearance in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" to date, it seems that he's pulled off a tricky role with aplomb, with even the more negative-skewing reviews giving him high praise.
Chris Hewitt at Empire says that "Hemsworth emerges from this a true star, adept at action, good with comedy, swell at the romantic stuff with Natalie Portman's Jane Foster... and cut like Kate Middleton's engagement rock," while Australian site The Vine says that "Hemsworth is wonderful as the hero, effortlessly traversing Thor's journey from magical jock douche to someone more worthy of Mjölnir's powers... Hemsworth finds the perfect mix of youthful arrogance and childlike innocence." The Hollywood Reporter calls it "a breakout performance" and HitFix says that the actor "...is just as good a fit for the character of Thor as Robert Downey Jr is for Tony Stark... he makes his powers feel like something he's comfortable with, a lifelong part of who he is."
Generally speaking, the cast seems to be particularly strong -- Tom Hiddleston, the British newcomer playing Thor's brother Loki, the villain of the piece, comes in for almost as much praise as Hemsworth, with Variety saying that he "gives a finely tuned perf," and Den of Geek adding that Hiddleston "gives Loki a cerebral, deceptive ambiguity that means you'll be guessing about the character's true motivations and feelings to the last." Anthony Hopkins, who plays their father, Odin, is also getting good write-ups, suggesting that the actor, who can sometimes resort to scenery-chewing, has toned it down a bit -- Variety says that he gives "a restrained yet powerful portrayal of a father forced by conscience to deal the bitterest of judgments upon his chosen heir."
And so to the film's Asgard-set scenes, which looked from the "Flash Gordon"-esque design work in the trailers to be a potential problem. Not so, according to IGN: "The movie's strongest moments aren't necessarily the comic booky ones (although they are pretty cool), but rather the familial ones in Asgard. Thor's scenes with Loki and Odin crackle with an intensity and emotion sometimes lacking in the earthly scenes. These moments feel like the ones that Branagh and his leads were the most emotionally invested in, and that sincerity helps you buy into this otherwise fantastical world, one which we see far more of than the marketing has heretofore revealed." The word on the design work is more mixed, however -- while Den of Geek praises it, saying that "Branagh and his team have managed to create something that simultaneously looks both futuristic and archaic, a unique fantasy world the likes of which we haven’t ever seen on the big screen before", Drew McWeeny says that "I like the design of Asgard more than I like the way some of it was executed, and it seems odd that Digital Domain and BUF, companies that I think are among the best at environmental work, would make some of the odd mistakes they make here" and Ben Mortimer at Hey U Guys agrees, saying that "As a result, the section of the film set outside of Earth can never quite reach the level of dramatic tension it should really have, an issue not helped by the Flash Gordon-meets-Power Rangers production design that runs through these segments."
Indeed, most of the critics so far agree that the film suffers somewhat from being split between Asgard and Earth, Variety stating that the film "has a slightly choppy feel, as if it's trying to squeeze an origin tale and at least part of a sequel into a single entity", and The Vine saying that "One of the few weaknesses of the film is the skipping back and forth between Earth and Asgard. Just as the action in either realm gets on a roll, it's back to the other," while other critics suggest that the New Mexico-set storyline isn't given enough time to stretch out -- IGN says "The biggest problem with the earthly storyline isn't its tone or setting, but rather the brevity of Thor's stay there... Exile ain't what it used to be. That short time-frame asks a lot of the audience to buy that Thor would actually fall in love with Jane and not just be smitten with her" and other writers concur that the film's romantic sub-plot is under-endowed. Steve Weintraub at Collider says he "didn’t believe in the relationship between Jane Foster (Portman) and Thor. With everything so rushed, I believed they were friends, but I never believed Thor would move heaven and earth for her."
There are a few other recurring flaws, it would seem -- most writers suggest that the film's 3D post-conversion is as ineffective as most recent examples have been -- Mortimer writes that "We may be a long way advanced from the dreadful post-conversion job on "Clash of the Titans," but the technology still has a long way to go. Many shots fall too shallow, and a great many of the action scenes move too fast for the human eye to track them properly causing ghosting across the screen." Similarly, while the word seems to be that, while the set-up for "The Avengers" that so many (rightfully) felt overwhelmed "Iron Man 2" is better integrated here, Jeremy Renner's cameo as Hawkeye, seemingly added via reshoots in post-production, is unnecessary -- Empire call it "spectacularly pointless" and McWeeny adds "He's not just inconsequential, he's useless and distracting. It is fan service, at best, and more than anything, sort of annoying."
Furthermore, it seems if you're already sick of superhero movies, the film isn't going to do anything to change your mind -- the most negative take, from Matthew Toomey at Australian site The Film Pie writes that "It has been crafted from the familiar PG-mould used by many other comic book adaptations over the past decade. It wants to impress with dazzling special effects rather than through an emotive, captivating story. There’s clearly an audience for this film but I don’t think I’m part of it." The film's clearly not a total home-run -- Variety suggest that it's "neither the star pupil nor the dunce of the Marvel superhero-to-screen class," while /Film suggests that "It falls a couple of steps shy of the achievements of recent Marvel films like 'Iron Man,' 'The Incredible Hulk' and 'Iron Man 2,' which should give fans some pause."
But for the most part, it seems that those who were expecting "Thor" to be the first true Marvel train wreck can book their tickets with a little more optimism. It's worth noting that the reviews so far are exclusively from the geek or trade press -- when the mainstream critics weigh in, "Thor" may not get the same easy ride as the original "Iron Man" got. We'll be checking out the film for ourselves in the next week or so, so we'll be reporting back when we have. "Thor" opens in Europe and other select territories on April 27th (with paid previews in the U.K. on Easter Monday, the 25th), and in the United States on May 6th.