A contemporary Marvel blockbuster is unmistakable. There’ll be the guy in the cape and/or armor and/or spandex (obviously). Then there’re the bit characters who constantly name-drop S.H.I.E.L.D (for the unconverted, that’s the super-secret spy agency that runs all the superheroes). There’s the traditional post-credits appearance by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson (“Snakes on a Plane”) and his badass eye patch. And there are the Easter eggs littered throughout each film, props and cameos advertising future blockbusters featuring additional characters from the unending Marvel pantheon.

Thor

At Quality 16 and Rave
Paramount

“Thor,” the latest off the Marvel assembly line, is no exception. In addition to the titular Thunder God (Chris Hemsworth, “Star Trek”), clad in cape and armor and what look like spandex leggings, there’s a cameo appearance by Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) as Hawkeye, hinting at the Avengers movie currently in production. And of course, there’s a post-credit sequence featuring both Jackson and a comic book MacGuffin teasing the upcoming Captain America movie. It’s a cookie-cutter product subtly plugging future cookie-cutter products. And yet at the same time, it’s strangely distinctive.

Unlike his counterparts, who gain their power through titanium suits or strange forms of radiation, Thor is heir to the supernatural realm of Asgard, a concept lifted by Stan Lee from Norse mythology. A haughty, headstrong brat, he’s banished to Earth in the film’s first act by his father, the Norse God Odin (Anthony Hopkins, “Nixon”), stripped of his power until he learns humility. Meanwhile, back in Asgard, younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, “Archipelago”), an ambitious trickster with an inferiority complex, is only too happy to usurp the throne, plunging the kingdom into chaos.

The bits set in Asgard are the fun, interesting portions where the film is at its best. It’s here that director Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V”), famous for his past adaptations of Shakespeare, seems the most at home. In Asgard, situations seem more consequential. Confrontations seem more significant and actors’ performances seem bolder and more dramatic. Even the production design and special effects are more convincingly stunning and fantastical.

But then the script mixes in the real world, taking magic and placing it smack dab in the middle of New Mexico. It could have worked – after all, it’s only awkward if you make it awkward – but the film makes it plenty awkward, spending scene after scene emphasizing how different Thor is from humanity. Thor complementing a restaurant’s coffee by smashing his mug on the floor. Thor walking through the streets and clogging traffic. Thor walking into a pet store demanding a horse. These gags are executed repeatedly to rapidly decreasing comedic effect. When worlds inevitably collide as the story reaches its zenith, the modern world and the many characters of Asgard clash like hippies and business suits. There’s combat. There are explosions. And yet we can’t really suspend our disbelief until our characters return to Asgard, the only place they seem to really belong.

We can believe that Hemsworth, whose claim to fame prior to “Thor” was the dubious title of Miley Cyrus’s ex’s older brother, is an action hero: the pounds of muscle he put on for the movie certainly help, he has a natural charisma that lends itself well to cracking heads. Sadly, he’s surrounded by a supporting cast full of wasted or underutilized talent. Hopkins, who threw himself into Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” owns every second of his screentime as Odin. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get as many seconds as he deserves. Recent Oscar-winner Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) gives a dull, uninspired sideshow of a performance as Thor’s obviously-placed love interest, doing her best with a role that’s little more than a sexy nerd stereotype. In a way, these bungled performances are metaphors for the film itself, a failed experiment with unrealized potential.

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