The 2011 summer movie season officially got underway May 6 with the release of Thor, a big-budget spectacle that heralds three months of populist entertainment.
With three more comic hero movies yet to follow (The Green Lantern and X-Men: First Class in June, Captain America in July), Thor is tasked with setting the standard, and that it does in a big way.
It has strengths and weaknesses, its chief strength being the fact that it's one of Marvel's lesser known comics, giving the filmmakers a chance to introduce the character to a wider audience.
The chief weakness is obvious: It's a super hero movie, which means there's a certain degree of predictability built in. We don't mind if our super heroes are flawed, but they've got to find redemption (read victory) by the final credits.
There's a certain novelty to Thor that harkens back to the original Superman movie of the '70s: The story takes place in both the real world (ours) and a fictional realm (Asgard), where the Norse god lives in the house of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a hot head, to put it mildly. After years of truce with the Ice People, the latter attempt to invade Asgard and Thor is determined to repay them by invading their land.
Odin will have none of it. He loves him son, but feels a little humility might serve the buff young god well. That explains how Thor gets banished to earth for a spell, without his powers and his magic hammer. Suddenly he's an ordinary fish out of water, albeit one with muscles that would make Hulk Hogan blush.
Even fish out of water need affection, and Thor finds it in the guise of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist studying weather patterns in the southwestern dessert. She doesn't quite get this gorgeous creature who appears out of a cyclone, then proceeds to march through the local farming community with brutish manners. (When he wants a refill of coffee, he smashes his cup on the floor). Nor does she understand why the crater where she found Thor is suddenly swarming with men in black. Yes, those kind of men in black.
Meanwhile in Asgard, Thor's younger brother, Loki Tom Hiddleston), is plotting a coup. Poor Odin has lapsed into a coma, and Loki offers the Ice People a chance to assassinate the old god.
As for Thor, let him rot on insignificant earth.
There's comic relief in the form of Stellan Skarsgard as Jane's befuddled mentor (why is she so obsessed with this muscle boy?) and Kat Dennings as Jane's Gen X assistant, all skepticism and attitude.
But neither comedy nor romance rule the roost here: Thor is about action and special effects.
To that end, director Kenneth Branagh (best known as an actor, but no slouch behind the camera) gives us a visual bonanza: Asgard is all super polished angles, spires and gilded bridges. The world of the Ice People looks like Superman's Fortress of Solitude entombed in coal dust. And the costumes reek of mythological excess: capes, crowns, gilded armor and the like.
The special effects are best when they involve conflict (Thor tangles with a super robot straight out of The Day the Earth Stood Still), yet they lapse into the routine when Thor is required to do something as simple as, well, fly. We haven't come that far since Christopher Reeves.
Give Branagh credit for coaxing solid performances from his cast. This isn't Shakespeare, but neither do his performers come off as puppets in a pinball machine.
Thor muscled its way to a $66 million opening weekend. Small wonder: Summer's not about Oscars or independent attitude. It's about making our eyes pop out of our skulls, and this it does quite well.