NEW YORK (CNS) -- Over the centuries, Norse mythology, like its Greek and Roman counterparts, has been appropriated by artists seeking to enlighten as well as by those with the more modest goal of providing entertainment. Based on the exploits of the titular Marvel Comics superhero, "Thor" (Paramount) falls satisfyingly into the latter category.
The potential blockbuster's contributions to cinema, let alone to Western civilization, are negligible, yet it has enough positive qualities to constitute a commendable diversion. While no one will mistake the hammer-wielding protagonist for, say, Wagner's Parsifal or Siegfried, the story's Christian framework is readily discernable, even to moviegoers with less-than-Wagnerian attention spans.
At first glance, British actor/director Kenneth Branagh, best known for his Shakespeare adaptations, was a curious choice to direct. But the decision pays off. Exhibiting a mature, light touch, he presents the epic yarn with economy, balancing thematic portentousness with significant humor.
So, while "Thor" sometimes resembles a mash-up of "Clash of the Titans" and "Race to Witch Mountain," it also bears the intelligent markings of the "Iron Man" mold. Those anticipating a loud, headache-inducing picture will be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, those looking for cutting-edge special effects may be disappointed. Once again, the 3-D formatting seems obligatory rather than enhancing.
As he's about to crown Thor (Chris Hemsworth) his successor, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of the celestial realm of Asgard, instead banishes his son and heir to Earth. Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has engineered the exile by goading the hotheaded warrior-prince to defy Odin and break a truce with the race of Frost Giants.
Down on Earth -- in the desert outskirts of a small New Mexico town, to be exact -- Thor meets comely astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team, who try to hide the strapping alien from federal authorities. Back up in Asgard, the dissembling Loki seizes the throne from an incapacitated Odin.
Switching back and forth between its two settings, the movie doesn't spend much time explicating any one aspect of the scenario. Branagh and company trust their viewers and the result is neither mindless nor too taxing. However, the pared-down storytelling does make the climax seem fairly abrupt and the rush to a sequel more transparent than usual.
Visually, the special effects are no better than passable. But successful jokes -- stemming mostly from the incongruity between Thor's stiff manner and the vagaries of modern life, best represented by Jane's droll assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) -- do provide a counterpoint to the cosmic melodrama.
The notion of a self-sacrificing hero who overcomes pride and takes redemptive action for others certainly registers. And because the narrative has many Christian echoes, "Thor" can't be criticized for propagating a pagan worldview. Besides, the theological implications of the underlying myth are never seriously explored.
The bond between Thor and Jane is both believable and restrained, leading only to a single passionate kiss. While its violence quotient renders "Thor" inappropriate for small children, parents needn't be alarmed if mature middle-schoolers ask to attend. Such pure models of heroism and nobility are quite rare on screen nowadays, after all, and therefore quite refreshing.
The film contains much moderately intense, but bloodless, hand-to-hand combat, a few scary sequences and a couple of mild oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.