For better or worse, comic book-themed movies continue apace, and have become a full-fledged genre in their own right. With the latest offering (the first of four assorted superhero flicks scheduled for release this summer), Marvel Studios delivers a creative, enjoyable, fast-past movie.
Based on one of the company’s hokier characters, who in turn is based on Norse mythology, Thor has largely been a second-tier champion whose blend of superheroics and classical melodrama has defeated many a writer since the thunder god debuted in 1962. Director Kenneth Branagh (Yep, that Kenneth Branagh) and screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne find the sweet spot that allows for just the right combination of fantasy, drama, and humor while sidestepping campiness.
Largely skipping over the tedious origin story that hobbles many comic book movies, it gives us an extended prologue about the god-like Asgardians (worshipped centuries ago as the Norse gods) and their long-standing feud with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. the war ended with an uneasy truce, broken within the movie’s first ten minutes. A hot-tempered, arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth, now appearing in The Cabin in the Woods), who stands to inherit the throne from his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), gathers his friends and stages a counter-raid on Jotunheim. Having reignited an ancient war and for being less than apologetic about it, Thor is banished to Earth in an attempt to teach him a little humility.
Thor, powerless and separated from his magical warhammer Mjolnir, finds himself in a small, backwater New Mexico town, taken in by astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and largely believed by the locals to be delusional. While they meet-cute and bond, Thor’s duplicitous brother Loki (a scene-stealing Tom Hiddleston) plots to seize the throne. It isn’t long before the trouble in Asgard spills over onto Earth.
The movie drags some in the middle while Thor tries to recover his hammer and make his way home; but let’s face it: with all due respect to New Mexico, it’s sprawling desert landscapes can’t compete with the opulent splendor of Asgard, the production design of which gives The Lord of the Rings a run for its money.
Ultimately, Thor succeeds as a summer action spectacle because it has more talent attached to it than it deserves. Branagh, a veteran actor and director of Shakespearean films, breaths as much gravitas into the movie as it has room for, establishing a well-defined and deeply troubled father-son-brother dynamic between Thor, Odin, and Loki that would make the Bard proud, and balancing it with just enough humor.
None of which would matter if the actors weren’t so seasoned and talented to pull it of. Thor becomes an engaging and believable hero thanks to Hemsworth’s considerable onscreen charisma, and Hiddleston makes the silver-tongued Loki succeed as a villain without chewing the scenery; both are kept in check by Hopkin’s brooding intensity. Portman is saddled with the thankless role of love interest/damsel in distress but carries it well, and athe like of Stellan Skaarsgard, Clark Gregg, Kat Dennings, Colm Feore, Rene Russo, and several others makes for a rich and lively supporting cast.
This is one of the movies leading into the superhero dream team event film The Avengers. Close to the finish line, Marvel has yet to stumble.