The new superhero movie Thor, the latest in the long line of Marvel Comics movies leading to next year’s epic team-up The Avengers, is an exciting, funny and epic adventure that gives an appealing introduction to the character despite not necessarily having found the most cohesive or urgent story within which to do it.
In the movie, the Norse gods are real, but they’re actually beings from another planet or dimension or something called Asgard, which is one of the Nine Realms, along with Earth. Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins) is the king, and he has two sons, the brash and violent Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the resentful and deceptive Loki (Tom Hiddleston). After some war a thousand years ago with a race called the frost giants, who can turn people to ice with a touch, the Asgardians withdrew from the other worlds, and have fallen into legend in places like Earth.
On the day Thor is to be crowned king, a small band of frost giants breaks into Asgard, in an effort to steal one of the weapons in Odin’s vault. Thor is convinced by Loki to attack the frost giants with his most loyal comrades, the Warriors Three (which include Ray Stevenson and Jaimie Alexander). As punishment for inciting war, Thor is stripped of his power by Odin and banished to Earth to learn humility. Odin also sends Thor’s magic hammer, Mjolnir, to Earth, with the stipulation that Thor will only be able to reclaim it once he is worthy. Even without his spiffy hammer powers, Thor still seems to be more powerful than everyone on Earth, so I’m not sure that it’s the best plan, but it seems to work.
When Thor appears in the New Mexico desert, he is found by astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant, Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her mentor, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). They’re like the scrappy, underfunded team of storm chasers in Twister, except here they’re investigating what turns out to be the wormhole that zapped Thor to Earth.
The movie does a few things refreshingly different than most superhero films. Those tend to give us an origin story in which the hero first gains his powers and learns how to use them. Here, Thor has had his powers all his life, and can already use them well, but he has to learn humility and respect. He goes from being a guy with superpowers to a superhero. If Spider-Man teaches us that with great power comes great responsibility, then Thor has an equally important lesson: Kids, don’t be a dick.
The movie is also notable for introducing magic and fantasy into Marvel’s movie universe. The movies have until now at least pretended through some sort of pseudoscience that it was possible for a guy to build an invincible metal suit to fight evil with, or that a bite from a radioactive spider could give a guy superpowers. Here, though, we get frost giants and the like, though the movie trots out the old Arthur C. Clarke quote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I tend to enjoy when comic book movies go dark, and try to dig deep for some sort of psychological realism amid these stories of pajama-clad nutbags who spend their nights punching evildoers, but regardless of how dark they are, these superhero stories need to be entertaining. Not every superhero movie has to be The Dark Knight or Watchmen, and Thor seems to be showing a concerted effort to be as accessible as possible to children of all ages, to value adventure over angst.
The film was directed by Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing), who is an admittedly unusual choice to helm a gigantic summer blockbuster. Branagh’s Shakespearean background gives him a knack with all the royal family intrigue on Asgard, but he also proves to be surprisingly adept at the movie’s big action sequences. His direction gives the film needed visual dynamism, even if he uses so many Dutch angles that the movie seems like an episode of the Adam West Batman TV show.
Branagh also brings a surprisingly good sense of humor to the film. A large chunk of the middle of the movie is essentially a fish-out-of-water story as Thor tries to adapt to life on Earth. He speaks in an incongruously formal manner (“I need sustenance!”), and charges into a pet store demanding a horse, or a suitably large animal to ride.
However, despite being appealingly light at times, the film does have a story that requires a certain amount of gravitas, and it often isn’t there, largely due to the script by Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz. The movie is more than two hours long, but Thor’s journey from bloodthirsty brat to protector of the weak still feels a little rushed. It feels like Portman yells at him one time for being a selfish jerk, and he immediately shapes up. Thor is required to make a huge change to his personality, but the script seems to forget the part where he actually does it.
Likewise, the romance between Thor and Jane is incredibly undeveloped. Jane tends to devolve into a blushing giggle britches whenever Thor is around, which is kind of understandable, if not quite sufficient. If we were only asked to believe that the two recognized they were the most attractive people in the story, and accordingly wanted to bone each other, that would be fine, but we’re supposed to believe that Jane is effecting huge changes in Thor’s personality, and that she’s the main reason he comes to respect and value humanity, and that just isn’t in there anywhere.
Despite having lots of momentous goings-on, the film can at times feel unfocused and perfunctory, as if it isn’t sure what story it should be telling besides the mere introduction of the Thor character. The government agency SHIELD (run by Samuel L. Jackson’s character Nick Fury) is shoehorned into the plot when they find Thor’s hammer in the desert. While Clark Gregg (who plays SHIELD Agent Coulson) is always welcome, the subplot feels like it’s there mostly for continuity’s sake with the other Marvel films, and it eats up time that could have been used for, say, character development. The movie is entertaining, but at times it feels, more than most of the other recent Marvel movies, like it exists only so we will know who Thor is when The Avengers comes out next year.
Hemsworth is probably the best thing about the movie. The Australian actor is best known to audiences for playing Captain Kirk’s father for five minutes at the beginning of Star Trek, though he was also in Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods and the Red Dawn remake, both of which have fallen into a cinematic abyss since MGM went bankrupt and remain unreleased. He has an effortless charisma, and embodies both the petulance and charm of Thor very well. He embodies the character almost as well as Robert Downey Jr. does Iron Man.
Hiddleston is also a highlight here. Loki is really the only character besides Thor given any sort of arc to play, and Hiddleston gives him more depth than mere villainy. He lets us see the hurt and resentment that made Loki do what he did instead of playing him as pure evil. Hopkins is suitably regal here, and The Wire’s Idris Elba is a lot of fun as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of Asgard’s bridge to other worlds. Skarsgard and Rome’s Stevenson are also solid, as usual. And fresh off winning an Oscar, Portman is adequate, although she is given absolutely nothing of substance to play.
Thanks to good actors, exciting action and appealing humor, Thor is a fun ride and a nice introduction to the god of thunder, even if the script feels a little aimless and undeveloped at times.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com