These days it wouldn’t be summer movie season without superhero adaptations, so this Friday the blockbuster season officially kicks off with Marvel Comics’ latest big screen venture Thor. Though the character is obviously iconic, he seemed like the most difficult member of the core Avengers team for Marvel to bring to the big screen. After all, we’re not talking about a wisecracking contemporary playboy like Iron Man. This is a Norse god and a character rooted in mythology and fantasy. Not so much room for one-liners and fast food tie ins here. In order to properly introduce the character, Marvel was going to have to set a substantial amount of the film in Asgard and lay down a lot of mythological backstory in a way that could so easily appear silly onscreen. Fortunately the comic-publisher-turned-film-studio once again proved to know exactly how to make the cinematic translation. When Shakespeare-specialist director Kenneth Branagh was hired to direct, he was certainly a left field choice. Thankfully the studio’s faith in an unconventional blockbuster filmmaker was richly rewarded, much like it was when Jon Favreau was hired off of Elf and Swingers to direct Iron Man.
The film opens with Natalie Portman driving through the desert as Thor’s longtime comic book love interest Jane Foster. She’s been recast as from a nurse to an astrophysicist in the movie version and her RV is suddenly struck by Thor in the opening scene, leading her to question, “where the hell did this guy come from.” We then flash back to the realm of Asgard where Odin (Anthony Hopkins) spins a yarn to his children Thor and Loki about how he lost his eye banishing the Frost Giants to Jotunheim for attempting to infiltrate earth during the Viking Age. An arrogant young man version of Thor then travels to Jotunheim with The Warriors Three to kick some Frost Giant ass. Unfortunately it wasn’t supposed to be a violent mission and an angry Odin banishes Thor to earth, stripped of his powers as punishment. Of course, Thor’s trusty hammer Mjolnir gets tossed to earth as well and if he grows into a more mature man and leader, he’ll get those powers back. When Thor falls to earth he hits Natalie Portman’s RV we’re back where we started.
Now, unless you’re a die hard fan of the comic books, the previous paragraph probably sounded pretty silly. It’s definitely pure fantasy material that might have some ass kicking action (seeing Thor swing the shit out of that hammer on the big screen will make your inner geek squeal with delight), but could potentially alienate everyone but the four-eyed geek audience. Fortunately this is where Branagh proved to be an inspired choice. The characters in Asgard have a very mannered, formal way of speaking and Branagh’s Shakespearean background clearly helped him work his actors to find the truth and emotion behind the sometimes unnatural speech patterns. He also cast some British stage actors like Anthony Hopkins who know how to add weight and truth to anything they say. On top of that, Branagh also has a sly wit and sense of camp that helps smooth things over. He always plays things straight in a way that will never alienate longtime Thor fans, while also winking at the camera and acknowledging how ridiculous everything is. Costumes and performances (particularly Hopkins) are allowed to veer deliriously over-the-top at times and it’s very clear that audiences are allowed to laugh at the ridiculousness of the tale.
When Thor finally falls to earth a great deal of laughs are mined out of the clash between his Asgardian beliefs and speech with the cynical ipod age. This section becomes quite funny with Thor wolfing down pancakes and smashing diner coffee mugs in celebration of a good meal in a way one would do with an empty flagon of ale following an epic battle. It’s hilarious, but the jokes don’t outstay their welcome as Thor starts the hunt for his hammer (guarded by Clark Gregg’s S.H.E.I.L.D. agent from the Iron Man films) and fall in love with Jane, while Thor’s brother Loki starts stirring up trouble back in Asgard leading to an inevitable clash between the two brothers and the two worlds.
The plot is dense and a ridiculous amount of characters are introduced and developed (I didn’t even mention Jane’s mentor and comic relief assistant or how their accidental sighting of the stars realigning for Thor’s cross-dimensional trip proves to be a scientific breakthrough), but the material is nimbly juggled by Branagh and his team of screenwriters (several of whom were plucked from TV shows like The Sarah Conner Chronicles and The Simpsons). Admittedly the exposition heavy screenplay doesn’t have nearly the snap or laugh count of the Iron Man movies, but the character doesn’t lend itself as easily to that sort of comedy. Fortunately the script does move like a bullet and is consistently entertaining even when things aren’t blowing up. Marvel also thankfully learned a lesson from Iron Man 2 and Thor is allowed to stand alone as a film without being dragged down by set up for next summer’s The Avengers. There are definitely plenty of Marvel in jokes and references for comics fans, but never in a way that distracts from the story. S.H.E.I.L.D. of course figures heavily, as rumored Hawkeye makes a cameo, and as is now standard in Marvel movies there’s a post credits scene setting up The Avengers with a certain powerful cube. The movie is clearly still part of the larger Marvel universe, but thankfully can be appreciated in isolation as well.
It also has to be said that it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Thor better than Chris Hemsworth, who nails the drama, action, and humor of the role perfectly. The guy is clearly a movie star in the making and should deservedly be one by the end of the summer. Tom Hiddleston is also an excellent slimy villain as Loki and should be a great antagonist for the rest of the series. Anthony Hopkins is absurdly over the top as Odin, but in a way that both fits the role and can be unintentionally hilarious. Portman is strong as Jane, but her character is underwritten, almost feeling like a tacked-on love interest in some scenes. There’s so much going on in the movie that not everyone gets their proper screen time. The central relationship between Thor, Loki, and Odin is carefully constructed (the familial tragedy and almost Shakespearean overtones are definitely not lost on Branagh), but everyone else, especially the Warriors Three, tend to feel like window dressing set up for sequels. The movie isn’t nearly as tight as it should be and the balance between earnest drama and silly camp can feel awkward. It’s definitely not the best comic book movie in recent years, but it was never going to be. Thor as a character plays to a smaller fanbase than Spiderman, X-Men, or ever Iron Man. The fantasy tone just isn’t as relatable as Marvel’s typically flawed roster of contemporary heroes.
Thankfully, despite the tonal flaws, underdeveloped characters, and occasionally convoluted storytelling, Thor works and works damn well. This is a comic book movie after all, so the script doesn’t exactly have to be groundbreaking. It’s quite entertaining and sets up the character well for future outings. Marvel has proven to be remarkably adept at translating their comic book properties into movies over the last few years. Their batting average is far higher than any of the other studios, which is no easy task given that they weren’t even able to develop some of their most famous creations like Spiderman, X-men, and The Fantastic Four. This Avengers experiment just might work out after all. Bring on Captain America!