I’ve long thought that Marvel’s overarching plan for its homegrown superhero movies was absolutely insane–and pretty ingenious, too. Spider-Man, the X-Men, and some other notable players are tied up at other film companies, but Marvel wisely held onto the rights to each member of the Avengers and ever since Iron Man in 2008, they’ve been working on getting the band together. Iron Man had some subtle Easter eggs and a nifty post-credits scene, and it’s a miracle that Iron Man 2 didn’t entirely collapse under the weight of its Avengers teases; The Incredible Hulk, besides a brief scene between Tony Stark and General Ross, was too busy restoring its hero’s rep to get involved. Thor is the next Avenger to get the spotlight and, well, he’s an interesting case.
The Norse god of thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is set to assume his father Odin’s (a righteously eyepatched Anthony Hopkins) throne, when the nasty Frost Giants invade the realm of Asgard seeking to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, a mystical source of power stolen from their lands many years ago. Odin makes quick work of the Frost Giants, but it raises the question: how did the Frost Giants get into Asgard? Did the sentry, Heimdall (Idris Elba), fall asleep on the job, or is there something nefarious afoot? Methinks a traitor there roams in Asgard. Could it be god of mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s surly brother? Watch and see, Marvelites.
Against his father’s orders, Thor leads a band of warriors, including Loki, to the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim seeking revenge. They raise all manner of hell before Odin rides in on a black steed and puts an end to it. Feeling hurt and betrayed, Odin casts Thor from Asgard, shooting him down a whirly rainbow wormhole to Earth; New Mexico, specifically. Like Excalibur, his hammer winds up in a crater where no one, not even Thor, is able to lift it from the ground. Powerless and devastated, Thor meets a charming young scientist named Jane (Natalie Portman), and what follows is a blend of god-out-of-water comedy, soap operatic mythology, and superhero derring do. The film can be delightful and stirring, but it’s not particularly consistent.
First thing’s first: Chris Hemsworth, a soap star in Australia but unknown to these shores, is the perfect Thor. Though I’ve always made mine Marvel, Thor is not a character I’m particularly attached to or knowledgeable of (you’re probably learning all this Asgard stuff right along with me), but Hemsworth cuts through that. With his broad chest and blonde mane, he is full of vitality and vigor, arrogant yet capable of humility, funny but with a dramatic center. He is, in short, the damned God of Thunder. A better casting choice I cannot imagine. Thor learning to cope with Earth’s limitations is a good source of humor, and if his romance with Portman’s Jane is a little on the light side, well, I can’t imagine there are too many straight girls who wouldn’t fall all over themselves in his presence.
The rest of the movie, though, can be a little flimsy. For an epic involving gods, monsters, and otherworldly realms, Thor feels slight. Despite the convoluted mythology, it simply doesn’t have a whole lot of plot to work with: Thor falls to Earth while Loki is up to no good in Asgard, and spends the whole movie trying to get back. Even with that, the movie does grow a little long in the tooth; there are only so many scenes of gods yelling at one another and Natalie Portman swooning before fatigue starts to set in. I must say, though, that after Iron Man 2, it’s refreshing how well-integrated the S.H.I.E.L.D. business is, with the likable Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and newcomer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) getting just enough screen time to whet your appetite.
The Asgard scenes are melodramatic affairs set against an elaborate CGI backdrop. Asgard itself certainly isn’t an eyesore, and the scope of its design is impressive, but it’s not exactly a source of overwhelming awe either. It looks a bit like Peter Jackson on a budget, which is curious given the film’s $150 million cost. The whole Norse shtick is unavoidably goofy, something the movie is never really able to shake. And for being the god of mischief, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki doesn’t seem very mischievous; jealous and mopey yes, mischievous no. Anthony Hopkins looks like he’s having some fun playing the Allfather, though, and I’m at least glad a film exists in which he gets to dramatically intone, “…Frost Giants!”
Kenneth Branagh, despite his penchant for Dutch angles, acquits himself reasonably well in the director’s chair, though one can’t help but wonder what someone with a real knack for this kind of material, like Jackson or Guillermo del Toro, would have been able to do. Thor gets down to some weird stuff for a superhero movie, but it’s not always convincing. The Earthbound portions, when Thor is out of his armor and coming to terms with his place in the universe, strike a more convincing tone. This is a promising start with a few bumpy patches, but what I really can’t wait to see is him rumbling with Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Steve Rogers under Joss Whedon’s tutelage next year. Which I suppose means that the movie has accomplished its mission.
GOBBLER’S NOTE: It should go without saying at this point, but stay after the credits. Also, the Avengers build-up continues with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger this July 22.