I have a confession to make, which could easily put my reputation as a snob to rest here and now: I love superhero movies. Each summer I eagerly anticipate all but the most dire upcoming comic book films, and I read the news updates about each one eagerly. But as I do so, a thought often pops into my head: what if the film I’ve spent all this time reading about isn’t worth the anticipation? What if it comes out and it’s no good? What it’s so badly reviewed I decide it’s not even worth the money and energy it takes to see it? I had some of my greatest doubts about “Thor”. I can’t say that I’ve ever known much about Thor as a Marvel character; I didn’t even realize that he traditionally has an alter ego (an element excised from the film version) until looking him up after the movie, but the concept of using a Norse god as a superhero always kind of rubbed me the wrong way, and it seemed like it would be difficult to reconcile a Norse god with characters like Tony Stark and Bruce Banner.
The cast and crew announcements didn’t exactly reassure me either: neither Chris Hemsworth or Tom Hiddleston (in the roles of Thor and Loki, respectively) had really done much prior to Thor, so they were essentially wild cards. I’ve hardly liked Natalie Portman in anything other than “Black Swan” (2010), and Anthony Hopkins was a stupidly obvious casting choice for Odin, to the point that I could imagine his performance before the film was even released. But the most troubling news was the choice of Kenneth Branagh for director. I’ve remained unimpressed by even Branagh’s most acclaimed films, particularly his “Hamlet” (1996), which I found incredibly bloated and self-indulgent. Even if he had once been a great director, Branagh has been on a terrible downhill slide for at least the last ten years. I doubt most people realize that his last two films, a version of “As You Like It” (2006) that didn’t even make it to theaters, and a remake of the Michael Caine film “Sleuth” (2007) even exist. Branagh’s presence suggested that Thor might not just be a sub-par superhero movie, but a flop of “Daredevil”-like proportions.
So, given these misgivings, I’m pleased to report that Thor is a crackerjack superhero film, certainly among the top ten best superhero movies ever made, and easily the breeziest and most purely entertaining comic book film this side of “Iron Man” and “Hellboy II” (both from 2008). Best of all it is something of a break in the formula for superhero movies, as it has a very unusual story structure and tells a story that is certainly a beginning of sorts, but not exactly an origin. “Thor” proves that even among the glut of superhero and comic book films that have cropped up in recent years, it is still possible for one to be surprising, exciting, and (almost) original.
The film opens with an arresting sequence in which Natalie Portman’s scientist character Jane Foster, and her sidekicks, seasoned pro Dr. Eric Lewis (Stellan Skarsgard), and intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) are chasing storms looking for… something. I’m actually realizing now that the film never really explains what’s driven Jane to do this, but ah well. Anyway they find it, as Jane drives straight towards an electrical disturbance; in the midst of the confusion a man flies out of nowhere and hits their truck. The storm abruptly stops and they walk out into the midst of the clearing, leaving Jane to ask “Where did he come from?” while looking towards the sky. This could easily be the beginning of an alien invasion movie, and gives the audience a clue as to how the film will handle the Asgardian gods. The film then launches into an extremely lengthy prologue, detailing the history of the Asgardians, here portrayed as superpowered beings from one of the nine dimensions of the universe, Midgard, or our universe, and Jotunheim, the land of the Frost Giants, being the other two that figure in the storyline of the film. At some point in the past the Frost Giants attempted to conquer the other Realms, but were quickly stopped in their tracks by Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins, because of course he is), who defeated them and stole “the Casket of Ancient Winters” from the Giants, the source of their power.
The film then flashes forward to the present day, when Thor is about to be crowned as Odin’s successor over his brother Loki. However, a Frost Giant invasion interrupts the ceremony, as three of the giants break into Odin’s palace and attempt to steal the Casket, only to be quickly zapped by Odin’s giant robot thing, The Destroyer. How this film manages to get away with a super powerful giant robot that looks like a CGI version of a Power Rangers villain without completely devolving into camp is beyond me, but it somehow manages it. Thor is obviously enraged, and decides to immediately invade Jotunheim, along with his companions Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevnson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Fandral (Joshua Dallas), and Loki. Honestly, I had to look up these characters’ names, as they are completely goofy and useless: only the Xena-like Sif (she’s even explicitly compared to Xena in the film), who has a very subtly hinted at crush on Thor, registers at all as a character.
It is here that Thor’s greatest weakness becomes apparent: its action scenes just aren’t that great. The battle against the Frost Giants is sub Lord of the Rings stuff, and like many modern action scenes, the editing is so hectic that it can be difficult to tell what’s going on. Branagh just doesn’t have a great eye for this stuff, and watching a hammer fly around hitting CGI giants gets old pretty quickly. The other action scenes are much better than this, but they don’t even come close to the best action set pieces from the “Iron Man” films. Obviously Thor gets in over his head and Odin discovers what he’s up to and rescues the merry band at the last minute. Finally the central action of the film occurs, as Odin strips Thor of his hammer and exiles him to Midgard, while also throwing away his hammer, bestowing it upon “whosoever is worthy of the power of Thor” (to paraphrase).
This business eats up about a half hour of screentime, at least fifteen minutes longer than it should, as the film hasn’t even really begun yet. This prologue would have worked better if it was more sketched out, and not related in such great detail. Luckily the next hour of the film fires on all cylinders: Portman’s scientist takes Thor to the hospital, not yet realizing his connection to the storm, and Loki confronts Odin about his heritage. Meanwhile SHIELD, the mysterious Samuel L. Jackson-led organization from the Iron Man films has discovered and co-opted Thor’s hammer for unknown purposes.
Unfortunately I can’t summarize the plot much further without getting into spoiler territory, but the film’s middle section is certainly its best, and this is because it’s centered on the film’s strong suit: the performances. Marvel has been careful to cast very good actors at the center of their recent series of superhero films, and “Thor” is no exception. Hemsworth oozes charisma making Thor a likeably arrogant hero, and he comes off as strange, but never stupid in the scenes on Earth. Portman likewise conducts herself well, and her performance has a flirtatious ease and grace to it that I’ve never seen her pull off before. She always comes off as an actress trying too hard, which results in oddly forced and stilted performances (a quality that actually worked in her favor in Black Swan). Here she is completely at ease, and hardly even seems to be acting. This is possibly because she has so little to do, other than be adorable and science-y, but her relaxed chemistry with Hemsworth turns what could have been a very forced romance into a surprisingly moving relationship. You find yourself rooting for these two to get together without the film ever having to push it too much.
The rest of the cast acquits themselves well: Skarsgard is instantly likeable, as usual, and his down to earth character helps root the film in some sort of reality, Dennings is amusing but woefully underused, and Tom Hiddleston is a revelation. This film’s greatest asset is Loki, who easily makes the short list of the best villains in these sorts of films. Hiddleston plays Loki as completely vulnerable and subject to act rashly on his emotions, yet never lets this diminish the threatening and dangerous aspect of Loki’s character. This is all the more impressive because Hiddleston isn’t exactly an intimidating figure: he looks scrawny and barely noticeable next to Hemsworth. But Hiddleston is the kind of actor that can be intense without saying a word and that can make a whisper far more intimidating than a scream. He’s at his scariest when simply talking and Hiddleston makes Loki a far more complex and layered character than he has any right to be, at least on a script level. Hopkins is the only odd one out, delivering a rather robotic version of the same performance he’s been giving for at least the last decade: he seems to have just given up on nuance and essentially become the high profile British version of those actors playing the patriarch characters on soap operas.
On a script level Thor is actually pretty problematic, and it’s clear the studio struggled to figure out how to convey all this: the film never quite overcomes the problem of having the action occur in two dimensions, and the structure of the film is downright bizarre: Loki doesn’t really directly impact the action on Earth which makes all the stuff in the human world strangely lacking in dramatic tension. It’s all amusing and entertaining, but the stakes are never particularly high. The film is also lacking a central action set piece: the script doesn’t even seem designed to have a standout action scene. The characterization is pretty shallow, essentially leaving the actors to fill in the blanks. However, it handles all the crossover stuff pretty gracefully: SHIELD is integrated into the story naturally and Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is given plenty to do without overshadowing the central storyline or reminding people of how he was in Iron Man. Best of all, Samuel L. Jacksons’ Nick Fury doesn’t appear outside of the post-credits tag, though Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is introduced rather bizarrely in a sequence too brief to really hurt the film.
Surprisingly, Branagh’s direction really pulls the film together, given his track record of being a self-indulgent and often inert director. However he manages to pace the film perfectly, keeping it moving along nicely even when it completely lacks any sense of urgency. This is actually an asset in a way: Branagh lets the film breathe and gives the actors plenty of room to show what they can do. The film never feels busy or frantic in the way “Iron Man 2” did and the pacing is refreshingly relaxed. In fact, the actors make the characters so compelling that I found myself wanting more character development, particularly from the human characters: this is the rare modern action film that might be able to use an extra half hour, even at a none-too-brief 114 minutes. Branagh is still far too reliant on needless canted angles and edits frantically during the action scenes, but this is easily forgiven by the performances he gets out of his actors, and the excellent pacing he brings to the film. Finally the film concludes on a note that is exceedingly rare in action films, with a wonderfully ambiguous and elegant final scene that I wasn’t expecting at all. In spite of the myriad elements that could have sunk this production, “Thor” proves triumphant, and is already guaranteed to be a highlight of the barely begun summer season.