Summer movie season arrives with the booming sound of thunder and the blinding crackle of lightning. That raging storm heralds the arrival of Thor, the latest Marvel superhero to hit the silver screen. This isn’t the Mighty Thor’s first foray into live-action. He made a laughable guest appearance in the 1988 made-for-TV, Return of the Incredible Hulk, alongside Lou Ferrigno and the late-Bill Bixby. At one point there was talk of another made-for-TV picture with former pro wrestler and one-time Sabretooth, Tyler Mane, in the lead role. Thankfully, the project (which likely would have lived on in infamy next to David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury) never came to fruition.
Thor is arguably one of the trickiest comic book characters to bring to life. You can buy into a rich genius who builds a high-tech suit of armor. Even scientist who mutates into an irradiated monster is somewhat believable. A mythical god of thunder empowered by a magical hammer is a tough nut to crack. Marvel Studios proved they were up to the task by crafting a rousing adventure that seamlessly integrates into their shared cinematic universe.
In Thor, the Asgardians are re-imagined as an advanced civilization inhabiting a wonderland far off in the cosmos, rather than an ethereal realm. Eons ago, their king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) led the Asgardians into battle against the Frost Giants, driving them back to their icy homeworld of Jotunheim. An uneasy truce is established but threatened when a trio of Frost Giants sneaks into Asgard in an attempt to steal an ancient weapon known as the Casket of Ancient Winters. Disobeying his father, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) violently confronts their ruler, King Laufey (Colm Feore) and plunges both races into all-out war.
As punishment, Odin strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth where he is to learn humility. He learns it in spades as the former godling suffers one indignity after another from getting tasered to being struck by a car twice. Thor is found outside a tiny New Mexico town by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist working in the fringes of science. She studies wormholes and alternate realities with her mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and hipster research intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings). Meanwhile, Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), makes his play for the throne when Odin falls into a deep coma (the Odinsleep).
Marvel has enlisted their most accomplished filmmaker to date in Kenneth Branagh, an actor and director known primarily for his Shakespearean adaptations. The gods of Norse mythology are not too far removed from the words of the Bard with themes of patricide, betrayal, and jealousy running throughout the film. Much like Iron Man director Jon Favreau before him, Branagh is more concerned with the emotional core with special effects used as an enhancement and not a crutch. The current thought process with developing comic book movies is to utilize a realistic approach to the outlandish characters. Thor embraces its four-color roots and finds plenty of drama and humor from the culture clash between mortals and super-powered beings, from Asgardians in full battle armor walking a dusty Main Street to Thor’s anachronistic bouts of gallantry.
As a first foray into big-budget blockbusters, Branagh equates himself well with some thrilling fight sequences and dynamic canted angles. The phenomenal special effects effortlessly capture the majesty of Asgard, which looks like a futuristic take on Lord of the Rings. In fact, an earlier draft of the script by Mark Protosevich set the picture entirely in Asgard and the Viking era. This is the genre ascended onto an epic scale. Asgard is a realm beyond mortal imaginings. The skyline is dominated by the golden, ornate halls of Odin’s palace, which is complimented by the shimmering rainbow bridge known as Bifrost and the spinning observatory of Heimdall (Idris Elba), the near-omniscient watchman of the gods.
In the title role, Chris Hemsworth shines just as much as the Asgardian architecture. Primarily known for his brief role as Captain Kirk’s father in Star Trek, Hemsworth gives a star-making performance as the impetuous and hot-headed Odinson. He follows a similar trajectory as Tony Stark in that Thor starts off as an arrogant jerk, yet conveys a boisterous charm throughout the story. Tom Hiddleston also gives a breakout performance as the scheming god of mischief. His Loki has much in common with Shakespearean antagonists like Richard III and Iago. This is a master of Machiavellian machinations who is always thinking several steps ahead of his opponents, building layers of lies upon lies. With only a cocked eyebrow and subtle eye movements, you can see the wheels spinning inside his head. Yet, at the heart, he is still a tragic character. He is the overlooked son, living in the shadow of a beloved older brother and desperate to live up tot the high expectations of a demanding father. Hiddleston’s Loki is one of the best comic book movie villains, ranked right up there with Heath Ledger’s Joker and Terence Stamp’s General Zod.
Natalie Portman puts on one of her liveliest performances highlighted by unique line readings that breathe life into some rather pedestrian dialogue. The supporting cast is all excellent with Anthony Hopkins exuding the perfect bluster of the All-Father. As Thor’s compatriots, there’s Jaimie Alexander as the warrior woman Sif, Ray Stevenson as the hearty Volstagg, Joshua Dallas (channeling Errol Flynn by way of Cary Elwes) as the swashbuckling Fandral, and Tadanobu Asano from Ichi the Killer and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi as Hogun the Grim.
Marvel sprinkles in plenty of Easter eggs for the fanboys, such as references to Bruce Banner and Thor’s comic book alter-ego, Donald Blake. Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo as does J. Michael Straczynski, one of the credited screenwriters whose run on Thor was heavily influential to the film. SHIELD Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) returns, picking right up from the Iron Man 2 coda. He is joined by SHIELD agents Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez) and Jeremy Renner in an uncredited appearance as Clint Barton aka Hawkeye. Despite his brief screen time, Renner deftly exhibits the roguish charm needed to play the Avengers’ ace archer. A billboard hangs in the background emblazoned with the motto, “Land of Enchament…Journey Into Mystery,” a reference to the title in which Thor made his debut. And was that the Eye of Agamotto displayed in Odin’s treasure room? Of course, be sure to sit through the ending credits to catch a glimpse of just where Marvel is going with The Avengers.
If Thor has a weak spot, it is that the story feels as if there is a vital chunk missing. The movie unfolds in such a brisk pace that just when you think you’ve reached the midpoint, the film is already at the climax. There are moments when it seems as if Marvel is more focused on building towards their grand finale, instead of laying the foundation for a Thor franchise. These are only middling quibbles. Thor may not be on par with Iron Man, but it is the action-packed spectacle expected of a summer blockbuster. Long-time comic book fans will regress into giddy little children at the mere sight of Thor swinging his enchanted Uru hammer, Mjolnir. The beauty of Asgard glimpsed here will only serve to whet their appetites for the possibilities of future installments: Surtur the Fire Demon, Valkyrie, the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Absorbing Man, the Wrecking Crew, and maybe even Beta Ray Bill.