Kenneth Branagh’s Thor faces one of the most difficult challenges among the Avengers origin stories. It’s not the most accessible of stories, which is saying something when we’re talking about a universe consisting of men turning into ornery not-very-jolly green giants and pew! pew! rocketpack tin men. Yet all of those are somehow based on science, and in the universe we know. Thor’s character was always one of the more peculiar in comic books — a character born from ancient history and mythology, and inexplicably thrust into this new world of science and aliens and monsters.
And yet, Thor is a surprisingly enjoyable experience, for the fanboy and the casual viewer alike. I say this because I am, as many of you know, something of a fanboy myself, and I saw it with my wife, who is… well, not. And yet there was much to praise about Thor, even if there are some glaring stumbling blocks. The story, if you haven’t gleaned it from the dozen or so trailers that have been bombarding us for these past months, is this: Thor (Chris Hemsworth), God of Thunder, is tossed out of Asgard for going against his father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) wishes and breaking the truce against their ancient enemies, the frost giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore). On Earth, Thor loses his power, encounters the lovely Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), clashes with agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and tries to find his way home. All the while,Thor’s wicked brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots behind the scenes to try to usurp the throne of Asgard.
Yeah. It’s the kind of material that when written out like that, looks utterly ridiculous. And to a certain extent, it is — there’s no denying that some of the scenes in Asgard felt stilted and a tad too melodramatic. I found the parts on Earth, even though they fell victim to some of the classic culture shock tropes, to be frequently more engaging. But Branagh handles the overall arc with surprising deftness and nuance, and made an exciting, boisterous worlds-colliding story. The pacing awkward at times; in many ways, it’s paced similarly to the first Iron Man film — giant kaboom! battle to give you some sense of origin and time and place (in this case, a raucous, fierce battle between Thor and his companions as they square off against the frost giants). Then followed by an extended period of exposition, establishing supporting characters, the interruption created by S.H.I.E.L.D., where there’s little action and a great deal of dialogue. Followed by the revelation of the betrayer, and then a final battle that felt… like a bit of a letdown. Thor’s final battle with his brother Loki, as well as the preceding battle in the streets of small town New Mexico with the ominous Destroyer, felt rushed and somewhat unsatisfying.
Yet despite a less-than inspiring finale, Branagh succeeded in making the characters feel real and likable. Hemsworth certainly has the look for the Odinson, and he slips into the role with an easy sense of confidence and charismatic braggadocio. It’s no small task, given how painful his dialogue felt at times — that’s no fault of his or Branagh’s, it’s simply the consequence of taking an ancient Norse god and sticking him in New Mexico. At the same time, Portman has a delightful chemistry with him. She tones down her manic dream pixie girl shtick a good bit, and manages to convey the sense of a slightly awkward, brainy, and dedicated character who is looking for magic in her world of science, even if she may not realize it. The interaction between the two is easygoing and surprisingly charming, in fact.
As for the supporting cast, they all perform their jobs with aplomb. Hopkins can play a character like Odin in his sleep, all kingly gravitas and somber proclamations of wisdom. Stellan Skarsgard thankfully avoids drifting into his rasping melodramatic nutball role (see also: Deep Blue Sea, King Arthur) as Professor Selvig, Jane’s mentor. Tom Hiddleston is, I’m pleased to admit, goddamned perfect as the embittered trickster Loki, full of envy and venom and tragic jealousy. Coupled with the valiant efforts of Thor’s friend Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Joshua Dallas and Tadanobu Asano), not to mention the fierce gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba), it’s all so flowery and full of Shakespearean melodrama that it almost collapses, but their breezy portrayals make it far more enjoyable than expected.
Branagh is mostly able to bind it all together through a clever interweaving of scenes between here and Asgard, never lingering on one long enough for it to become stale. There are cheerful injections of humor to keep things upbeat, and the wry, smirking Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) who has been subtly lighting it up in all of the pre-Avengers movies so far provides yet another layer of enjoyment. I will admit that there were times when the dialogue got a bit, well… boring, unfortunately, and some of the meaningful scenes between Thor and Jane ended up dragging painfully, despite their strong chemistry.
If it sounds like I disliked the film, that’s far from the truth. It’s a rousing good time, unquestionably, and Hemsworth is such an affable, blustery fellow that it’s hard not to grin at his earnest performance. The film’s effects were impressively done, and the realm of Asgard manages to be gorgeous and almost heavenly, while still feeling sufficiently alien that it captures the idea that the film makers were going for — perhaps they’re not gods, but simply creatures from another world or dimension that we never recognized for what they are. The film is an odd juxtaposition of dense, antiquated dialogue and fast-paced, punchy action. It works, for the most part, even if the action at times leaves the audience wanting more. Oh, and unsurprisingly, the post-production 3D effects were barely even noticeable and a complete waste.
Most importantly, the handling of Thor when he’s smashing his way through his enemies, hammer swinging and cape flying, feels just right — like the comic book was indeed coming to life. The film is of course replete with little comic book references for the fans — mention of other characters, sightings of icons and items that resonate through comic book lore, and of course a preview of a fellow Avenger to come is especially enjoyable, even if only for a quick few minutes. And, as always, stay until the end folks.
Looking back, Thor felt good, though not great. It was an enjoyable couple of hours that sometimes stumbled, sometimes soared, and sometimes simply felt a little flat. It’s bolstered by a group of amiable, skilled actors and some interesting, if somewhat simplistic, examinations of the line between magic and science. But perhaps most importantly, it takes Thor and makes him feel like a viable character within this new universe, a super-powered, hammer-swinging creature of legend brought to life through a combination of technology and sorcery. It brings him into the world of scientifically bred heroes and shows that he has a place there, and it does so with charm and style. And some kickass hammering.