“You’re nothing but a boy, trying to prove himself a man,” says a villain in Marvel’s latest swing for the fences, Thor. It’s directed at the titular character, but actor Chris Hemsworth seems to take this challenge personally, spending most of the remaining film convincing the audience that he can be a leading man, with a substantial emphasis on the M-A-N. He growls and bellows, and furrows his impressive brow, all with the intention of out-manning whatever other men happen to be in his company. For the most part, this is what superheroes movies are about: visceral displays of machismo that make an audience want to holler and cheer. If that’s the goal, then Thor is a hearty victory.
Thor (Hemsworth), the brother of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is arrogant and headstrong. Defying his father, he brings a fight to the neighboring Frost Giants and nearly gets himself and his friends killed. Odin’s response is to remove Thor’s status as a God, and banish him to the miserable existence of an earth dweller. Lucky for Thor, upon his arrival he promptly meets the beautiful astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and endears himself to her motley crew (Stellan Skarsgård and Kat Dennings). Back in Asgard, Odin falls into an ambiguous “Odinsleep” and the devious Loki manipulates his way into the crown. Thor learns of this betrayal, and, well, you can imagine where it goes from there.
The first thing you have to appreciate about Thor is the work of Director Kenneth Branagh. Branagh’s been working consistently behind the camera for years now, but he’s certainly never done anything of this scale or with this level of notoriety. Juggling all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe stuff is enough of a challenge, without the added dilemma of reappropriating a character who can be, at the very least, a bit stale at times. I think we can officially add Branagh’s name to the list of directors who have successfully maneuvered Marvel properties to the silver screen. Branagh’s vision is bold and expansive, traveling from the beauty and perfection of Asgard, to the misery and terror of the Frost Giants’ Jotunheim, to the realism of Earth. And it is precisely within these distinctly different environs that Branagh establishes his base, because while Asgard is gorgeous, it’s exaggerated, and by letting the characters grow in the authentic reality of Earth, he allows the audience to make their own distinctions between what’s real and what’s surreal. Still, even if the subtleties of these choices don’t quite get through, there’s an abundance of stellar effects work to appreciate. Asgard in particular is a sight to behold; it’s golden excess a fitting home for the film’s divine characters.
As for everything else: plot, scripting, characters, performances, etc. It’s all pretty much OK. The story is on a par with your average superhero origin, if not a bit uptempo. The writers seem less concerned with the subtleties of Thor’s character, and fundamentally that sort of character development isn’t really needed. It’s enough to know that Thor falls, rises, and learns a valuable lesson along the way. The injection of the Jane Foster/Thor love story is more of a frustration than anything, but it’s also as rote a love story as you can find, and therefore mostly forgettable and unoffensive. As far as performance goes, Anthony Hopkins predictably steals every scene and adds a whole lot of clout to the Asgard experience, which could have very easily drifted into severe melodrama. His Odin is massively powerful, but doesn’t feel the need to express it every five minutes with a thunderous bellow, a shortcoming of Hemsworth’s Thor. That said, Chris Hemsworth does a decent job of balancing the intensity of the character with the necessary comedy of a God and his first visit to earth. Hemsworth certainly isn’t a comedic actor, but he understands the dynamics and provides a few laughs.
I’ve heard a few people say that Thor is precisely what they expected it to be, and that’s a fair assessment. On one end it’s big and impressive, and on the other it’s a fast-turnaround script with a dashing leading man, a beautiful, crowd-pleasing female lead, and an old Hollywood vet. As far as summer blockbusters go, this is what you want, and not much more. And that’s fine. Not every Marvel production can or will be Iron Man. Just so long as they keep the Stan Lee cameos coming.