Since The Dark Knight in 2008, fanboy arguments have shifted from "What's the best superhero movie?" to "What's the best superhero movie not directed by Christopher Nolan?" But by transcending the superhero label, The Dark Knight may have actually grounded our expectations for the genre. Its forgettable sequel notwithstanding, Iron Man proved that superhero movies were still worth making — and though it might not be quite as good, so does the surprisingly engaging Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
It must be said, however, that all these origin stories do start to run together after a while. In this one, the hammer-wielding thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is cast out of Asgard — the celestial realm where he would be the next king — and sent to earth, sans god-powers, to live amongst humans. It's a humbling sentence indeed for a being brimming with the type of hubris found only in mythological gods (check) and caped men (check).
His arrival on earth — a Superman-esque comet-crash into the New Mexico desert, where he must have been summoned by the power of film incentives — attracts the attention of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her colleagues, assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). They plow into Thor in their RV, and when he starts shouting to heaven about the Bifrost — a rainbow bridge that allows for inter-realm travel — they suspect he might not be from around these parts.
In the ensuing middle, Thor draws welcome humor from the what-if-a-Norse-god-was-one-of-us scenario. At one point, in preparation for a desert journey, Thor barges into a pet store bellowing, "I need a horse!" At another, he goes out drinking with Dr. Selvig — no surprise, the thunder god is no lightweight. This is the kind of levity every superhero movie needs, provided it's not overused, and here the balance is just about right.
From the beginning, though, Branagh deftly handles his main charge —facilitating a decent amount of badassery by Thor and his all-powerful hammer. Thor's unauthorized attack on Jotunheim, the offense for which he is banished by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), provides some of the movie's best action before we are even halfway through the first act. And while some of the fight sequences are less than satisfying — mainly, the brief battle between Thor and The Destroyer — there is certainly enough colossal quarrelling here to compensate.
Of course, the otherworldly visuals don't hurt. Thanks to Branagh's unexpected glam-Wagnerian visual flair on a blockbuster scale and dazzling production design by Bo Welch, battle in these heavenly realms is truly of mythical proportions. Even when no one's getting hammered, it's quite a bit of fun to be in Asgard. The sets, which combine the Art Deco Planet Mongo of the 1980 Flash Gordon with a pipe organ's innards, are for once made even more impressive by 3D glasses. Speaking of which, viewers typically averse to 3D will be happy to hear that just because he has a third dimension at his disposal, Branagh does not spend the movie's 114 minutes throwing Thor's hammer at you to remind you of the fact.
Ultimately, though, near-flawless casting and earnest performances bolster Thor more than anything. It is impossible to imagine anyone other than the blond-haired, blue-eyed and jacked-as-hell Hemsworth playing Thor, so ideal is his mix of callow cockiness and unironic heroism. Appropriately, the slight, sneaky Tom Hiddleston seems his perfect opposite as Thor's jealous adopted brother and eventual foe Loki. It is no surprise that Branagh, a man who has directed himself as Hamlet, draws such committed performances: Hopkins is particularly affecting in what amounts to an extended cameo, and Portman shows sparks of spontaneity she's rarely given off before.
If Thor disappoints you, it's likely you walked into the wrong movie. Summer is the time when highly destructive protagonists with an affinity for shouting reign supreme. As it turns out, gods with hammers fit in just fine.
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