So if directors of Marvel movies are instructed to work from a paint-by-numbers kit, what is it that separates the good ones from the bad ones, aside from the participation of Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider)? It comes down to two factors: tone and casting. A relatively obscure character called Iron Man hit paydirt thanks to the combination of director Jon Favreau’s high-energy delivery and the inspired choice of Robert Downey Jr. as the hero; meanwhile, the Hulk features have already run through two not entirely successful lead actors and will be working on a third when The Avengers hits theaters next summer. Thor shows that director Kenneth Branagh grasps these fundamental realities: He nails a unique tone, and he’s got a lead actor who seems to understand how to play a god.
As the mythology unfolds, to be precise, he’s not exactly a god. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is one of the immortal inhabitants of the realm of Asgard, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) their monarch. Centuries ago, the Asgardians defeated the Frost Giants, who sought to destroy humanity, and a truce has existed ever since. But when the cocky Thor threatens that fragile peace, Odin banishes him to Earth and strips him of his powers. He’s found in the New Mexico desert by astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her research team, spouting gibberish about his origins and trying to locate the mystical hammer Mjolnir that will return him to his rightful place.
That’s a bit of a twist on the typical super-hero origin story, admittedly: Rather than following a normal person as he adjusts to having extraordinary abilities, this one does the reverse. And it’s here that Hemsworth proves himself not just an impressive physical specimen, but a fairly deft comedian. The team of writers gives him some solid fish-out-of-water moments—like his enthusiastic reaction to his first cup of coffee—and Hemsworth plays them with the twinkle in his eye of someone accustomed to having the world bend to his will. If anything, between Hemsworth and Kat Dennings as Jane’s acerbic intern, the script misses an opportunity for even more comedy.
Branagh, meanwhile, shows with the Asgard-set scenes why a guy with a bunch of Shakespeare adaptations to his credit was the right choice for this material. The story is essentially one of jealousy and treachery inside the walls of a castle, as Thor’s trickster brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), tries to manipulate his way onto the throne—and that’s a milieu Branagh certainly knows his way around. There’s such dramatic grandeur in those scenes that the juxtaposition with the Earth-bound scenes is at times jarring. That’s one of the quirks Thor throws our way: Its two halves are both appealing, but they don’t always feel like they work together.
Perhaps the frustration is that the unique tone of the Asgard scenes is the only opportunity for Thor to carve out a distinctive identity. While the battle between Thor and his friends and the Frost Giants offers the discovery of a new context for super-hero action, the climactic battle plays like something that could just as easily have been an outtake from Iron Man 2. The romance between Thor and Jane feels rushed toward a sense of consequence, and the tidbits tossed to the fanboys—including the uncredited first appearance of one of Thor’s teammates-to-be in The Avengers—are often as distracting as they are amusing. There’s little question that Thor will succeed largely because of all the ways it adheres to a familiar formula. The tricky part is wondering if there could have been more room for the satisfying ways Thor is one of a kind.
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Riddleston