If you were betting on a weak link in the Marvel franchise, Thor seemed like safe money. Though popular with the fans, he possessed an elaborate mythos that might confuse the common moviegoer, and a home base in the mystical Asgard that just cried out for CGI overkill. Throw in a pampered name actor out of his league and you could just hear the Golden Raspberry boys licking their chops.
How amazing, then, that from such concerns could spring one of the very best Marvel superhero movies to date. Though it remains resolute popcorn fun – devoid of earnest philosophizing or brooding angst – the energy and joy it delivers are almost uncontainable. Thor feels energetic and new, filled with the wonder that this character has to offer and loving every minute of his hammer-swinging ass-kickery without taking him so seriously that he can’t breathe. Credit for the bulk of it goes to director Kenneth Branagh: an eyebrow-raising choice that turns out to be a perfect fit. Branagh’s Shakespearean background gives him the right sense of mythological grandeur for the film, as well as letting him juggle a diverse cast of characters while still keeping the focus squarely on Our Hero.
And what a hero he is. Chris Hemsworth plays the Viking deity as a cocksure enfant terrible: heir apparent to Asgard’s throne and viewing the prospect as a neverending joy ride. Then a rash raid on the land of the frost giants lands him in big trouble with his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who strips him of his powers and sends him to Earth to think about what he’s done.
The arc forms a neat reversal of most superhero origins story: instead of gaining power at great cost, Thor loses it at great cost, and has to figure out how to get it back. The machinations of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) stand in his way, as well as his own presumptuousness and a lack of awareness about his place in the universe. That journey forms the crux of the tale, keeping Thor centered on character rather than empty spectacle. Branagh and Hemsworth deliver the thunder god’s oversized personality with unparalleled affection, and the director’s knack for ensemble work gives minor figures like Sif and the Warriors Three a chance to shine as well.
Hiddleston benefits the most from that attention. Like McKellan’s Magneto, he’s a surprisingly complex villain, with understandable motives and a strong belief in the righteousness of his cause. Thor keeps a question mark over him for much of the running time, allowing us to ponder whether or not his actions are really for the best after all. Hiddleston plays it up without going over the top; not only does he provide Hemsworth with an ideal foil, but his apparent appearance in the upcoming Avengers movie is something to actively look forward to.
And, lest we forget, none of that comes at the expense of first-rate comic book action. Branagh devotes himself wholeheartedly to the visions of Jack Kirby: contrasting the majestic, surreal halls of Asgard with the mundane bleakness of Thor’s New Mexico exile. Nifty little touches from the comics color all of the fights – such as the arc of the spinning hammer or the concussive force of its blows – while still finding room for clever new touches like the frost giants’ use of ice weapons.
The 3D effects both hinder and hurt these efforts: the sense of space expertly evokes Kirby’s larger-than-life vistas, but the darkened palate prevents us from appreciating the color scheme as much as we could. A few other missteps mar the proceedings, mostly in the few direct tie-ins to The Avengers. Jeremy Renner will make a great Hawkeye, but his appearance here feels tacked on, and the occasional reference to Tony Stark looks to score cheap points with the fanboys. Thankfully, Clark Gregg continues his reliable work as SHIELD Agent Coulson (much darker here than in the Iron Man films) and the post-credits cookie is well worth sticking around for.
Put it all together, and it throws down a mighty challenge for the busiest summer in recent memory. Branagh understands the nature of the beast he’s riding, and guides it with expert hands to a supremely satisfying destination. It stands not only as a terrific Marvel film, but one of the best in the director’s canon as well: in the same league as his Shakespeare adaptations, if slightly less rigorous intellectually. Perhaps most notably, it gives us a real glimpse at how fantastic the Avengers movie might be… if it can adhere to the same quality on display here. Joss Whedon has a new standard to strive for, courtesy of the God of Thunder.