The latest Marvel Comics superhero film, Thor is here and, much like the middle runner on an Olympic-level relay team, it does its job admirably. Much has been made about Marvel Studios ambitious plan to have a running thread through its movies (namely 2008’s Incredible Hulk, both Iron Man films, this one and July’s Captain America: The First Avenger) that leads to next year’s hotly anticipated Joss Whedon directed Avengers team-up film. This actually mimics the comic books they are based on quite nicely. Since Marvel Comics began in 1961 (a re-branding of Atlas Comics, itself previously known as Timely Comics), all of its heroes have existed in a shared universe and routinely crossed paths. While their origins were not necessarily entwined, they would definitely seek each others help from time to time or have shared foes that they might occasionally team up to fight. Having this occur over the course of six films culminating in a seventh is unprecedented to be sure, but for this Marvel Zombie, very, very welcome. You don’t need to have seen any of the previous Marvel films to understand what is happening here and that’s as it should be. Each film stands on its own, but is layered with characters and subplots that carry over.
Thor begins not with the title character, but with three scientists, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), who are in New Mexico studying anomalous atmospheric phenomenon. It’s while pursuing one of these strange occurrences that the nearly run over a big blonde guy in the middle of nowhere. It is then that we get a flashback tale of the Asgardian’s ancient battle to protect eight of the Nine Worlds (Asgard itself, Midgard [Earth], Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, Hel, Alfheim, Muspelheim and Nidavellir) from the ninth, Jotunheim and the Frost Giants that reside there. Once the Asgardians seize the source of the Frost Giants’ power, a sort of truce begins that lasts until the present. The ceremony that is to see King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) step down and make his son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the new king, Frost Giants unsuccessfully attempt to steal back their power source. Odin is prepared to call no harm, no foul, but not so a prideful Thor. The Thunder God, along with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), heads to Jotunheim to teach the cold ones a lesson. The group is sent limping back to Asgard, saved only by Odin who then strips Thor of his power and hammer, Mjolnir, and then exiles him to Earth, bringing us back to the beginning.
The rest of the film concerns Thor learning humility amongst those on Earth and seeking to become worthy enough to once again wield his hammer and regain his powers. Along the way there are a few revelations back on the homefront in Asgard, the presence of S.H.I.E.L.D., a budding romance and a few other bits and bobs, especially for those who are fans of the Marvel films series and the comics. Three writers who have scripted Thor’s four color adventures make amusing cameos (one is a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment) and there is a surprise appearance by a character destined for a bigger role in Avengers. The latter cameo was somewhat spoiled in a recent preview clip and turns out to be seen and heard much more than previously thought. S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) from the Iron Man films has a sizable role here and both Bruce Banner and Tony Stark get nods in a couple of lines of dialogue. And, as has been the tradition in all of these connected Marvel movies, don’t rush out when the credits begin, you really want to stick around until the lights go up.
Kenneth Branagh does a magnificent job of capturing the fun, adventure and majesty of both the early Thor comics and some of the more recent ones as well. He does a great job of keeping the movie moving, even through scenes driven by dialogue. There are no wasted moments as everything builds towards later scenes or adds layers to what we’ve already seen. Branagh also has a keen grasp of the characters and has chosen his actors well. The performances ring true and never fall into the realm of melodrama or silliness, with one exception (see the next paragraph). I think Hemsworth does a tremendous job in the title role and believable plays an arrogant Thunder God finding his way amongst us mere mortals. It’s also very fun to see Portman playing a brilliant scientist that also unabashedly becomes a girl with a crush in the presence of Thor. And then there is the always magnificent Idris Elba as Heimdall, guardian of bifrost, the rainbow bridge that is Asgard’s link to the other worlds. Elba’s presence alone elevates Heimdall and makes for a riveting performance.
However, this film does have its flaws. Most are just minor quibbles, but there is one thing in particular that momentarily pulled me out of the film and struck me as very odd. In the big confrontation between Loki and Thor there is a moment where Hiddleston goes way over the top, almost become a cartoonish, mustache-twirling villain. It was so out of place and nearly comical. I find it odd because Loki was done very well in the rest of the film, both before and after. I can only conclude that it was a directorial decision and I’m curious as to why Branagh prompted Hiddleston to play it that way. As Loki will apparently be the catalyst to the Avengers forming into a team, I really hope it is just a case of misdirection. At the very least it will make Thor jarring upon repeat viewings.
Normally I would worry about the critical fate of a superhero action film when “critics” sitting in front of me not only loudly dismiss comic books, but also talk at length about not really liking movies to begin with. The only reason this pair was apparently at a free screener was because they were paid to be. I only regret not finding out their outlet so that I could make a point to never read anything in it ever. I am certain they have given Thor a tremendously negative review and probably babbled on self-importantly about how much they are above silly, childish films. Thankfully, they would be very, very wrong in their assessment of this film.