I am a huge fan of the superhero genre in both comics and films, and just so you’re aware of my perspective going into this film, I was very worried about Thor. While the character was created during the high point of Stan Lee’s creative period in the 1960s, he’s always seemed a little weird to me, a mix of mythology and modern fantasy I was never really interested in as a kid. Thor’s a lot more complicated to explain than say, Iron Man, who is a rich guy in a high tech suit, a concept that the general public is already familiar with (Batman). Therefore, adapting a cosmic/fantasy/superhero genre crossover seemed like too tall an order for most. However, if anyone is up to the task, it’s director Kenneth Branagh.
The film bounces back and forth between Earth (Midgard) and Thor’s home realm of Asgard, and deftly depicts Thor as a man of two worlds. Unlike most costumed heroes, movie Thor doesn’t have an alter ego, but still maintains the genre convention of a dual identity between Earth and far off space. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t get bogged down in the details of the mythology, really only pausing long enough to give the audience just enough background to understand what is going on in the film (this is a nice contrast to the messy Iron Man 2).
The main plot is that of the Shakespearean relationship between Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Odin is a great and wise king, having kept Asgard (and Earth) safe from the warmongering Frost Giants by stealing the source of their power during a long and costly war fought over a thousand years ago. Like all great and wise kings, there is always the question of succession, and here it’s between the bloodlusty Thor and the more Machiavellian Loki. After some Frost Giants find their way into Odin’s kingdom, Thor decides (against his father’s wishes) to lay down some hammer-variety justice. For his disobedience and arrogance, he is stripped of his hammer, Mjolnir, and banished to Earth. There he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) an astrophysicist studying wormholes, and tries to find his way home.
Branagh is definitely up to the cinematic challenge, and the film is a blast of fun, delivering on every level. What makes the film so successful is a combination of the scale and the pacing. While Thor is an epic-level character, on the level of Superman (he’s a god), the movie smartly keeps the scale of the story small. There are some great action sequences that are very satisfying, but overall, the film mainly stays in a few locations in Asgard, and the area around a small town in New Mexico. While Asgard has a great sense of the towering architecture befitting ancient gods, the small town setting on Earth enhances the contrast between the two in order to maximize the ‘fish out of water’ story that the film plays with in it’s second act. All of the action scenes feel appropriately restrained, and the movie doesn’t make Iron Man‘s mistake of promising a huge ending battle and then not delivering.
Were I to compare it to any other superhero film, I think it has most in common with Richard Donner’s Superman. That film spends the first half hour on Krypton, and the Asgardian set pieces here feel appropriately majestic and alien, without venturing too far into the ridiculous. The film’s elegant solution to the look of the Bifröst Bridge is particularly noteworthy, using a prism effect over that of a literal rainbow. Additionally, the romance between Thor and Jane Foster feels more organic than any superhero romance since Superman and Lois Lane. I always felt the Spider-Man romance always leaned a little too hard on the melodrama, but Thor/Jane really captures the chaste yet heartfelt romance that was a hallmark of the genre for so long. Natalie Portman really sells both her role as an astrophysicist and love interest, and the chemistry between the two principles is helped along by the amount of male-cheesecake present.
That brings me to the supporting cast, another place where Thor really shines. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Huddleston are fantastic as Thor and Loki, but it’s the other players that really sell the film and make the world-building feel less like a chore. Rare is it for a superhero film to pass the Bechdel Test, but Kat Dennings is a great comedic foil for Natalie Portman, and they do seem like their existence has a purpose beyond blatant sex appeal. However, it’s the Warriors Three, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) that really are the heart of this movie. While we swoon over Thor with Jane Foster, it’s really his closest friends that get us rooting for Thor even when he seems to be an arrogant jerk. And it’s these characters that make me hope for a Thor 2 beyond the Avengers.
All of these elements are assisted in their effectiveness by the breakneck pace of the film, which walks the fine line between expedience and rushing. I will admit that there were a few times that I felt the film was rushing past some sequences I wanted to spend more time in, because I was enjoying them so much (especially in the middle of the film). However, in doing so it keeps the audience from getting bored by feeling overwhelmed or bogged down with the mythology.
I also want to take a moment to praise both the score and the sound design. I enjoyed Patrick Doyle’s score, which gives Thor a few great themes, though it’s a tad repetitive and gets lost in the sound mix. It’s rare for me to come out of a film raving about the sound design, but not only did they nail (ha!) the sounds of Mjolnir in it’s various uses, but the sound of The Destroyer’s weapon is one of the most satisfying sounds I have ever heard in a film. Ever.
Overall, I loved this movie, and will probably see it again in theaters, as it’s the best (non-deconstructional) superhero film since Iron Man, and I may bump it up above that movie after a second viewing.