These days, movies based on comic book properties fall into one of three categories: the origin story, the sequel, or the reboot of a previously existing franchise.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, a handsomely mounted and sufficiently majestic introduction to Marvel Comics’ God of Thunder, belongs in the first slot but comes with a caveat that bears mentioning. For while Branagh’s picture dutifully lays out the mythological backstory of Odin’s arrogant, hammer-wielding son, Thor also serves as yet another appetizer one must consume before bellying up to the superhero smorgasbord that will be Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, and this “placeholder” status applied to Thor is both a blessing and a curse.
First, some explanation, as Thor — unlike his mighty Marvel counterparts Spider-Man or Hulk — isn’t exactly a household name to non-comic fans looking for a good time at the movies.
Created in 1962 by Marvel Comics giants Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby, Thor plants its roots in both Norse mythology and the tragedies of William Shakespeare. In this particular telling, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruler of the celestial realm of Asgard, debates which of his sons would make a worthy successor to his throne: cocky warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or quiet, deceitful Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Yet when Thor’s foolish act of rebellion brings war with the Frost Giants to Asgard’s doorstep, Odin deems his first-born child unworthy and casts him out their realm completely stripped of his power.
Thor, on the other had, isn’t stripped of much. Though Branagh follows this chiseled god to Earth, where he encounters human love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her “Scooby Gang” band of weather-tracking scientists, Thor fluidly switches from the high fantasy of Asgard (it looks like a heavy metal album cover from the 1980s … a compliment) to the vast expanses of the New Mexico deserts where our hero crash lands. Branagh knows how and where to spend his budget, surrounding his well-cast actors with impressive visual effects that do the God of Thunder justice. His sound design is Oscar worthy — listen to Thor’s hammer or Odin’s staff when either character places them down on the ground — and Patrick Doyle’s score swells as the action expands to blockbuster proportions.
Just don’t expect Thor to be as much fun as, say, Iron Man or Spider-Man because the character, as imagined by Lee and Kirby, always came across as honorable and serious in all of the places that his fellow heroes were flippant and sarcastic.
Hemsworth understands how to play Thor, a character who flies in the face of everything we’ve come to know about superheroes. Instead of hiding his identity, Thor screams his name to the heavens and expects you to remember it. He primarily fights for his own pride, learning late in the game that his powers can be used to assist others. It no doubt will be interesting to see how Thor’s personality gels with the attention-craving Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) or the patriotic do-gooder Captain America (Chris Evans) once he joins The Avengers in Marvel’s planned 2012 production.
But that anticipation kind of robs Thor of its presence, giving it a larger purpose it can’t quite escape. By the end of the film, I felt like Thor did its job, and did it well. But instead of satisfying as its own standalone adventure, it felt like necessary prep work for a bigger party we know we are going to be invited to yet aren’t allowed to walk into just yet.