Here’s the challenge of making a movie about Thor: The thunder god is a meathead. If the Norse pantheon were in college (and sometimes it seems that way), Thor would be the good-natured frat guy living off his trust fund. He’s the muscle, not the idea man. While Odin seeks knowledge and Loki weaves plots, Thor’s job is to eat large animals, quaff mead, and occasionally swat away a few Jotuns with his hammer.
But, Viking legends aside, Thor has earned his place in the more marketable pantheon of Marvel Comics superheroes, where he first appeared in 1962. Marvel’s film production arm is currently masterminding the 2012 release of an ensemble superhero film called The Avengers, which necessitates introducing nongeek segments of the audience to the studio’s prize properties. Everyone knows the Incredible Hulk, and Robert Downey Jr. made Iron Man a hit. Captain America, whose movie is due in July, has a name that puts red-blooded patriots on his side. But Thor?
As it turns out, Thor is a meathead any girl would be glad to take home to Mom. Kenneth Branagh, better known for directing Henry V and Hamlet, has approached this hybrid of warrior-culture myth and 20th-century comic book as if it were a lesser-known Shakespeare play with fewer words and more smashing. Thor won’t convert any skeptics to the superhero genre, and its 3-D action sequences are crowded and muddy looking. But it does boast a coherent story, juicy performances and good old-fashioned character development.
When we first meet Thor (Chris Hemsworth), he’s the privileged prince of Asgard, a divine kingdom that looks like a cross between the Emerald City, something Ayn Rand might design and a five-star ski lodge. All-Father Odin (a restrained Anthony Hopkins) has granted Thor the throne over his smarter, less blond and burly brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The slighted sibling pretends to support Thor’s rash military endeavors against the Frost Giants but clearly has subtler plans. When Odin discovers Thor flouting interdimensional truces, he strips him of his hammer and banishes him to Earth, where our frat-boy hero discovers his inner responsible ruler thanks to the love of a brilliant scientist (Natalie Portman). It’s like Oliver Stone’s W. with a happier ending.
Branagh and crew don’t take any of this too seriously. Hemsworth delivers Thor’s Asgardian dialogue with enough pomposity to generate comic friction when he’s consigned to modern New Mexico, a land of rednecks and jaded snarkers like Portman’s undergrad assistant (Kat Dennings). The film could have done more with this fish-out-of-water scenario, but at least Thor learns basic table manners.
Hemsworth is as likable as he is buff, and Portman manages not to reprise her I’m-too-cool-for-this performance from the Star Wars prequels. Still, the supporting players steal the show. Twisted, conflicted villains are staples of modern superhero movies, but Hiddleston goes above and beyond with the layers of pain and doubt in his performance. This Loki is more like Edmund in King Lear than an elemental trickster god, but that’s OK. Fellow British thespian Idris Elba makes a strong, if brief, impact as Heimdall, the gods’ gatekeeper.
Among the summer’s promised action spectaculars, Thor stands relatively puny — no national landmarks are destroyed, and there’s barely a body count. But as a step in Marvel’s master plot to make all Americans into proud comic-book nerds, it’s a stratagem Loki would be proud of.