The challenge of making a good Thor movie could be called a Herculean task, except that Hercules comes from the wrong mythology.
On the big screen, Thor must be a two-hour fantasy adventure based on the ancient Norse pantheon, as interpreted by decades of comic books, that fits in the continuity of the new Marvel Comics movies like Iron Man, while entertaining audiences who don't give a crap about any of that. Oh, and in 3-D, too.
Director Kenneth Branagh, as today's leading interpreter of cinematic Shakespeare, proves perfectly comfortable with the towering personalities, highfalutin dialogue, and outlandish costumes of the Asgardian deities. But Branagh also infuses Thor with the star power and breezy humor of an old Hollywood swashbuckler. At its best, Thor feels more like Errol Flynn than Laurence Olivier, and it shoulders all of its cultural baggage with high spirits.
With his short beard and long, blond locks, Chris Hemsworth looks every inch the Scandinavian thunder god, and carries off the armor, red cape and big-ass hammer without resembling a Dragon*Con wannabe. In an early scene, he winks to his mother and pumps up the crowd like a star quarterback as his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) prepares to crown him king of Asgard, a land of golden palaces that look like pipe organs. Alas, a secret invasion by the Frost Giants, Asgard's ancient enemies, interrupts Thor's coronation.
Odin lets the sneak attack slide in the name of peace, but the furious Thor seeks retribution and leads his merry band of sidekicks on an unauthorized mission to the frozen land of Jotunheim. Thor and company battle oversized monsters that can form ice-blades out of thin air. In 3-D, the Jotunheim scenes bear an unfortunate similarity to The Last Airbender.
Odin, outraged by Thor's reckless arrogance, puts him in the celestial equivalent of a time-out by revoking his godly powers and sending him into exile as a human in small-town New Mexico. He's immediately found by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist investigating the cosmic implications of weird weather phenomena. Jane at first suspects Thor of being a loon — but a cut, charismatic loon. The film's middle section features plenty of fish-out-of-Asgard comedy, such as Thor's discovery that smashing his coffee mug on the diner floor isn't the genteel way to ask for seconds.
Thor's magic hammer, meanwhile, is only an hour's drive away, under an enchantment from Odin: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." The unworthy can't budge it, even with a pick-up truck, giving the story pleasing echoes of The Sword in the Stone and King Arthur. When Thor finds reclaiming his divine birthright to be harder than he imagined, he undergoes an identity crisis. As a human, Thor learns to be a more sensitive, self-sacrificing individual, but struggles with stopping the wicked schemes of his empowered brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
Hiddleston emerges as a great, glowering schemer and can sell Loki's lies so well, his agenda keeps the audience guessing. But Loki's not just evil for its own sake. He might be the God of Mischief and wear huge, curving devil horns on his helmet, but he's got some legitimate grievances with Asgard's power structure.
Thor does a more graceful job than Iron Man 2 at setting up plot points for future Marvel movies. But the script still feels overstuffed with supporting players, the most memorable of whom is Heimdall (Idris Elba). The all-seeing sentry of Asgard, Elba comes across as not just a guy in a weird suit, but an entity with an otherworldly presence and powers of perception. Heimdall's eerie, echoing voice reveals the strength of the film's sound design, which also features the tooth-rattling clangs of Thor's hammer and a death-ray blasting, armored adversary called the Destroyer.
In Thor, the special effect of Asgard's Rainbow Bridge isn't nearly as impressive as the title role's character arc. Thor undergoes a journey that could be the flip side of Spider-man's motto, "With great power, comes great responsibility." Without great power, comes great humility. And maybe even a little wisdom.
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