Film Review: Thor

Lavish and satisfying big-screen translation of the Marvel comic's mighty Norse god brought down to Earth.

Jack Kirby should have lived to see this. With a scale that shifts easily and naturally between epic grandeur and human emotion, this mythic drama of Marvel Comics' Norse-god hero Thor captures what first caught the attention of comic-book fans in the late 1950s and 1960s "Silver Age of Comics": a carefree, jaunty tone that masks, and is eventually subsumed by, life-or-death melodrama of high-relief hard choices, noble tragedy and the optimism to rise from suffering and look forward.

That's harder to capture than one might imagine—look at the debacles that were the two Fantastic Four films—and this spirit is different and distinct from DC Comics films: the Gothic brooding of Christopher Nolan's Batman, the Saturday-matinee simplicity of Richard Donner's or Bryan Singer's Superman. It is an aesthetic that, at its best, as here, transcends its teen-angst tropes to approach the core of heroic fiction, those tales of gods and monsters told at prehistoric campfires and in ancient epic poems, giving lessons on how we mortals might live our lives.

Thor, more so than Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk or other comic-book movies, inspires this sort of musing since it literally takes the myths of our ancestors and retells them in modern-day dress. As has been much remarked-upon, its director, Kenneth Branagh, is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations, including the full-out pageantry and sprawling battlefields of his Henry V (1989). While he forgoes the faux-Shakespearean dialogue that writer-editor Stan Lee gave to artist-plotter-conceptualizer Kirby's work in the comics, Branagh does provide the kingly canvas that Thor requires. His royal courts overflow with headcounts and pomp, his characters' royal responsibilities become the burden of Atlas. The city of Asgard and its cosmic environs and accoutrements—the massive Rainbow Bridge between worlds, the impossibly elaborate armor and horned helmets—never feel less than solid and real (despite an unfortunate videogame look to much of the CGI). When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his warrior companions Fandral (Joshua Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), the lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Falstaffian Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) gallop their chargers along the length of a shimmering bridge through space itself, well, for all the clearly Emerald City-inspired architecture of Asgard, we are not in Kansas anymore.

We do find ourselves in New Mexico, though, where many of the Earth-bound scenes were shot and take place. (One tourism billboard cheekily advertises the state with both the real-life tag "Land of Enchantment" and the name of the comic book in which Thor debuted, “Journey into Mystery.”) The headstrong, arrogant Thor, who had been about to succeed his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Asgard's throne, puts the realm on the brink of war with his ill-advised adventuring into the world of the menacing Frost Giants. Through the subtle machinations of his overshadowed adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has serious daddy issues, Thor is banished to Earth minus the godly power bequeathed by his battle hammer Mjolnir.

There, he meets physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and her comic-relief hipster intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). And though he finds Mjolnir—now in the hands of the superspy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., which has hurriedly constructed a facility around the unmovable object—only those who are deemed worthy can lift it. Thor's got some maturing to do—and when his warrior friends ("Xena, Jackie Chan and Robin Hood," as one agent calls Sif, Hogun and Fandral) find him and reveal Loki's hand, Loki sends in the Asgardian automaton the Destroyer—a sort of cross between the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick Terminators.

Amid all this flows family drama that pretty much anybody with a brother, a father or a mother can relate to. Loki is not some single-minded god of mischief here, though by the end he's clearly on a well-the-hell-with-this path. And while Thor is not the comics' familiar god of thunder for the bulk of this, in which he's a golden boy with a swelled head, the more-than-capable Hemsworth makes the character's transition seamless. His beseechings of "brother" to the hurt and angry Loki never feel insincere or stagey, and his growing romance with Jane has none of the saccharine schmaltz of the Twilight films. Ironic as it may sound, this is comic-book romance for grown-ups.