The latest attempt by Marvel Comics to beat Hollywood at its own game, Thor is easily their riskiest venture yet. Iron Man, the Hulk and the like obviously push the boundaries of believability with their super-science and general defiance of the laws of physics, but they are at least firmly rooted on planet Earth. Not so Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, who was re-imagined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a being from another dimension called Asgard, which has occasionally intruded on Earth’s history (particularly around the time of the Vikings). Thor and his people really are superhuman in their strength and abilities – flying through the air is kid’s stuff here.
Venturing in to this purely fantastical realm risks upsetting Marvel’s hitherto successful policy of anchoring their superheroes in the “real” world, and certainly ignores the strategy Christopher Nolan has employed so profitably with his gritty down-to-earth take on DC’s Batman. Indeed, Thor here co-exists in the same universe as Iron Man (referred to in a throwaway remark), and will team up with him onscreen alongside Captain America and the Hulk in 2012’s long-anticipated The Avengers. So it’s greatly to the credit of director Kenneth Branagh and the five credited writers that they make Thor work within Marvel’s cinematic universe without making him seem nonsensical or incompatible.
We kick off on Earth with a team of scientists, among them Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgård, in the middle of the New Mexico desert investigating anomalies in space (the sort of thing they tend to do in stories like these). As they drive towards a strange disturbance, out of the sky falls Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a muscular and somewhat confused figure. The film then flashes back to Thor’s home of Asgard, a shining kingdom which appears to sit on a cloud, ruled over by Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, looking like he’s having more fun than he’s had in years) who is about to anoint his successor before falling in to a prolonged rejuvenating slumber. The ceremony is interrupted by long standing enemies of Asgard the Frost Giants, and Thor’s subsequent actions see him banished to Earth by Odin, leaving Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as the heir apparent. There, with a bit of help from cute-as-a-button Jane Foster (Portman), he must prove himself worthy to lead his people.
That’s a fairly hefty slice of exposition and backstory to get through, but Branagh completely refuses to get bogged down in it. The pace is frenetic, leaving little time for audiences to get lost in Norse terminology or worry about questions of logic (the story is so trimmed of fat that one wonders if there’s an extended cut to come on dvd). Wisely dividing the time pretty evenly between the two realms, we get to enjoy the dazzling splendour of Asgard and the ice world of the Giants, followed by Thor’s arrival on Earth and his occasionally amusing attempts to integrate with human society. Yes, it’s the classic fish-out-of-water routine, but it works just fine. There may be little to surprise in the plot generally, but it’s done with enough confidence and pizzazz to seem sufficiently fresh and intriguing. In some ways this is the comic-book movie many have been waiting for: unafraid to let go of reality and ditch the serious stuff. The action is suitably spectacular, with the climax back in Asgard a particular highlight, even though it can be a touch too bombastic at times.
Key to the film’s success is Hemsworth as Thor, who turns in a well-judged performance that belies his relatively small CV. Occasionally reminiscent of fellow Aussie Russell Crowe, he is as much at home with the action stuff as he is with the intimate and humorous moments, and never plays it too knowingly. It is a role he seems to be completely at home in, almost as much as Robert Downey Jr was with Tony Stark. Portman helps anchor the Earth-side plot, though she doesn’t get to do much except fulfill the traditional female role and fall in love. Hiddleston is suitably shady as Loki, while for once Hopkins doesn’t go over the top, making his Odin as wise and fearsome as you might expect him to be. It all adds up to a mightily entertaining two hours of superhero fun, and gets the latest comic-book franchise off to a more than solid start. Don’t forget to hang around after the film for the now traditional post-credits teaser scene.