Ever since the rise of the superhero film in the early 00’s, the films have walked a perilous line between cashing in on a massive built-in fan base and being too obscure or weird to interest mainstream audiences. Iron Man proved that a second-tier superhero could make for a first-tier box office hit. But once Marvel decided to get the whole Avengers gang together, they had challenge of marketing a film around the giant, hammer-twirling Norse god known as Thor. Not an easy sell. Fortunately, the choices here – offering up the directing gig to Shakespearian extraordinaire Kenneth Branagh, betting on the charisma of newcomer Chris Hemsworth, and deciding to stage a good deal of this action in the fantastic world of Asgard – paid off in a surprisingly delightful blast of fun.
Thor starts off with its least interesting characters, the humans (professor Stellan Skarsgard, perky-but-hardworking grad student Natalie Portman, and wisecracker Kat Dennings). On a study in the desert, the three of them (literally) run into Thor as he’s boomed down to Earth in a ball of light. Cut to only a few (space) days earlier, and we see the story of Thor unfolding in the neon-colored city of Asgard. On the eve of Thor inheriting the throne from his father (Anthony Hopkins), their home is attacked by the Frost Giants, leading Thor to defy his father’s orders and go kick some iceman ass. But his hotheadedness gets him stripped of his throne and his hammer, and Thor gets punted down to Earth to learn some humility. There, he hooks up with Portman Research Co., while his eerie brother Loki seems to be up to no good up on Asgard. Inevitably, the two worlds will collide.
Thor’s secret weapon is Thor himself. Hemsworth was largely an unknown quantity at the time – one of few guys in Hollywood big enough and blonde enough to pull off the Norse god. Surprise, surprise, Hemsworth is a friggin’ delight, all big grins and winking ego. He manages to take a leading character who is supposed to be the most pompous of pompous windbags, and he fills him to the brim with good charm and rugged spirit. It doesn’t hurt that the film is actually loaded quality performances – Hopkins, all grit and booming speeches, throws himself into a performance in the first time for what feels like forever; one the flipside, Skarsgard is the opposite of that – a measured caring replacement father figure for the young Thor. As Loki, Tom Hiddleston is all oily effete menace, a perfectly played snake, and Dennings proves to be shockingly adept at slinging sarcastic jabs at everyone onscreen (much better here than on 2 Broke Girls.) Only Portman fails to really shine here, but even she rides her Black Swan-praise into a warm, sweetheart of a performance. Again, Branagh is a Shakespearian, and the man knows how to get quality performances.
Really, the two things Thor has going against it are the same issues Iron Man has – problematic pacing (there’s a serious lack of action beats at times) and a weak payoff at the end (the film’s climactic sequence pales in comparison to a giant-robot fight that comes just before it.) Asgard itself, in all its neon-shininess, looks a bit like Rainbow Road from Mario Kart, but give props to Branagh for being able to sell such a fantastic world at all. And cheers to a Shakespearian director for putting together the surprisingly impactful fight scenes between Thor and the Frost Giants, or Thor and the U.S. army. (The military really takes a pummeling in the Marvel movies, if ya hadn’t noticed.) The more I think about it, Thor might actually be Iron Man’s equal (no RDJ, but no origin story bullshit.) But either way, Thor is still a surprisingly solid action flick, and it does a great job of setting up an offbeat character for a prime spot in the Avengers.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).