Pulling off a movie like Thor is no easy feat. The story of a Norse-god superhero set in modern-day USA requires the convincing marriage of an epic fantasy backdrop (with its magic, battles, and dialogue full of thee’s and thou’s) and a modern superhero movie (with its high tech, explosions, and dialogue often laced with self-referential winking). In this case, Marvel Studios made the interesting choice of Kenneth Branagh (a guy who made his name with some of the most accessible and enjoyable movie adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve seen) as the director. I’m not convinced that the blending of the two styles really succeeded in this movie (mostly we just cut between two largely independent story lines), but it’s still an enjoyable action movie.
For me, most of the interesting stuff happens in the grandiose world of Asgard, home of the Norse gods. In this version, it’s actually supposed to be a land floating out in space somewhere. The beings living there (who look remarkably human) were once worshipped by the Nordic people, but now they just do their own thing — in this case they wage war against a planet populated by tall blue people (no, it’s not Pandora) who they call Frost Giants (probably because of their tendency to freeze people in ice). For the most part there’s been peace between the planets because of Odin, the All-Father (played with blustery grandeur by Sir Anthony Hopkins). One day when he’s about to crown his son Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth), the ceremony is interrupted by a break-in by the Frosties, trying to steal back their Energon cube (Oops, that’s the Decepticons — all these glowing blue objects of power start to look alike). Insulted by their audacity, Thor decides to take the battle back to the Frosties’ home world, dragging his brother Loki, friends Sif, and the Warriors Three along, but he gets schooled and needs Odin’s rescue. Odin decides that his son is too headstrong and banishes him to Midgard (aka Earth) without his powers, or his powerful hammer (which will bestows Thor’s power to whoever is worthy). After the plot is set up, a lot more interesting things happen on Asgard (conspiracy, murder, and rebellion) than on Earth (government cover-ups, and shallow Hollywood romance).
The whole epic fantasy side is really not that big of a deal. It’s not treated with the same kind of seriousness as Lord of the Rings, and the dialogue is far far from Shakespearean. In fact it doesn’t even rival tv’s Game of Thrones or Camelot. However, there wasn’t really much of that stuff in the original comic book either. After some willing suspension of disbelief around the idea of a handful of godlike beings living in oversized palaces who transport to different worlds on a blast of light shot out of a big machine, the rest is just a fun ride. I especially enjoyed the twists and schemes courtesy of Thor’s evil brother Loki.
The earthbound story was, however, probably even more difficult to believe. Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, a scientist studying weather anomalies who runs into the bizarre cyclone that appears with Thor’s arrival. They meet-cute when she hits him with her van — how adorable! She and her team make sure that he’s alright, but then the government swoops in and seizes all her equipment and sets up a base around the site of Thor’s fallen hammer. In the process of fighting for their stuff back, Tarzan (I mean Thor) and Jane fall in love.
The plot is hardly surprising, and neither is Portman’s rather shallow performance as Jane. There definitely seems to be two Natalie Portmans, one who gives great dramatic performances and wins Oscars, and the other who lends her substance to an otherwise flimsy blockbuster role. We’re definitely in the second category here, but that too is no surprise given that the female lead/love interest gets ridiculously thin parts even in the most substantial of superhero movies (remember what’s her name from The Dark Knight?).
All in all, Thor is an enjoyable movie, but because it is somewhat split between two stories, neither gets enough time to really establish much more than an introduction. Good thing I stuck around after the credits (which you must always do for movies from Marvel Studios) and saw that we’re not done with these characters just yet. The whetting of my appetite for Joss Whedon’s upcoming Avengers movie earns a half-point extra, but this movie on its own barely merits a 4 out of 5.