Thor, a big-screen adaptation of the Marvel comic about the Norse god of thunder, comes with unusually high pedigree; not every comic book movie is directed by Kenneth Branagh, second only to Laurence Olivier as the cinematic figure most closely identified with Shakespeare.
A cast featuring Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, along with the fact that Marvel Studios has yet to fumble an adaptation of their own work, sets the bar even higher.
Branagh may have been an unusual choice for the material, but he’s pulled off Thor with aplomb: this is a rich and vibrant piece of work that faithfully delivers the superhero and Asgard, the fantastical world of the gods, to the screen.
A childhood fan of the comics, the director finds just the right tonal balance between the heavy Shakespearian drama on Asgard and the jokey comic book mentality of the earthbound scenes.
As the film opens, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is about to be crowned King of Asgard by his father – and current King – Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But when a stealth attack by Frost Giants – sworn enemies of Asgard – disrupts the ceremony, Thor vows revenge; with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and fellow Norse warriors and friends (Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, and Josh Dallas), he travels to the Frost Giant world of Jotunheim against his father’s wishes.
After escalating conflict between the two worlds, Thor is stripped of his powers by Odin and banished to live among the mortals on Earth. While Loki makes a play for power on Asgard, Thor struggles with his newfound powerlessness; he’s taken in by bemused scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) while SHIELD and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) investigate the circumstances of his arrival.
At a swift 105 minutes minus credits, and with, really, only a pair of large-scale action set pieces, Thor feels rather light for a $150 million blockbuster; it never wears out its welcome, however, and leaves you wanting more from these characters (coming up next year: The Avengers).
I only wish the filmmakers had taken some more care in detailing the specific powers of the Asgard characters, and the effects of their otherworldly actions – we’re left to rely on brief snippets of last-minute dialogue to understand the consequences of some key climactic events.
Special mention: the sound design here is especially good, with the pang of Mjolnir as Thor bashes his enemies extraordinarily satisfying.
The inclusion of Swedish actor Skarsgård to help explain some of the Norse mythology (“stories they told us as children”) was also a nice touch.
One complaint: Branagh’s typical overindulgence in Dutch tilts.
Hemsworth is perfect in the title role; not much acting is required, he’s just a hulking mass of a man that adequately conveys the presence of a god among mortals. But this is (almost) just as much Loki’s film, and Hiddleston is excellent in the role of Thor’s devious brother, a far more interesting villain than we usually expect in a superhero movie. Hopkins, surprisingly, is less effective as Odin; to be fair, the character is in a coma for most of the film.
Thor has been around in the Marvel comic book universe – with some degree of popularity – since the early 60s, but ventures into other media have been few and far between (outside of a short-lived late-60s cartoon, Thor has generally only been glimpsed as a secondary character).
It’s no wonder: depicting the fantastic world of Asgard represented a significant visual challenge. With the aid of abundant CGI, Branagh and his team have met that challenge here, delivering an eye-popping world of the gods that the director isn’t afraid to showcase with long, swooping takes that bring us from one end of the world to the other.
Be sure to stick around after the credits for an additional scene featuring a familiar (and expected) face in a cameo role.
Other bonuses for fans: our first glimpse of Hawkeye (and possibly another Avenger – was that Luke Cage guarding the Mjolnir?) and the usual Stan Lee cameo.