If I had to sum up Thor in one word, I’d use “quaint”. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with the source Marvel comic book series, in which our hero (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse god of thunder, travels between realms and battles magical threats from the depths of the cosmos. In Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation, he mostly just fumbles around, making a mess of things in both Asgard and Midgard, by which I mean a studio lot dressed as a small town in New Mexico with a 7-Eleven on every street corner. I like the implication that the mayor of Puente Antiguo assigned a convenience store to each of his or her constituents, ensuring a shameless bit of product placement in all the shots, and, hey, at least we’re out of New York and California.
How the titular deity ends up in Puente Antiguo strikes me as the most interesting part of the movie, though I find the opening act near unwatchable. I mean that literally. Branagh shrouds the war sequences with the frost giants in such darkness that I kept taking off my 3D shades in a vain attempt to tell one shadowy blur apart from the other. It doesn’t help that the mythology proves so complicated Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has to narrate the first fifteen minutes, hopping between such varied topics as Asgard and Jötunheimr’s fragile truce, the technology that allows his people to cross galaxies, and the dynamic between his two sons: Thor, best described as a superhuman jock in desperate need of humility, and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), otherwise known as the god of mischief.
It seems to me gods, at their most compelling, don’t need this sort of exposition, but then Thor doesn’t concern itself with adapting mythical figures from Nordic lore so much as with inventing an advanced alien species that might fit the science fiction universe introduced in Iron Man (2008). In fact, screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Don Payne, and Zack Stentz spend an inordinate amount of time sewing the fabric of the Marvel film universe, devoting an entire subplot to Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) whereabouts during the second half of Iron Man 2 (2010) and setting up the first act of The Avengers (2012) in a post-credit sequence. Even Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets a gratuitous cameo, one whose pointlessness is second only to Tony Stark’s appearance in The Incredible Hulk (2008).
As a result, Thor feels somewhat scattershot, never garnering the momentum necessary to propel its own low-key (no pun intended) plot: our hero screws up, gets banished to Earth, falls in love with a mortal (Natalie Portman), grows as a person, and returns home to clean up his mess. I appreciate Branagh forgoing the usual blockbuster tropes in favour of a more character-centric approach, even if it amounts to a standard sitcom formula, but the tone he’s chosen, a likely concession to the Marvel house style, strikes me as a tad too lighthearted to accommodate this sort of material. It’s hard to feel our hero’s loss when he’s joking around with a drunken science professor (Stellan Skarsgård) just one scene after hitting rock bottom.
Also consider Thor’s romance with astrophysicist Jane Foster, the aforementioned mortal who inspires him to take responsibility for his actions. Natalie Portman plays the plucky nerd with her usual awkward charm, and Chris Hemsworth is, well, gorgeous, so we understand right away how their characters might fall in love. However, we never sense any tension, sexual or otherwise, between the two. As such, when Asgardian friends come to visit our hero, we don’t care whether he decides to stay with his new human love interest, resume his unspoken courtship with Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), or have an all-male orgy with the Warriors Three (Asano Tadanobu, Josh Dallas, and Ray Stevenson).
Mind you, most of the jokes do land (Kat Dennings steals the show as Jane’s laidback intern) and allow Hemsworth to play the obnoxious frat boy without losing our sympathy. The up-and-coming actor turns out quite good at it, in fact, hinting at earnest compassion even at the peak of arrogance, but I find myself more drawn to Tom Hiddleston, both in terms of his performance and the complexity of his character. At times, Loki’s pain and confusion is so palpable we’re inclined to forgive his diabolical machinations, and the deep-seeded love entangled in his resentment reminds us why Branagh, who’s spent his career adapting Shakespeare plays, might have seemed a perfect choice of director for Thor.
I suspect “quaint” wouldn’t feel like such damning praise if the production hadn’t cost over $150 million. It doesn’t help that a significant portion of that money was spent on a perfunctory 3D conversion about which the best I can say is that the end credits look pretty neat. Then again, what else could one expect from an origin story that inverts the core motifs of the genre? Most super-heroes start off goodhearted weaklings and gain the power to make the world a better place. Thor, in contrast, starts off a powerful lout and gains the good heart to return to his better life. As such, whereas movies like Spider-Man (2002) and Green Lantern (2011) trade in a vicarious feeling of empowerment, Thor just made me smile at the thought that the gods may be smiling back.