Superhero movies remain hot stuff in Hollywood, and we’re all going to have to accept it. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad, but one thing is certain: There are too many origin stories. Since studios would like to turn every superhero into a franchise, the first film in a theoretical series has to introduce and explain everything. And it all becomes rather tiring, because while the details are different, the song remains the same: Average guy (usually a nerd) lives his regular life until a life-changing event turns him into a costumed vigilante.
Spider-Man, Batman, and Iron Man have all done it with great success. Green Lantern and Captain America are going to try it later this summer. Regardless of the quality of the actual film, it often ends up feeling like two hours of setup so the second movie can get moving quickly.
But Thor isn’t an average superhero. He’s not some schmuck who suffered through a trauma or got exposed to the good kind of radiation. He’s a god. He’s been flying around and smashing people in the face with his giant hammer for thousands of years.
So while Thor still needs an introduction as a superhero, there’s no mucking about with secret identities or waiting half an hour to discover his superpowers. After listening to Anthony Hopkins (playing chief-god Odin) explain a bit of history, Thor takes a bunch of his friends to pick a fight with the evil Frost Giants. Things go badly, and Odin banishes him to Earth and strips him of his powers so he can learn a thing or two about humility and caring for others.
As luck would have it, the powerless and confused Thor is found in the desert by an exceptionally good looking team of astrophysicists, which is certainly a good place to start when your main character needs to start caring about others. Can you imagine if he had to learn about empathy and selflessness while spending time with ugly people? You’d need a much longer movie. (Stellan Skarsgard is merely a regular looking guy, but love interest Natalie Portman relegates the stunning Kat Dennings to the role of spunky sidekick, making Thor scientists more attractive on average than Thor gods, which seems out of proportion somehow.)
The results are predictable: People think he’s crazy. The Attractive Astrophysicists leave him at a hospital, from which he escapes, only to be reunited with them when they hit him with their van. Despite being weird and crazy, Chief Attractive Scientist Jan (Portman) begins to trust the ridiculously good looking stranger, even when he decides to venture into the desert to reclaim his hammer, which is now guarded by a secret government agency.
Only during Operation: Hammer Rescue does Thor start to stray into Origin Movie, but not in the usual way. Thor isn’t a setup for Thor II; rather, it’s a lead-in for The Avengers, the 2012 blockbuster that will unite the stars of other blockbusters – Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, and friends. So Secret Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) shows up to be super-governmental, and the climax of Thor’s attempt to retrieve his hammer involves a guy with a bow and arrow who ultimately doesn’t even do anything.
If you know your comic books, you realize the guy with the bow is Hawkeye, the superhero with a bow who isn’t Green Arrow but will show up in The Avengers anyway. But if you don’t know or care about this sort of thing, you may wonder why director Kenneth Brannagh had Jeremy Renner show up for a small, silly, anticlimactic part. The answer, unfortunately, is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie you’re watching right now.
It also helps make super-awesome-secret security agency SHIELD look silly, since one unarmed man easily breaches their high-security installation. Sure, it’s an exceptionally good looking unarmed man who’s been a warrior for thousands of years, but it’s also a many who keeps getting hit by cars and was easily subdued by an attractive grad student with a taser. But hey, don’t worry – when shit gets serious, SHIELD will haul a guy with a bow and arrow up in a crane, where he will wait patiently until he’s no longer needed.
Of course, if you’re watching Thor, you may not be terribly concerned with logical plot development or anything approaching realism, and that’s probably for the best. Unlike Marvel’s other superheroes, Thor was never rooted in the real world. Peter Parker and his amazing friends were essentially regular guys with jobs, but Thor was built on ancient mythology as interpreted by the imagination of artist Jack Kirby. Thor is about gods and monsters dressed up like the gaudiest superheroes, crossing rainbow bridges, and flying around and smashing people in the face with a giant hammer.
Kenneth Branagh embraces the grandiosity of the source material, a fairly bold decision. The heavenly realm of Asgard is bright and shiny, its citizens dressed in gaudy armour and capes. It all looks perfectly sensible, until the Asgardians show up on Earth and look exactly as out of place as you’d expect. But everyone plays it straight – the gods are gods, and there’s no reason for them to feel silly about anything.
Like most action blockbusters, Thor doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of character development or acting. Thor’s character arc is simple: He’s a pompous jerk at the beginning, and at some point he has to become a more caring and thoughtful hero. Chris Hemsworth does what he needs to in the role, and manages to be charming and endearing for most of the film. He may overplay the confident, arrogant Thor, but it’s not exactly a part that calls for subtlety, and his performance in the second half of the film is exactly the sort of thing you want from an action movie star. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he looks like someone who might have fallen out of the sky.
The rest of the cast is full of good actors who don’t have a whole lot to do. Portman is lovely, but spends most of the movie delivering scientific jargon and then explaining that science doesn’t explain everything. Hopkins is merely playing Anthony Hopkins with an eyepatch and more armour than usual. Tom Hiddleston shows some potential as the villainous Loki, but is unfortunately stuck in an origin story of his own – we’ll have to wait for The Avengers to see him as a real supervillain. Idris Elba delivers almost every one of his lines with the exact same tone of voice, but he does look really cool while he’s doing it. Dennings gets to have some fun as the sarcastic assistant, and Ray Stevenson – a survivor of a much lower-budget Marvel superhero movie – enjoys himself as the portly Asgardian warrior Volstagg; if you can escape some of the drearier exposition, acting in a superhero movie can be a lot of fun.
Like most of the recent Marvel superhero films, Thor follows a formula, but does it well and with a lot more style and creativity than one might expect from an action movie. There’s nothing in the film that will surprise you – particularly if you’re familiar with some of the basic comic book stories – but it’s not gratuitously stupid, either. The exposition is kept to a minimum – which is still a lot, but what can you do – and it’s helmed by an experienced director who leaves his actors alone and trusts them to do their job. And while it’s still an origin movie of sorts, Thor doesn’t get bogged down in same tropes and standards as all the other superhero films. And it ends on a high note, with an inventive twist on the usual male/female superhero dynamic.
We know Thor is coming back, both in The Avengers and, perhaps, Thor II. Thor stands solidly on its own merits, and might be even better next time around.