[NOTE: This was originally published circa May 19, 2011]
The latest big-screen adaptation from Marvel Comics, centering around the titular Norse thunder god, is part heroic epic; part stranger-in-a-strange-land comedy. The combination isn't as awkward as it sounds, and the first reason for this is because the film features a man from a radically different world visiting a humble Earth location. The second reason, though, is more important--because it just gels well with the way Marvel movies work.
Beginning in Spider-Man, and taken to new heights in Iron Man, Marvel has refined a formula for movies that involves a surprising amount of zany comedy, with its heroes starting as humorously inept and bumbling around through slapstick and other awkward situations before they master themselves and become able to affect others. It sounds strange on paper, but what can I say; it actually works. It's great fun to watch this sort of movie, because we can laugh at their protagonists but also root for them, as their flaws give them common ground with us, the all-too-human audience.
Thor is a continuation of this sort of idea with its own twist. In Spider-Man and Iron Man, we snickered at the fact that the protagonists were naive, inexperienced, and generally unprepared to become heroes, even if they were destined to do so, having come from a completely passive, unheroic walk of live. By contrast, Thor, played charismatically by Chris Hemsworth, seems very much like he was born ready to fight the fight; brave, muscular, idealistic, tough, and armed with a magical hammer, Thor is seen with his friends, beating up a bunch of frost giants in the very first act of the movie. In this case the hero's flaw is almost the opposite of what it's been in the past: Thor has no appreciation for the humility of sub-hero society. The world that Peter Parker and Tony Stark took very much for granted is alien to Thor, which is why, after his trigger-happy attack on Asgard's historical enemies nearly provokes a war, his father Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, banishes him to Earth to learn his lesson. Little does Odin know, however, that Thor's brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is conspiring to take over Asgard, so time is of the essence. Meanwhile, there's a romantic subplot between him and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), as well as some humorous hijinks with her associates, and also some run-ins with the government added to round out the experience.
One of the very first things viewers will notice about this movie is its appearance. This movie actually BEGINS in the mundane human world, with a van trudging through the middle of nowhere, and then bumping into Thor, initiating a flashback into the very, very different mystical realm of Asgard, which is, in a word, gorgeous. Gigantic, shiny, and transcending the boundaries between the terrestrial and the cosmic with all the intensity of a surreal Wyland painting, Asgard serves up a visual treat so breathtaking that I'm almost ashamed this wasn't a video game, because exploring it would be quite a thrill. I've heard multiple sources claim that this film is often dark to the point of being invisible in its 3-D version, so I opted to see it in 2-D, but if the detractors are correct, then that's quite a shame; a good 3-D treatment could have capitalized on this film beautifully. Oh well; it's still beautiful as it is.
After a bit of cavorting in this alien realm, Thor's banishment brings us back into backwater New Mexico, and all the lack of glamor that comes with it. Some may find this annoying; not only dumbfounded that this movie established a spectacular environment only to ignore it, but also disappointed in how it doesn't rival some of Marvel's other movies in terms of visuals, but I found it poignant. By choosing not to banish Thor to a major city, warzone, or otherwise striking earthly location, the film nails home the point that Odin wants to force him into valuing the insignificant. Meanwhile, Thor himself is a pretty good sight for a burly inhuman hero who can't be entirely replicated through a human actor. Hemsworth LOOKs like an iconic Norse hero, if not a god, with lots of hair, a muscular physique, and colorful armor to complete the look (though he's without it for a lot of the film), and certainly he's a nice break from the slim, clean-cut, spandex-clad look of most superheroes.
The acting of all the major players in this movie is very good. Hemsworth, in line with his plot-given task, delivers a performance that's hammy and comical, but also very likeable; you really get that he's always well-meaning, even when he's clueless. Anthony Hopkins does a great job sounding sagely as Odin, a very important role, even if it's not onscreen much. Finally, Tom Hiddleston plays a devious villain who's actually "acting" a lot in the canon of the movie, and Tom's own acting is more than up to the task. Though you probably went into the movie knowing he was the villain, Loki keeps his cards close to his face and does a great job looking like he's the peaceful voice of reason next to the dangerously-violent Thor in the opening scenes, as well as later looking sad when telling Thor of what happened since he left, and so-on through all the other scenes of the movie. You're never quite sure whether Loki sincerely believes in any of the things he claims to believe, or whether he ever deserves any sympathy on any level, and such ambiguity works perfectly for a character whose villainy is tied to his shady, unpredictable behavior. If there's one problem, it's that his performance isn't as exuberant as it might have been. Hiddleston's Loki is more than manipulative enough to live up to his reputation, but you'd think the God of Mischief would ENJOY evil a lot more; Loki here doesn't have many emotions beyond variations of perturbation.
To sum things up, Thor isn't a huge revolutionary movie event. It DOES represent, along with Captain America, which is due later this year, an important step on the way towards a crossover Avengers movie that probably WILL be monumental, but for the present, it's more of the same sort of thing we've seen in the past few Marvel movies. Still, it's an approach that DESERVED repeating, and I like that Marvel is finding ways to incorporate a lot of different heroes into its uniting, feel-good framework. It's always better to be left wanting more than wanting less, and if you're one of the many people who wanted more after you saw the other recent Marvel adaptations, you will find it here.