Entertaining, silly and overdesigned, Thor is an exercise in comic-book excess. As a summer blockbuster, it offers enough bang-for-the-buck thrills to overcome its predictable plotline. As the umpteenth superhero flick to hit the screen this year, it's as boisterous as it is superfluous. As yet another warm-up for next year's The Avengers movie, it's annoyingly plug-and-play, with far too many minutes wasted on SHIELD agents and character tie-ins.
Luckily, director Kenneth Branagh and his winning cast keep things likably accessible and fantastically opulent, delivering an adventure with genuine humor, spectacle and gravitas. Fanboys will lap it up like mother's milk. Everyone else will have a pretty good time.
In the quasi-mythical realm of Asgard, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is ready to pass the throne onto his eldest son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a reckless and arrogant warrior. But when Thor violates a treaty with the frost giants and re-ignites an ancient conflict, the aging king banishes him to Earth without his powers. Landing in New Mexico, the Norse god befriends a pair of scientists (Natalie Portman and Stellar Skarsgard) and recruits them to retrieve his magical hammer from the SHIELD agents who have confiscated it. Meanwhile, Thor's mischievous younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uncovers disturbing clues about his past, fueling his desire to take over the kingdom. Determined to prove himself to his father, and jealous of Thor's accomplishments, Loki schemes to keep his sibling out of Asgard forever.
Hiddleston is a terrific find, giving his villain both complexity and, dare I say it, Shakespearean pathos. Echoes of Othello, Macbeth and King Lear shade Branagh's tale of envious and warring children. While hardly a character study, Loki is a fascinating antagonist, one whose actions make sense and are, at times, even justified. It's this attention to character that distinguishes Thor from Marvel's Iron Man and Hulk.
And as nonsensical as the whole endeavor is, the cast brings its A-game, keeping the emotions human and in character. Hemsworth, an Australian soap opera actor making his big screen debut, throws around his imposing physicality and infectiously sunny charisma to good effect. As the film's immortal hero, he's both blustery and charming, winning our affection even as he makes an impetuous ass of himself. Tragically, his romance with Portman (who's otherwise good) never takes flight. It's the one relationship in the film that really stumbles.
Surprisingly, Branagh effectively balances Thor's dramatic developments against the pomp and gusto of the genre, injecting just enough casual insight, light-hearted humor and involving drama to overcome the movie's gaudy sense of production and design (you don't believe for a moment that anyone actually lives inside Asgard's shimmering architecture). And while he doesn't always have a steady hand on his action sequences, Branagh executes them with style and panache — especially an early assault by the Asgardians on the frost giants' home world.
Thor is the first shot in an endless summer of warring superheroes and supervillains. Whether it will hold its own against the likes of Captain America, Green Lantern, Harry Potter, Captain Jack Sparrow or the X-Men remains to be seen. But given its modest entertainment goals (if that word can be used with a big budget comic-book movie), the season's off to a promising start. —Jeff Meyers