Marvel Comics’ Thor has always been about the collision of the old world with the new.
First appearing in Marvel’s Journey into Mystery #83 (Aug. 1962), Thor and his fellow Asgardians are extradimensional beings of vast power, the truth behind the legends of Norse mythology. Odin (Anthony Hopkins), to teach his prideful son a lesson, banishes Thor to the modern world to live as a mortal and learn humility. Thor (Chris Helmsworth) struggles to discover who he is when stripped of his divine power—and his divine hammer Mjolnir—fumbling for direction in a world of Toyotas and iPods. Meanwhile, conflict brews with the frost giants, Asgard’s ancient enemies, and an underhanded plot threatens the kingdom from within.
Via a cross-dimensional atmospheric storm, Thor is ejected from his heavenly realm smack into the research van of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and from that point, the two show palpable romantic chemistry. She quickly realizes that Thor’s mysterious origins make him a potentially-helpful wild card in her studies on wormholes. Every glance and gesture, every question Jane makes into Thor’s identity, every lesson she teaches him in decency and humanity (“When you want another cup of coffee, you ask nicely, not smash the mug on the floor!”) draws them closer together. Portman and Helmsworth perform their romantic roles with satisfying restraint, which is fitting, as their romance isn’t the centerpiece of the film.
At its heart, Thor is an archetypal story of redemption after a fall from grace, and through Jane and the others he meets, the god of thunder learns to temper his rashness with wisdom. From the beginning, Thor exhibits heroic qualities such as bravery and loyalty, faltering as a hero only when his pride drives these traits to excess. When, in a subversive echo of the Arthurian legend of Excalibur, he tries to pull Mjolnir from the rock it’s embedded in and fails, he realizes he is unworthy to wield the hammer. His frustrated roar to the heavens is the turning point in the transition from headstrong boy to humbled hero. Helmsworth delivers the roar, and the rest of his performance, with little subtlety or restraint.
After all, Thor is also a superhero movie.
And ultimately, the film is more epic clashing spectacle than profound drama. Asgard is rendered with sleek and monolithic CG architecture, palaces full of smooth shiny surfaces and breathtaking chasm-spanning views: utterly believable as “a place where technology and magic are one and the same.” Fights are brutal and impressive. Thor and friends throw themselves with battle-hungry vigor into an ill-advised and unsanctioned attack on their enemies, the frost giants, but come to realize their mistake as the giants slowly turn the tide with every icy clutch and stab. Later, to save his friends, Thor fights a losing battle as a mortal against an Asgardian war machine—then curb-stomps it with satisfying finality when he regains his powers.
Delivering action and drama, Thor is a solid movie—but not without its shortcomings.
As soon as Thor hits earth, a modern-humor sensibility injects itself into the narrative. A few “clever” quips detract from the film’s prevailingly epic mood, as when Jane’s assistant Darcy bemoans, “They took my iPod!” one time too many. At times the humor is used to good effect as part of Thor’s humbling, but the script fails to tone back the witticisms as it approaches the middle of the movie. Director Kenneth Branagh, with his Shakespearean background, can command plenty of dramatic gravitas, but when a modern SHIELD agent describes Thor’s companions as “We’ve got a Xena, a Jackie Chan, and a Robin Hood,” the audience is laughing when they should be bracing for battle.
Secondly, Thor’s younger brother Loki is ostensibly a trickster, but a schemer of his divine caliber should be able to muster more than the flimsy card-house of lies by which he usurps Asgard’s throne. It’s all too easy to see through his schemes, and Jane and company are much more successful liars—their deception actually manages to get Thor out of SHIELD’s hands! Loki isn’t an impressive villain, his fight scene near the end suffers from sluggish pacing, and among human prevaricators he fails to stand out.
Still, this is a movie worth your eight bucks. It brings entertainment and drama wrapped up in the story of Thor’s expiation. Moreover, it makes one of Marvel’s less-known superheroes accessible to the casual viewer, and brings the grand scope of Norse mythology into the modern world. The film is only as deep as it has to be—but it’s not content to stop at brain-dead entertainment. You won’t learn any new moral truths, but you may well remember something you already knew.