The trickiest of the Avengers line-up to translate to the screen, "Thor" deserves a lot of praise for getting right something that could have gone wrong so easily. This Marvel Studios adventure is an ambitious fantasy sci-fi epic fusing Shakespearian regal family tropes, Norse mythology, "Dune"-esque alien civilisations, Tolkien-inspired battles, and even a small dash of fish-out-of-water comedy. With big characters and even bigger production design, the danger here was another "Flash Gordon" - a stylish cheese-fest of gilded costumes and unintentional humor that has camp appeal but no serious respect.
That situation is thankfully avoided. Director Kenneth Branagh and his entire production crew have delivered in terms of scope and consistency with this mythology-rich universe, respecting the material and treating it seriously but not letting it lapse into the dour, self-important pompousness that usually turns major audiences away from heavy sci-fi/fantasy works. Some obvious scripting issues and some rather underdone characterisations means "Thor" doesn't soar like Marvel's better efforts (X2, Iron Man), but it is a spectacle to be sure and lays a solid groundwork for a superhero franchise that's thankfully a bit different than the others in their catalogue.
The biggest surprise that many will have with Thor is that its Asgard-set scenes work fine whereas the Earth-based ones tend to come off clunky. After a brief intro on Earth, the first act is almost entirely set on alien worlds from the gold palaces of Asgard, to the rocky wastes of Jotunheim where Odin and his people have waged war and defeated the Frost Giants - extremely tall blue/grey humanoids with red eyes.
Here is where the shades of Peter Jackson kick in with a flashback battle that feels akin to the Elves/Orcs one that kicked off "The Fellowship of the Ring". Full props to the crew for making said Frost Giants into an interesting enemy. An unrecognisable Colm Feore does a solid job as the broken but not down leader of this race whose members can turn their arms into piercing spikes of ice. Though not the main villain of the piece, this establishes them just enough without overusing them.
Most of the first act sets up familial issues in the royal court - Anthony Hopkins' weary ruler Odin, his glory-seeking and war-hungry first son Thor, and his quieter and resentful younger son Loki. Having seen many hours of Chris Hemsworth's work on Aussie soap "Home and Away" several years ago, I'd become accustomed to his style. As Thor though he surprised me, the role is one that could have easily been overplayed and no actor can escape the direness of some of the dialogue here.
Yet for a character dominated by arrogance and entitlement, Hemsworth makes the God of Thunder into a charismatic and even endearing rascal. His conversion from brutish lunkhead to thoughtful ruler happens far too fast to be convincing, in fact he seems to adapt to fitting in on Earth within the space of a few minutes. Still, he's a physically perfect specimen, amply displayed in an utterly gratuitous (thank you Mr. Branagh) shirtless scene. More importantly he handles action scenes and quieter moments equally well, even if there's not really much to challenge him here.
Certainly the romance between him and Natalie Portman's rather thinly drawn character is one that, while not falling flat, feels decidedly undercooked. The middle act, set almost entirely around a New Mexico town, is where the film's main issues come to the fore. The humour is awkward at first, most of the weaker jokes are already out in the clips released thus far, but it does pick up a little as it takes on standard redemption elements.
Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard are like much of the supporting cast of the film - no-one does a bad job, they just aren't particularly remarkable. Certainly some characters feel under explored, like the Warriors Three, while I'm betting much of Rene Russo's role as Odin's wife is on the cutting room floor considering she has about two lines in the whole film. Hopkins as Odin is fine and regal enough, the actor delivering a wise workman-like mentor character which seems more the province of Liam Neeson these days.
The two exceptions to this rule are Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba. Hiddleston is another mostly unknown actor I was familiar with thanks to his co-starring with Branagh in the BBC "Wallander" telemovies. While Hemsworth is all roguish charm, Hiddleston demonstrates more dramatic potential as an actor and gives a fairly cardboard villain character not just the cold and duplicitous ambition it requires but ably conveys both the hurtful resentment and love he feels towards his father and brother. A plot twist with his character feels a little forced, but the actor helps sell it.
The more familiar Elba is Heimdall, the guardian of the quite stunningly realised rainbow bridge. In this it's essentially a wormhole generator with Elba playing the controller of it. He's an honourable man with a gruff no-nonsense demeanour, yet he manages to drop a well-timed dry witicism or two. Even with his giant gold helmet and bright orange eyes, Elba demands you take him seriously and in doing so makes his few minutes of screen time amongst the film's more memorable.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. elements do get dull, Jeremy Renner's cameo (no mention of his name and no costume) has been awkwardly intercut with one of the big character moments of the film and is utterly perfunctory. Yet the sandwiching of "The Avengers" portents thankfully feel more organic than their awkward and jarring inclusion in "Iron Man 2".
In spite of his dramatic touches in this tale of brother vs. brother, and a son learning to follow in his father's footsteps, Branagh knows people have come for action and delivers on that front. The film is fast paced, rarely slowing down for quieter moments, and he films action the classic way without jump cutting or blaring music - it all flows fine, even if he does exploit his love of dutch angles one too many times.
A battle between Thor and his friends with the Frost Giants is well realised and his magical hammer Mjolnir is used to bone crushing effect. The Destroyer, a walking robot furnace on legs, lays waste to a New Mexico town in its own fun battle - though its takedown of one character with a backhanded slap was a little laughable. Even the final confrontation between Loki and Thor is very well done, though one moment had me flashing back to the ending of "The Good Son" of all things.
"Thor" will please fans and may actually convert a few. The effects are solid, the costume and sets are opulent and work well in context, and the score is grandiose but rarely distracting. While the marketing for the film has been rather jarringly fusing the one-off iPod and Facebook gags with action shots that don't seem fully rendered, the final product flows much better than the trailers and clips let on. Though hampered by having to setup a mythology and tackle some familiar origin story elements, "Thor" still manages to work and lets us have fun along the way.