I’ll have to admit that when Marvel Studios announced their innovative plan for their superhero franchises – introducing several heroes in their own films before teaming them up for one big extravaganza – I was worried that the film featuring Thor would be a weak link in that chain. Would the magical aspects of the hero and his stories mesh well with the pseudo-science at work in Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk? Well, thanks to an invocation of Clark’s Law (“All sufficiently advanced technology will appear to be magic.”), the interconnected superhero franchise neatly sidesteps the issue to deliver a film that while not great, is much better than the potential train wreck it could have been.
On the eve of his assuming the throne of the other-dimensional realm of Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) impulsively leads an attack against the frost giant kingdom, believing them responsible for an attempted break-in of Asgard’s armory. Angered at his impetuousness, Odin decrees that Thor is unworthy of the throne, strips him of his powers and exiles him to Earth where he meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who doesn’t quite believe his extra-dimensional origins. It is soon revealed that the orchestrator of all these events is Thor’s half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who has his own aspirations to the throne.
And while the story is suitably epic enough, by being split across two worlds the script is forced to give us two sets of characters. While either group would be enough to carry a film on their own, there is not enough room in the movie for all of them. As such, pretty much everyone in the film gets only a token bit of characterization. Fans of the comics may not like how Thor’s Asgardian comrades-in-arms, the Warriors Three, are not shown to be the fierce fighters we are told they are and are often reduced to delivering the comic relief moments that Kat Dennings’s lab-assistant character doesn’t. Most frustrating is that Portman, as nominal love interest Jane Foster, barely manages to make an impression with her character and you’re left wondering what Thor sees in her besides a pretty face.
Probably due to director Kenneth Brannagh’s experience in making Shakespearean drama accessible to modern film-going audiences, the portions of the film set in Asgard carry more heft than the light-weight Earth-bound sections. It is also where a majority of the plot mechanics happen while much of the story on Earth involves running around and the occasional fight.
Thor of course has the added task of lying some further ground work as part of the ramp-up to next summer’s The Avengers film. It manages to incorporate most of those elements fairly well, perhaps better than last summer’s Iron Man 2 did. Agent Coulson makes a snide remark about Tony Stark/Iron Man and Bruce Banner/The Hulk gets an oblique mention as well. There is one character cameo that does come off as a bit forced and feels more like fan service than anything else.
But despite these misgivings, the film stands pretty much on par with the rest of the Marvel Studios output. The performances of Hemsworth and Middleston carry much of the film. Hemsworth excludes a likeable enough charm that captures the role of the still-maturing thunder god, while Middleston’s Loki is probably the best villain we’ve seen so far in Marvel’s franchises. This is welcome news considering that he is already signed to reprise the role in next summer’s The Avengers.