Thor

On the surface, Kenneth Branagh may seem a bizarre choice to direct a big-budget superhero movie. The classically-trained Shakespearean actor hasn’t sat in a director’s chair since 2007’s Sleuth, and he’s much more famous for his efforts to bring the Bard to the masses than anything else.

But then someone caught wind of how he’s been a Thor fan since childhood and also remembered his incredible (Oscar-nominated) job directing 1989’s Henry V, and just like that, Kenneth Branagh isn’t just holding his own in the big-budget superhero world, he’s raising the bar.

Thor‘s spectacle is as eye-popping as anything to emerge from the Marvel Comics stable. And while the script is largely uneven, there’s still enough funny moments and some better-than-average high adventure to keep everyone from comic book aficionados to casual fans happy.

The story is well-known to those aficionados—headstrong and battle-hungry Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is in line for the throne of Asgard. When he gets a little too eager to fight a rival realm, his father, the legendary Norse god Odin (Anthony Hopkins), banishes Thor to Earth for a lesson in humility and discipline.

When he crashes down in present day New Mexico, Thor is greeted by the bumper of a sport utility vehicle driven by a group of astrophysicists, led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Immediately struck by his, er, physical prowess, Jane and her team take Thor in, eager to know where he’s from and how he got here.

There are plenty of fish-out-of-water jokes, including Thor’s walking into a local pet store and demanding a horse, and it’s that comedy that helps elevate the movie from a geek-tastic comic book film into a infinitely more approachable film for fans of big-time summer fare.

Thor is actually two movies in one. While the Earth-bound antics are unfolding, there’s also plenty of mayhem underway back up (over? out?) on Asgard. Thor’s younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is trying to claim the throne for his own, going behind his father’s back to strike up an alliance with a rival realm (there’s a spoiler here that I won’t mention). Of course it all culminates in a big-time battle on the streets of small town New Mexico, with Thor and his Asgard buddies taking on Loki’s giant metal crony in a fierce and fun bit of combat.

Thor starts and ends with solid action, and even when the pace slows (considerably) in the middle, it’s only so we can get a bit of character development; by the time we reach the whiz-bang finale, we’ve actually gotten to know the characters pretty well. Sure, there’s an ample amount of camp and goofiness here, too, but it is a comic book-based movie we’re watching, after all.

Hemsworth does a fine job as Thor. He actually has an above-average sense of comedic timing to go with his brute strength (and insane musculature). Portman, too, benefits from her decision to abandon any pretense and just go with the fun flow. Hopkins is surprisingly among the weakest of the links here, not allowed to do much more than yell at his disobedient son and then, frankly, fall asleep about halfway through. Rene Russo, making her first big-screen appearance in almost six years, is likewise underused, relegated to nothing more than a handful of lines.

It’s Branagh who will walk away with much of the glory; although if his name wasn’t on the poster, I’d never of guessed he was behind Thor. Is this really the same guy who elected to bring Hamlet to the big screen by using Shakespeare’s original text almost word-for-word? The off-kilter camera work will instantly remind you of the panels of a comic book, and the special effects intentionally (I presume) push the envelope of cheesiness without ever really crossing over.

Sure, the screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne could have used another round of polishing, but, heck, we’re officially in the Summer Movie Season now—the time when, by and large, scripts take a back seat to big-time action and effects.

And if you want ‘big-time’, it doesn’t get much bigger than the God of Thunder wielding his two-ton hammer. Thor delivers where it should, and that’s a pretty good way to welcome the warmer months.

3/5 stars