In the interest of full disclosure you should know that I’m a comic book nerd. I’ve been collecting for well over 20 years. I have over 70 long boxes of comics. I used to manage a comic book store. I didn’t date in high school and I lived in my mother’s basement until I was almost 30. So, I think I my comic book bona fides are in order. That being said, I find the prospect of the movie Thor thoroughly underwhelming. The whole “fish-out-of-water meets faux Shakespearian dialog” thing never really interested me much. Plus, since it’s all based on Norse mythology, the entire affair just felt dangerously close to being educational. To me, the character was always a peculiar mixture of silly and boring. Perhaps it was my remarkably low set of expectations, but the film actually works.
Chris Hemsworth stars as the titular hero. Having been cast out of his home of Asgard and onto present day Earth, Thor has little use for our world and is, for the moment, singularly focused on returning to his own. Of course, if there’s one thing than can make a man forsake his home (not to mention his parents’ basement) that “thing” would most definitely be Natalie Portman. Portman plays Jane Foster, an astrophysicist who unwittingly stumbles on the rift between our dimension and Thor’s.
The film is a tightrope walk between these worlds and director Kenneth Branagh deftly toggles between the two. Branagh is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has starred in and/or directed “serious” films such as Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. The fact that the source material is beneath Branagh turns out to be fortuitous. The movie’s dual nature is perilous. Spend too much time in Asgard and the film is nothing more than Hercules. But linger too long on Earth and Thor’s anachronistic humor, well…now you’ve got Hercules in New York. But Branagh’s Shakespearian background serves him well; allowing him to take the Asgardian aspects seriously, but not too seriously, without ever veering into camp. Hemsworth, as Thor, manages the same feat by bringing just the right touch of absurdity to some of his line readings while on Earth yet never undermines the more earnest nature of the Asgardian scenes.
The supporting cast is solid as well. Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Thor’s father, is well suited to his role even though, like Branagh, he is infinitely overqualified. And Kat Dennings, as Jane’s intern/assistant, manages to steal just about every scene she’s in.
While some might find the film a little light on action, the filmmakers of this recent spate of Marvel films have smartly decided to focus on characters first and action second. The reason these properties have been continuously published for decades is because people care about them. The annals of comic book history are littered with action packed stories helmed by boring superheroes. If the film has any major shortcoming it’s that it’s never quite as “epic” as it wants to be. But for a movie that could have easily swerved into self-parody, that seems like nit-picking.