You wouldn't expect Kenneth Branaugh, the great Shakespearean actor/director who adapted Henry V, Hamlet, and Love's Labour's Lost for the big screen, to have much in common with Sam Raimi, Hollywood's schlockmeister supreme who is best known for Spider-Man and the Evil Dead films. Yet, like Raimi (and for that matter, Shakespeare), Branaugh clearly knows how to mix the right dose of humor and drama to make the broadest appeal to audiences.
As the first movie in what is likely to become the gigantic Avengers franchise, Thor gives Branaugh an enormous mouthful of backstory and plot to chew on. After Thor disobeys his father Odin and wages war on the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes Thor (Chris Hemsworth) from the eternal realm of Asgard and casts him down to Earth.
In the mortal world, Thor's greatest weapon, his mighty hammer, is lost to him. He must instead rely on the help of Jane, a beautiful astrophysicist (Natalie Portman), as he learns to overcome his pride and fight his usurper brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), for his rightful place on the throne. In the meantime, the secret government organization S.H.I.E.L.D., first introduced in Iron Man, is hot on Thor's trail, trying either to form an alliance with him or harness his power.
So much is crammed into the movie's 115-minute running time, certain elements can't help being underdeveloped. For serious scientists, Jane and her team accept Thor's supernatural identity far too readily, and the immortal and the human woman fall in love so quickly that their eventual separation has no impact. Yet in choosing what to sacrifice on the altar of commercialism, Branaugh's instincts prove perfect. He may sell some of the convoluted intrigues short and the battle sequences near the end may feel rushed, but he plays the comic moments of Thor adapting to life on Earth and the emotional conflict between father, son, and brother in Asgard for all they're worth. That, combined with an embarrassment of acting riches, is what will have audiences cheering.
Newcomer Chris Hemsworth, whose resumé consists mostly of Australian soap operas, seems like he fell from the heavens expressly to play this part. Much has been made in the entertainment press of his god-like face and physique, but he carries Thor's swagger with the kind of charm and confident humor that calls to mind past greats like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. (Side note: Why does it seem these days that whenever directors need an icon of rugged masculinity, they must go to Australia to get it?) He more than holds his own with Oscar-elite Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, who turn in equally fresh, fun performances despite their rather one-note roles.
What should have execs at Marvel Studios cheering is that there's little in the PG-13-rated Thor to keep families with older children from turning out in droves. The superhero-style battles are relatively bloodless, nothing more than a kiss passes between Thor and Jane, and while I'm sure there must have been at least one to earn it the rating, I never noticed any obscenities. It's a perfect storm of major cross-audience box office.
Parents worried about the pagan source material can rest easy-this bastardization of ancient mythology is so silly that there's little concern of anyone taking it any more seriously than Superman's origin of falling from Krypton. In Marvel's world, Thor, Odin, Loki, and the rest of the Norse deities are transformed into immortals. The movie explains that the Norsemen worshipped them as gods, but that they are really just supernatural beings from another realm. That's not to say that anything here reflects a Christian understanding of the universe's origins, but this is wink-and-nod fantasy with no overtures to anything more significant.
If Captain America: The First Avenger proves as entertaining when it releases in July, Marvel will have its setup to get next year's ensemble superhero fest off to a roaring start.