Thor, the first summer comic book blockbuster out of the gate, has a lot of that winking wit we've come to expect from our post-Spider-Man Marvel movies. It has a hunky, self-mocking young star, solid support from a couple of Oscar winners and the slick sheen that state-of-the-art effects can give you.
But if it weren't for all those effects (the 3-D seems an afterthought), for all the story's attention to "franchise" and its eye on money to be made from future movies, it might feel more than incomplete. The movie's scenes of an alien god stuck on the Real World (Earth) sing. But the ones in a digital Merrie Olde Land, where Odin, Thor, Loki and the Norse gods reside, are little better than glossy filler.
Esteemed director Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V) wasn't wholly able to overcome that "creation myth" part of any epic saga with simple effects. But once he leaves "the Realm Eternal," Asgard, where Odin (Anthony Hopkins) rules, things pick up. In a drawn-out first act, Odin tries to keep the peace with the warlike Frost Giants. But his headstrong son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), isn't having it. So Odin kicks Thor out in the hope that he will "cast aside all selfish" impulses. He tosses Thor's hammer through the wormhole that exiles him to Earth, too. If Thor proves worthy, he'll be able to heft that hammer again.
On Earth, hot young astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is investigating astral anomalies with her Scandinavian mentor (Stellan Skarsgard) and her dizzy science-impaired intern (Kat Dennings). They're the first humans Thor meets. And the intern is impressed with this blond lunatic's physique. "You know, for a crazy homeless person, he's pretty cut."
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The film's best scenes involve the Norse god as fish out of water. He stalks into a diner and bellows "I need sustenance!" He hurls coffee cups to the floor to ask for seconds. Very Viking. Thor storms into a hamster- and hound-packed pet store and roars, "I need a horse." And he gets into a drinking game with his fellow Scandinavian (Skarsgard), a scientist trying to get his head around the notion that this might be "the (mythic) stories I heard as a child" come to life. Portman has a great gift at delivering warm-for-Thor's-form looks that are both sexy and funny.
Dennings (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) has the punchlines, reacting to Thor the way most of us would. Thor's first words, staggering to his feet on Earth, "Hammer. Hammer!," earn a "We know you're hammered" from her.
Meanwhile, there's a lot of scheming on Asgar. Thor's skulking brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is up to no good, and Thor's comrades (Ray Stevenson among them) need Mr. Hammertime's help. On Earth, the secret S.H.I.E.L.D. agency (Clark Gregg and Jeremy Renner are part of the team) is trying to get this situation under control without having to involve Captain America, Nick Fury or Ironman.
All that complicated Marvel interconnection, tying stories together for future movies — yes, there's another teaser scene after the closing credits — just feels tedious. What's fun is what Hemsworth does with the character. He looks like a 20-years-younger version of Brad Pitt, if Pitt had really taken care of himself. And he plays this Nordic blond with a blend of bravado and tongue-in-cheek.
Hemsworth, Hopkins (a tiny part), Portman and Dennings make Thor work. And as comic book over-saturation sets in this summer, we might look back on this one with the reassuring thought that with this possible franchise, there is room for and hope for improvement.