How did they manage to make such a fun, sprightly, engaging movie out of Thor? The venerable hammer-swinging character — the Norse God of Thunder, Son of Asgard, largely humorless superman — was one of the least likely of all the characters in the Marvel Comics universe to anchor a live-action feature film. There is so much back story and set-up to plod through — stuff about alternate universes and realms and wars between worlds that have nothing to do with ours — that the material would seem too heavy and lugubrious for a movie.
Well, think again. Screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne have come up with a brilliant way around one of the series’ central problems: The comic books spent large chunks of time in Asgard, where gods bickered and plotted against each other, and then several months’ worth of issues on Earth, where Thor battled evil demigods and the occasional garden-variety super-villain. The movie constantly cuts back and forth between the realms while telling its story: The young and arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stripped of his powers and magical hammer and sentenced to live as a mortal on Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), while Thor’s younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), one of the most cunning and treacherous of Marvel’s villains, plots to bump off the old man and make himself king of Asgard.
Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Henry V), who initially seemed like an odd choice for this sort of material, until you see the film and realize what a perfect choice he was. A lot of Asgard, with its rainbow bridges and golden spires, looks like the cover of a vintage Yes album, and having people running around shouting things such as “O, Father! We must speak to you urgently!” could have easily deteriorated into camp. But Branagh uses his Shakespearean roots to invest the Asgard sequences with gravitas and suspense and a genuine sense of tragedy. This is, in essence, the story of an aging king who must choose which of his sons will succeed him, and Branagh proves he knows how to turn this familiar formula into absorbing, invigorating entertainment, even with the addition of red-eyed frost giants and giant robots with laser beams that vaporize anything they touch.
The Asgard sequences are great fun, but the stuff on Earth is even better, as the befuddled Thor tries to make sense of his surroundings, befriends a scientist (Natalie Portman) who wants to help him and kiss him in equal measure and tries to figure out a way to get back to Asgard. Played by Hemsworth with a tremendous amount of charisma and charm, Thor is the rare superhero who spends the bulk of his movie without any special abilities, so you grow to like the character for who he is, not for what he can do. When he finally gets his hammer back and is able to swing into action, the picture takes off like a rocket, propelled by a level of excitement uncommon in most comic-book superhero adaptations. If you have any interest in the Avengers movie, Thor is required viewing, since there are things that happen here which will have grave repercussions in that hugely anticipated epic. But there is nothing in this surprisingly funny, exciting film that feels like homework, and Branagh even dares to end the film on, if not quite a cliffhanger, then a daring “To Be Continued” note. The summer movie season officially kicks off with a thunderstorm of the best kind.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Rene Russo.
Director: Kenneth Branagh.
Screenwriters: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne.
Producer: Kevin Feige.
A Paramount Pictures studios release. Running time: 114 minutes. Comic book violence, mayhem. Opens Friday May 6 at area theaters.