Marvel's winning streak at the box office is likely to continue with the release of its latest super hero blockbuster, Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who always seems to hit a home run when tackling Shakespeare (I enjoyed his takes on Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing) but who can stumble badly when he takes on more "commercial" fare (his Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an infamous misfire), Thor is sort of a mixture of Clash of the Titans, The Lord of the Rings, Superman, Iron Man, and even a dash of the classic Star Trek episode "Who Mourns For Adonais?"
You don't need to be familiar with the Thor comic books to understand and enjoy the movie. Everything is laid out clearly so that audiences with no prior knowledge can understand who all of the characters are, what they're doing, and why they're doing it. Thor, for those of you who don't know, is the legendary god of thunder from Norse mythology, who comes from the other-dimensional kingdom of Asgard, which is populated by all of the other Norse gods and some of the bravest, most capable warriors in the universe. But if you are familiar with the comics, you'll be pleasantly surprised at just how much of the Marvel Comics lore is crammed into the narrative. There are in-jokes aplenty, and cameo appearances from some of the folks who produced the classic comic-book stories on which much of this movie is based (Mr. Lee, Mr. Simonson, take a bow!).
The cast is uniformly great. Chris Hemsworth, who exuded likability, warmth, and strength as George Kirk (father of Captain James T.) in the most recent Star Trek movie, is perfectly cast as the title character. Hemsworth's Thor is charming, powerful, arrogant, stubborn, good-humored, and regal—in other words, absolutely true to the comic-book version.
Recent Oscar winner Natalie Portman isn't called upon to do anything particularly challenging in the role of young astrophysicist Jane Foster (a major departure from the comic-book version of Jane, who started out as a nurse and is now a full-fledged medical doctor), but she turns in a fine performance and is quite believable as a romantic interest for Thor—despite the fact that he's about twice her height. There's real chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman—you totally get why they're attracted to each other—and it's fun to watch their relationship grow over the course of the film.
Anthony Hopkins is pretty much perfect as Odin, Thor's father and the ruler of Asgard. It's not a particularly large role, but it's a very important one.
Tom Hiddleston is absolutely wonderful as Loki, Thor's brother and trusted adviser. Comic book readers already know how Thor and Loki's relationship develops, but it's still fun to watch it unfold for the first time in live action—and the characterization for Loki is multi-layered enough that his story arc here should intrigue newcomers and longtime fans alike.
And I was pleased with the portrayals of Thor's longtime Asgardian comrades, the Warriors Three (that would be Fandral the Dashing, Hogun the Grim, and Volstagg the Voluminous, for those of you not in the know). One of my very first writing jobs at Marvel was a story about the Warriors Three, for which I did a lot of research on the characters, so I have a great deal of affection for them and it was a bit of a thrill to see them brought to life. They're well cast—Josh Dallas is very good as Fandral, and Ray Stevenson captures Volstagg well without going too far overboard in terms of his comedic aspects. Tadanobu Asano may leave some purists scratching their heads with his Asian version of Hogun, but it didn't bother me.
And then there's Sif, the lovely female Asgardian warrior whom Thor counts as one of his closest friends and allies. All I can say is that Jaimie Alexander absolutely RULES in the part. She's one of my very favorite things about this movie. (I could totally see Ms. Alexander as Wonder Woman too, but it seems like that ship has sailed.)
Idris Elba, who was so great as Michael Scott's boss, Charles Minor, on NBC's The Office, makes for an appropriately imposing and enigmatic Heimdall, the guardian of the interdimensional bridge that connects Asgard to Earth. Again, purists may object to Heimdall being anything other than a Caucasian, but it didn't really bother me that he was black. (As the movie very subtly points out, the Vikings who worshipped the Norse gods may have all been white, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all of the Asgardians are.)
I also have to say that I love the depiction of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, who provide some real menace and creepiness. I love the way they look and how they're portrayed.
And I got a real kick out of the little cameo appearance of a character who will play a prominent role in next year's Marvel film, The Avengers. Be on the lookout for someone who has something in common with Cupid.
But the movie isn't perfect. One of the characters could have been dropped completely and the story would not have suffered one bit. However, it just so happens that this character, Darcy Lewis, played by Kat Dennings, also has some of the funniest lines and several fairly memorable moments (one involving a taser device). So while Darcy, who serves as Jane Foster's irreverent assistant, is superfluous and somewhat underwritten, she does make some worthwhile contributions.
I'm almost tempted to say that Stellan Skarsgård's character, Eric Selvig, who serves as Jane's mentor and confidante, is about as superfluous. But there's a payoff with Eric that justifies his presence. I can say no more.
Another flaw is that during a particularly destructive event brought on by a battle between Thor and an Asgardian super-weapon sent to Earth, the non-powered human characters emerge totally unscathed when they should have been shredded to ribbons.
Also, the CGI is a little unconvincing at times, especially in the early scenes set in Asgard.
As for the 3D, it's okay, but overall, I found it unnecessary. My advice: save yourself a few bucks and see the standard version if that's an option. You won't really be missing anything if you see it without the 3D.
By the way, be sure to stay past the end credits for another one of Marvel's now-obligatory "extra scenes" that helps set up a future movie set in this growing universe. In this case, I'm guessing that the scene somehow ties in with the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, which opens in July.
Thor doesn't quite reach the high-water mark set by the first Iron Man—not every film can. But it's a lot of fun, it never drags, the cast is great, it's both exciting and touching, and you're bound to leave the theater wondering what happens next. Fortunately, you won't have too long to wait for the answer to that, because as the end credits roll, you get a promise from the filmmakers: "Thor will return in The Avengers." Let the assembling begin!