He doesn't fight crime. He's not out to save the world. He isn't even human. Thor is not your average superhero, but "Thor," based on the Marvel comic series, nonetheless follows the basic blueprint one has come to expect from the genre. Sorta-kinda an origin story while also setting the Norse god up just in time for his participation in the upcoming movie mash-up "The Avengers," the film feels a tad streamlined in its narrative and character beats but is saved via Kenneth Branagh's confident direction. Because the setting switches back and forth between Earth and fantastical faraway realms deep in space, it would have been far too easy for the material to become hokey and cheeseball, but Branagh, aided by a fine cast and a carefully modulated screenplay by Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz (2003's "Agent Cody Banks
") and Don Payne (2006's "My Super Ex-Girlfriend
"), mostly avoids bad laughs. There's an unobtrusive sense of humor to the picture, to be sure, but the title character is treated with enough care and reverence to balance the tone out. The forced romantic subplot, alas, does not hold up to such close scrutiny.
Speaking to his sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Odin (Anthony Hopkins), current ruler of Asgard, tells them, "Only one of you can ascend to the throne, but both of you were born to be kings." For centuries, the Asgardians have held on to a casket harboring the power source of their archenemies, the Frost Giants, but when it comes close to being stolen, would-be heir Thor goes against his father and leads a crusade to their land of endless winter Jotunheim to confront them. Outraged over his son's stubborn disobedience, Odin strips Thor of his hammerthe object that gives him his god-like strength and abilitiesand banishes him to Earth. It is here, in the New Mexican desert just outside the sleepy town of Puente Antiguo, where Thor meets master astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her daffy assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). In disbelief that a man could literally fall from the sky, the group are soon accosted by the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, who have arrived to investigate a mysterious immovable hammer found sticking up from the ground. When word comes that Odin is on his death bed and the nefarious Loki has taken over as king, Thor must find a way to return to Asgard, confront Loki, and return peace to his people. Now that he has fallen for Jane and likes what he's seen of the mortal planet, it's going to be all the more difficult to say good-bye.
There are few surprising turns-of-events in "Thor," but it is dutiful and workmanlike from a storytelling angle and maybe a little better than that visually. The sequences set on Asgard and Jotunheim are ably conceived and stunningly brought to life, presenting glimpses into entirely new and mystical worlds. The visual effects are top-notch as Thor and his friendsVolstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander)race across the majestic, shimmering bridge that connects their kingdom and the entrance to other realms guarded by Heimdall (Idris Elba), or face off with the Frost Giants amidst snowswept mountains and a ground of ice collapsing underneath them. On Earth, the picture is most enjoyable as a fish-out-of-water tale, with Thor blissfully ignorant of the ways and customs of this foreign place. Action sequences, such as a battle with a fire-breathing automaton sent down by Loki to kill Thor, get the job done, if remain on a comparatively smaller scale than is the norm for such blockbuster climaxes. It's simultaneously quaint and eager to please, and somehow works because of this.
The love story between Thor and Jane is severely undernourished, particularly because the ending relies so heavily on the audience's investment in this relationship. As the movie would like to have it, Thor and Jane are supposed to have fallen helplessly and soulfully in love. In reality, they have known each other for thirty-six hours tops, and the sparks between them are of a purely physical nature. Truth be told, the two of them know next to nothing about each other, and the script misses the opportunity to bring more depth to them as a couple. As it is, Jane is slimly developed, whatever shades of personality she has coming from the capable charms and know-how that Natalie Portman (2011's "No Strings Attached
") lends to the part. As Thor, Chris Hemsworth (2009's "Star Trek
") more than holds his own with his first lead role, plausibly transforming from an immortal who is uncouth and far from humble to one with valiant morals and an understanding of right from wrong. He might not technically be a homosapien in Earth's terms, but he becomes human all the same. Of the rest of the performers, Anthony Hopkins (2011's "The Rite
") chews on the scenery as father Odin, but stays rooted in the truth of his character; newcomer Tom Hiddleston is dangerously intoxicating as the back-stabbing Loki, a great villain who still isn't quite used to his fullest; Kat Dennings (2008's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
") provides amusingly dry comic relief as Darcy Lewis, who knows nothing about science outside of the political kind; and Rene Russo (2005's "Yours, Mine and Ours
") is wasted with just three or four lines as Thor's regal mother Frigga.
"Thor" will not be going down anytime soon as one of the quintessentially great superhero efforts, like 2002's "Spider-Man
," 2006's undervalued "Superman Returns
," and 2008's "The Dark Knight
," but it isn't a failure, either. Traversing a well-made, if middle-of-the-road, path, the film captivates as innocuous eye candy and occasional spectacle, but isn't so successful on a lasting dramatic level. It's too thin and scattershot for that, with not enough to learn and grab onto from anyone other than Thor himself. This is too bad, because Kenneth Branagh directs the heck out of the piece, cohesively capturing action through lucid editing and a welcome knowledge of how to use space and craft tension. If there is a sequel, the opportunity to correct the deficiencies of its predecessor and deepen the characters and mythology shall be right there for the taking. This is a solid, if unspectacular, start.