3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In “Thor,” there aren't any phallic jokes about the titular thunder god's mighty hammer, but there might as well be. Such innuendos are about the only things this “Avengers” lead-up doesn't milk for laughs in its attempt to bring levity to the serious business of an alien beefcake falling to Earth after pissing off his Zeus-like daddy on a distant planet. Comic relief is indeed one way to make comic-geek hogwash relatable, but it's also a way to dilute sincerity and drama – trading punch for punch lines, as it were. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) faces the same dilemma that's befallen so many of his ilk: He's a weirdo trapped in a human society that's so not his speed. Thus, there's ample opportunity for director Kenneth Branagh (yes, that one) and a trio of screenwriters (Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne) to play the culture-clash card, having Thor blithely walk through traffic, pose for Facebook pictures, and name-drop things like Asgard (his home) and King Odin (his father) without the tiniest tinge of irony. Some of this is funny (“I need a horse!” the fish-out-of-water declares in a pet shop), but it's all rather strained, like the muscles of the many mortals trying to dislodge that blasted hammer, which follows Thor to Earth and embeds itself in the ground like an asteroidal Excalibur.
Truth be told, for a movie that was essentially made to help usher in the ultimate superhero mash-up film (“The Avengers” drops in summer 2012), “Thor” is hardly a slouchy production. Its pace is nimble, its casting is just right and its visual grandeur exceeds the sausage-factory look that's grown so prevalent in superhero cinema (“Green Lantern,” anyone?). For every tedious, overwrought action sequence (an early battle on an icy planet is meant to establish Thor's cockiness, but is really just cocky filmmaking), there's a crisp and pristine otherworldly tableau, or a gleaming interior furnished with inspired production design. Asgard – which, along with Earth and that ice planet, is one of the story's “nine realms” – is a Shangri-La plucked from a 1980s fantasy, where mauve galaxies and orange nebulas hover in full view, and a disco bridge of rainbow light stretches to a golden chamber that zaps folks in and out of foreign lands. It's a place, Thor says, where science and magic coexist, and things are all relatively peachy until the zealous prince's thirst for war prompts Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to banish him from paradise. He lands in New Mexico, conveniently close to the headquarters of a curious trio of sky-studying scientists, and with that, science and magic truly do join forces.
Though welcome for their inclusion of actors like Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgärd (who play the scientists – Jane, Darcy and Dr. Erik), Thor's earthbound escapades have a limpness that's never overcome, even when a familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Clark Gregg) shows up to link the proceedings to those of the “Iron Man” films (for the fanboys, Tony Stark gets a well-placed mention). The infernal humor keeps a-coming to help make up for the comparatively lackluster setting, and the inexorable developments of Thor's and Jane's romance and Thor's Arthurian redemption (he really does need to muster nobility to reclaim that immovable hammer) arrive with a quickness that's jolting, since it feels our hero only just dropped in moments ago. Put the blame on a lack of balance, a mismanaged insistence on telling two tall tales – one of Asgard's mythology and one of Thor's trial run with the human race. The latter is greatly shortchanged by the former, which, however more fascinating, is liberally fleshed out with scant regard for running time. We get the layered scoop on Thor's lineage, his responsibility to protect the nine realms, and his people's precarious relations with the fearsome Frost Giants, but we feel next to nothing when he and Jane share a kiss, or when a glimmer of changed-man-hood returns that hefty phallus to its rightful hand.
Where the movie does triumph is in the acting department, which is almost certainly a result of having Branagh at the helm. An unlikely candidate who reportedly took the gig because he was once nuts about the “Thor” comics, the Shakespearean actor/director squeezes in multiple moments of gripping gravitas, which, like the visuals, top what one expects from such a dime-a-dozen product. Naturally, the thespian-driven scenes that work best are those that evoke the Bard – heated bits of familial strife that don't need gods to summon thunder. Hemsworth, Hopkins and unfamiliar talent Tom Hiddleston (who plays Thor's power-hungry, villainous brother, Loki) bring classy intensity to well-directed segments that would shake the stage for which they seem perfectly appropriate. Twenty-seven-year-old Hemsworth is particularly impressive, especially given his short filmography and his dismal hamminess in the prologue to J.J. Abrams's “Star Trek” reboot. Throughout the see-sawing quality of “Thor,” Hemsworth remains a disarming, knightly constant, stepping into the burly-adventure-hero role as if cloned from Dolph Lundgren and Brad Pitt. He growls like a bear, but he can play tame, too, and he admirably pushes what substance he can into the movie's cracks. If you wanted to go there, you could say he tries his very best to give a golden heart to his golden god.