Of all of Marvel’s so-called ‘Phase One’ films, Thor is probably the most perfunctory. Sure, it’s a better film than The Incredible Hulk, but it feels less coherent and isn’t completely successful as a standalone film. The film finds the titular Norse god who, out of an act of pride and defiance, is cast out of Asgard and exiled on this lowly planet called Earth where he must learn humility. Back on Asgard, Thor’s brother Loki learns a dark secret about his parentage and attempts to overthrow their father Odin.
Typical of Marvel’s films, the cast of Thor is stacked. Relative newcomers Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki) — now huge stars — are backed by Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, and Rene Russo under the direction of Kenneth Branagh. Also typical of Marvel’s films, Thor works very well for the most part. While perhaps an odd choice to handle a $150 million superhero fantasy, Branagh’s direction is solid; he moves the film — aided immensely by Hemsworth’s charms — and adheres to the now-defined Marvel Studios house style. It’s slick, glossy, and entertaining.
The Marvel machine has become like TV’s CSI: the formula is so well-refined that it’s near-impossible for a director to impart a particular style on the material. I mean, Louis Letterieer and Kenneth Branagh have wildly divergent concerns — just take a look at Dead Again and The Transporter — but take a look at this and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk: stylistically, they don’t differ drastically. So far only Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and Shane Black (Iron Man 3) are able to convey any authorial stamp — likely because both have distinct writing styles.
For all its glossy entertainment, Thor feels disjointed at times, as if sections of it were written in isolation and then sandwiched together. The screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne is really front-loaded with character introductions, world-building, and exposition plus an action beat. It’s not until Thor arrives in New Mexico that the film feels like it really gains any traction. This section of the film is really well done; Branagh’s light touch gives these scenes a real charm as the charismatic Hemsworth really plays well with the fish-out-of-water material.
While the films that belong to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all slick and well-made, they seem to be preoccupied with establishing said universe. Thor suffers the most from this. Thor’s character arc is stretched out far too long and many of the events in this film feel like padding. The worst offender is the inexplicable shoehorning in of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, especially since The Avengers does just as fine a job of introducing him. (Why does S.H.I.E.L.D. need an expert archer for this operation in New Mexico?)
I admire the film for being able to make these characters the high fantasy successful and sit comfortably in a shared universe. I suppose with a less-skilled creative team, Thor could’ve ended up an expensive, campy update of Masters of the Universe. Ultimately, it’s a credit to Branagh for handling the material, despite the shortcomings of the screenplay and studio mandates. He gives Hemsworth and Hiddleston a platform to become breakout stars — surely they’re the film’s biggest strengths. Thor remains immensely enjoyable, if not wholly memorable or successful as a standalone film. There’s nothing in Thor that’s necessarily bad, it’s just a film that could be refined more.
Thor (2011, USA, 115 minutes). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne. Starring Chris Hemmsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Rene Russo.