A movie based on a comic-book character presents two basic challenges for a reviewer. First, like any movie, it has to stand on its own as a movie, regardless of how faithful it is to the source material. But fidelity counts for something, too, and capturing the look and spirit of the original comics goes a long way toward earning the goodwill of a big part of the target audience.
With Thor, the latest in Marvel Comics' string of summer blockbuster adaptations, director Kenneth Branagh (yes, that Kenneth Branagh) and a team of five screenwriters neatly wrap up nearly 50 years of comics continuity in a surprisingly accurate translation of Marvel's version of the Norse thunder god. It also turns out to also be a pretty okay movie on its own, at least by blockbuster standards. It is, in fact, about as good as fans could have reasonably expected and better than summer audiences usually get. It's not as good as Iron Man, but it's as good as Iron Man 2 (which earns the tie only because of Robert Downey Jr.).
After a prologue depicting an epic battle between the Norse gods and their mortal enemies the Frost Giants, Thor opens with a long fantasy sequence set in a digitally rendered Asgard, the home of the gods. The brash young Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just about to be named successor to his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), when a trio of Frost Giants invades the city. Asgard is presented as a futuristic sci-fi Viking megalopolis, more Flash Gordon than Lord of the Rings. The city doesn't look like the Asgard drawn by Jack Kirby in the early Thor stories in Journey Into Mystery, exactly, but his iconic '60s designs obviously influenced the architecture and costumes, as did images from Walt Simonson's memorable stretch in the early '80s as Thor's writer and artist.
Thor's belligerent response to the Frost Giants' trespass forces Odin to rethink his retirement. He banishes his son to New Mexico, of all places, where he is stranded without the magic hammer that is the source of his power. Aided by a trio of scientists played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kat Dennings, a humbled Thor lumbers his way through a small backwater town and a compound established by the super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in his quest to recover his hammer. He then heads back to Asgard to defeat his treacherous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has usurped Odin's throne and is trying to remotely destroy the Frost Giants' home world in order to claim victory.
The movie hits all the major points of Marvel's Thor mythos, particularly Thor's exile and redemption, and introduces the comic's main Asgardian cast: comrades Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Fandral (Joshua Dallas), known collectively as the Warriors Three; Thor's on-and-off lover Sif (Jaimie Alexander); and the sentry Heimdall (The Wire's Idris Elba). Branagh and the screenwriters also manage to squeeze in a couple of unobtrusive inside jokes that will please long-time fans.
It's not a seamless process—Sif is there only to moon over Thor for three or four brief scenes, and the statue-like Heimdall shows more personality and relevance than all of the Warriors Three. Worse, the budding romance between Thor and Portman's Jane Foster is clumsy and rote. There's little chemistry between the two, and their final, passionate goodbye near the end feels like it's been worked into the story with a crowbar.
But Hemsworth gets plenty of room to demonstrate both Thor's recklessness, and, later, his regal maturity. His first encounters with 21st-century America are funny, especially when he treats a small-town diner like a mead hall in Valhalla. (The march of the Warriors Three through a sleepy downtown is one of the high points of the movie, and the only time those three justify their presence on-screen.) On top of that, Hemsworth fits the role's physical requirements—the 6-foot-3 Australian actor has shoulders built to carry the burdens of a thunder god.
Something Marvel has learned in the last 10 years is that acting counts, even in superhero movies. Branagh gets good performances all around, especially from Hiddleston, who captures all sides of the manipulative, ambitious Loki, and from Clark Kellog as the shady S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who confiscates Thor's hammer. Skarsgård and Hopkins, however, are largely wasted in their relatively minor roles; the studio probably could have saved itself some money by hiring less well-known actors. The special effects are serviceable, but considering how much of the movie depends on them, they could have been a little more awesome. And save the $5 for the 3-D version; only a few scenes were shot with 3-D technology, so the effect is negligible.