Cinematic superheroes, usually a favourite group of mine, have failed to impress and excite me of late. From 2009's disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine to last summer's bloated Iron Man 2 to this year's bumbling Green Hornet, it seems that the super brand of heroism is stuck in a considerably rotten rut. But suddenly (and somewhat surprisingly), along comes buff, brawny Thor to save the day (and a genre) by basically being... a kid's movie? Is this what the genre's been missing for me? Is this what I've craved all along or at least since the last solid batch of superhero flicks in the summer of 2008, when Iron Man (the first one, of course), The Incredible Hulk and the genre-defining The Dark Knight all hit multiplexes? Well, perhaps not in such simple terms as that, but in the gifted hands of director Kenneth Branagh, Thor manages something nearly magical.
Better known for directing no less than five Shakespeare adaptations (and perhaps better known as an actor than a director to many, having previously appeared in the Harry Potter franchise), Branagh achieves a tender tone with Thor that becomes the driving force of the movie's success. He marries Shakespearean family drama with wide-eyed, lovable innocence and the two become so convincingly intertwined under Branagh's watch that the movie projects a seemingly universal appeal. It may sound like an odd mix (and it is, which explains why the movie takes a moment to settle into its own rhythms), but this combination of themes and attitudes allows Branagh to get to the heart of Thor's relatable conflict.
Following a clumsy prologue and a pile of awkward exposition, the movie begins to find its footing with the introduction of the titular hero (played with thunderous charisma by Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth). The armoured warrior and arrogant wielder of super-powered hammer Mojilnor, Thor is on the verge of succeeding his father Odin (a gristly Anthony Hopkins) as the new king of the mythical realm of Asgard. But when Thor makes a brash decision to pick a fight with the nasty Frost Giants, who look as lame as they sound, he breaks a truce and incites a potential war between his people and their ice-obsessed enemies.
Since Thor is a bit of a brat and the kind of guy who flips banquet tables when he doesn't get his way, he is scolded by his father and then temporarily banished to Earth, where he will have to learn what it means to be a great warrior and a true leader. It's a nice, simple setup, even if the Frost Giants are dull villains and you can feel the plot moving specific pieces into place. Once Thor is on Earth, he meets love interest Jane (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), and assistant/light comic relief Darcy (Kat Dennings). The narrative then switches back and forth between Thor's experiences on Earth and the events on Asgard, where Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is looking after things.
That may sound like a lot of plot and the dual locations do allow for plenty to happen, but Branagh handles the paralleling plot threads with ease. He ensures that Asgard is a visual wonder, with its ornate structures and golden sheen, and then gives Earth (represented entirely by New Mexico) a more, well, earthly appearance. This juxtaposition of imagery is eccentrically exciting and the relative drabness of Earth by comparison is balanced by the strength of the cast. Hemsworth is a volcano of charm and his Thor is just as fun to watch when he's cracking a smile as he is when smacking a bad guy with Mojilnor. Portman also proves to be a great fit in Branagh's world and the obviousness of her eventual role as love interest is justified by the discovery that Hemsworth and Portman actually have some chemistry.
Even with an underwritten romance, the stars make it count and it's easy to accept the desires of Thor and Jane to be together. The sense of innocence that permeates almost the entire movie is at its peak here and a single shared scene together is enough to make the love story worth rooting for. The sense of necessity for these romantic elements doesn't ruin the fun, because Branagh knows how to capitalize on the cliché and make it feel fresh. He employs cuteness without ever giving it enough room to blossom into full-blown saccharine. A brief moment of slow-motion silliness didn't even bother me too much, which speaks volumes about how completely I had fallen under the spell of Branagh's Thor by that point.
Despite a clunky start, Thor is so enjoyable overall that I can't help but think of it in glowing terms. It's a brawny blockbuster with a big heart and an immensely satisfying character arc befitting of a hero. Thor is ultimately the story of an impetuous young man learning a thing or two about how to be a better son. The movie continually returns to the theme of family and Branagh is always able to bring honesty and integrity to Thor's familial conflict. His influence has even stretched to the dialogue. Even if he didn't actually pen it (and Branagh is not among the five credited writers), the awesomely alliterative line "Do not mistake my appetite for apathy" sounds like it would be at home in many a Branagh movie.
With its wonderful pairing of director and star, Thor succeeds in making the cinematic superhero interesting and engaging again. Branagh strikes an unexpected tone that is exactly what the movie needs and Hemsworth expertly embodies the hero who is still in the process of growing up. This winning combination results in a movie that bleeds innocence and feels aimed at kids without dumbing things down or treating the audience in a condescending manner. It just feels sweet and wonderful and charming and, well, cute. But it's also thrilling and loud and laced with destruction, so it's not like the movie strays too far from its blockbuster promises of action and mayhem. Thanks to Branagh and Hemsworth (and many others involved, of course), I have a new big-screen superhero to cheer for. Right now, that feeling is so delightfully alien and unusual that I might as well be living on Asgard.