Marvel's new superhero film "Thor" isn't particularly well written. The acting is decent, but unspectacular, and the action is only so-so. However, "Thor" has a few things in its favor. The first is that it is a beautifully designed film, full of so many stunning CGI environments, ornate costuming, and special effects fireworks that the eye never runs short of things to look at. Like last year's "Alice in Wonderland," "Thor" features the kind of beautiful visuals that would seem to result in a much better making-of art book than a full-length motion picture. Sometimes you just want the camera to hold still for a little while so you can appreciate the craft and care that went into all the props.
Another plus is that "Thor" is very well cast and has the right director. The success of the film rests almost solely on the performances of Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Anthony Hopkins as Odin Allfather, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Based on the Marvel comic book series that adapted the original Norse myths, the film begins with the premise that the Nordic gods are actually beings that come from a different world called Asgard, and Earth is one of the Nine Realms that they protect and safeguard. Odin reigns as king, and his two sons, mighty Thor and trickster Loki, vie for his favor and attention. All of these characters are larger than life and interact with a self-seriousness that could so easily have become campy and ridiculous. However, this is where the involvement Kenneth Branagh is vital. His action scenes might be rough, but where there's a family drama being played out with florid, quasi-archaic dialogue, he's in his element. And not only do Hopkins and Hiddleston deliver their lines with straight faces, but do so with enough sincerity and conviction that the viewer really has no choice but to accept that they are godlike beings who go out and do battle with all the nasties of the universe on a daily basis.
And then there's Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who is as genial and likable a god of thunder as anyone could hope for. After troublemaking Frost Giants from the icy realm of Jotunheim infiltrate Asgard, Thor takes this as an excuse to travel to Jotunheim with a band of friends to raise some hell. Arrogant and conceited, Thor breaks the peace between the two realms, and Odin banishes him to the human world, powerless, as punishment. With a massive, impressive physique, Hemsworth visually sells the idea of a god who has descended to earth. And he's got such charisma, he can get away with initially being a jerk to the puny mortals he meets after crashing intp the New Mexico desert. Three of these mortals are played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings. I initially mistook them for a family unit, because they act like a pair of squabbling sisters and their long-suffering father. But in fact, Jane Foster, played by Portman, is an astrophysicist who is tracking weather phenomena related to the happenings in Asgard. Erik and Darcy, Skarsgard and Dennings respectively, are her co-workers who come along for the ride, and mostly serve as tongue-in-cheek comic relief.
"Thor" is about the god of thunder becoming a true hero on Earth, and regaining his powers at a critical moment to defend Asgard and the human world against evil. Well, that's the plan anyway. What "Thor" is really about is giving us one action set-piece after another, spaced out among scenes of family conflict, a lot of humor to downplay the silliness of premise, and the introduction of elements that will be important to next year's "Avengers." The scenes on Earth are the weakest part of the film, because they should be about Thor learning to take his ego down a few notches and becoming closer to Jane. Instead, Thor is preoccupied with recovering his beloved weapon, the hammer Mjolnir, that Odin tossed down to Earth after him. After enough time has passed, Thor simply starts being more altruistic to others and more chivalrous with Jane. I like action as much as the next fangirl, but not when it comes at the expense of necessary character development. Is Thor a fish out of water in the human world? In theory, but he doesn't seem to have much trouble adjusting to life as a mortal, or much time to adjust anyway.
Another example of the film's structural problems is Thor's band of warrior friends in Asgard. These are the Warriors Three, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Fandral (Joshua Dallas), plus Sif (Jamie Alexander). The four of them eat up a good chunk of screen time, but are completely extraneous to the story. They serve as extra bodies to follow in the fight sequences, and will no doubt make for great action figures, but they don't do anything that a character like Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor and Loki's mother, or Asgard's towering gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) couldn't have. And they get so little development, their screen time easily could have gone to benefit Thor or Jane or Loki.
In the end I did enjoy "Thor." The spectacle is grand and the humor keeps things light. Branagh and his crew managed to translate a lot from the comic book to the screen that didn't seem possible, and they deserve full credit for it. The actors did a good job with some pretty flat characters, especially Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, and Chris Hemsworth. The obligatory "Avengers" tie-ins aren't nearly as obnoxious as the ones in "Iron Man 2," and even the unannounced cameos aren't too distracting. But so much feels compromised, watered down, and overly calculated, it only gets middling marks.
Fortunately, all the right components are here for a much better sequel. Better luck next time, Marvel.