With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough.
With a story co-written by comic-book writer J. Michael Straczynski, who just finished revamping Thor as a comic franchise a few years ago, the movie features a more thoughtful script than most Marvel Studios films, but is nevertheless woefully basic. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished from Asgard, home of his fellow Norse gods, by father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) after he storms into the land of the frost giants and causes the mythical equivalent of an international incident. This makes Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the trickster god, next in line to succeed Odin. Which should make it painfully obvious to even a non comic-book fan that Loki set Thor up. The god of thunder is then banished to Earth and made to prove himself worthy of wielding Mjolnir, his flying, over-sized mallet and the receptacle of the powers to command thunder that Odin granted him. And along the way, Thor teams up with and woos scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and butts heads with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who quarantines Mjolnir in the vain hope that he can study and understand it better.
Thor’s main stumbling block in this busy but manageable scenario is that nothing unexpected happens. The moment where Thor proves he deserves to possess Mjolnir sucks not because it’s anti-climactic, but because it’s a quick way for a character to get out of the only problem that seems to matter in the film. Loki becoming king and abusing his powers is only vaguely hinted at: In other words, he plans to scheme better than he actually schemes. All Thor needs to solve every problem is time enough to do it: win over Foster, beat Loki, save the day.
It’s a real shame Hemsworth wasn’t given better material; he’s very good at shouting regally. Then again, everything else in the film is wasted too, so why should he be the exception? Asgard looks properly mythic in a flamboyant kind of way—especially appealing is the black, crystalline look of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between Asgard and Earth—and the action scenes are filmed cleanly enough (though they’re usually too brief). All the right elements to make a good blockbuster are present: a comic-book writer that knows the character penning the script, a Shakespearian dramatist at the helm, and good actors under his wing. Too bad nothing extraordinary came of it.