We know this about Thor: Thursday is named after him. The movie doesn’t get into that. Too banal? Also, he’s the god of thunder, which the movie does get into, vividly; and maybe more importantly, he’s the property of Marvel Entertainment since the 1960s, when he became the cover boy for an odd but muscular combination of Norse mythology and comic books.
Now, in “Thor,” he’s an arrogant, impertinent warrior prince, played by the Australian actor and blond beefcake Chris Hemsworth. This Thor hails from a celestial realm in which magic and science, as he later has an expository duty to explain, are one. His father Odin is the king there, and is played by Anthony Hopkins, who also does a lot of explaining. So much explaining, actually, that the movie itself gets fidgety and can’t resist cutting away from him. Odin’s kingdom has an uneasy detente with the frost giants from just down the galaxy. Thor hates those assholes, and could go on fighting under-lit, incoherent, computer-generated battles with them all day. But his brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, is more circumspect. Maybe too circumspect. Something might be up with Loki, something untrustworthy.
Anyway, Thor gets expelled from his kingdom just prior to assuming its throne. After too much arrogant, impertinent warmongering, he needs humility lessons, like when you run a red light and have to go to driving school. Banished via intergalactic wormhole, he winds up in small-town New Mexico — which, although it obviously lacks the other realms’ production-design budgets, is not so bad. There’s a beautiful, available love interest, played by Natalie Portman, who just happens to be studying intergalactic wormholes, and she has a Scandinavian advisor, played by Stellan Skarsgård, who just happens to be familiar with Norse mythology. What are the odds?
And so, in two long yet curiously abbreviated-seeming hours, Thor will learn consideration and (the right amount of) circumspection. He’ll just need to reclaim his supremely powerful, Excaliburesque hammer, by deserving it. His new mortal friends can help with that.
This comes to us from director Kenneth Branagh and a veritable pantheon of writers (none of which, it should be said, seems to have made any particularly godly contributions). Branagh always has seemed to strain himself when reaching down into the barrel of populism. Here he’s so busy counterpointing celestial, too-vaguely Shakesperean intrafamily feuds with earthbound fish-out-of-water folly that both elements wind up undercooked and the net effect is a sort of directorial insecurity.
Everywhere we look, it’s a mixed bag. Kat Dennings is utterly superfluous as Portman’s comic-relief sidekick, but Idris Elba is terrific as the stoic gatekeeper of the intergalactic wormholes. Thankfully Hemsworth, at least as plausible a Thor as Vincent D’Onofrio was in “Adventures in Babysitting,” eventually wins us over with his swaggering, just slightly campy Olde English pomposity.
“Thor” seems like an epitome of commercial filmmaking in that it’s less a film than a commercial: for its own sequel, for the “Avengers” movie next year, for the the many multiplatform entertainment properties on offer from the Marvel machine. Let’s call it a success, for isn’t it the first rule of franchise propagation to leave us wanting more?