There’s an old saying (I made it up two minutes ago) about superheroes that goes, “With great power, comes lame stories.” Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ excepted, invulnerable immortals who can bend time and space are just hard to relate to. Sure, Superman found his way into our hearts with his patriotic immigrant backstory and that cute curl on his forehead, but the tights-wearing lunatics whose struggles are the most compelling are relatively fragile little flowers. Spiderman, Batman, and most of the X-Men are mortal humans who should have died many fights ago. But at the box office, they’re invincible.
Editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby (the creative team responsible for pretty much every other well-known character that’s not Superman or Batman) first put the Norse god of thunder on a comics page in the 1960s. Since then, Thor’s proven the inverse correlation between level of power (apparently, Thor is the most powerful superhero of all time) and level of interest, as he’s flown all over the galaxy using his magical hammer to defeat just about everything except my boredom and his penchant for using dreadful archaisms. In the new film by director Kenneth Branagh, Thor finally manages to conquer the former. It’s the best big superhero movie in years.
Perhaps best known as a director for his four-hour, “complete” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Branagh’s no stranger to filming the unassailable. Like the unwillingness to cut any of Shakespeare’s dialogue, Thor succeeds not by reworking the character for modern audiences, but by leaving him intact. When we first see Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s about to become king of the distant realm of Asgard, he’s as overly affected as he ever was in his comics, with Hemsworth’s soap opera roots fully exposed as he seemingly takes both himself and the role way too seriously. But after Asgard’s enemies, the Ice Giants, stage a raid that interrupts Thor’s coronation, it becomes clear that Thor’s just arrogant, like most people would be if they had his pretty blond hair and more power than anyone in the universe. Disobeying his father (an unusually restrained Anthony Hopkins as Odin), Thor mounts an attack and starts an interplanetary war. When he returns to Asgard, his father strips him of his hammer and his powers. Now a mere mortal, Thor is banished to Earth.
The scenes of Asgard are so stunning that Thor’s banishment (to what ends up being the rural Southwestern US — the contrast couldn’t be clearer) seems like our loss. Like Tron, Thor’s interior design is as exciting as its action. Branagh was reportedly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright for the planet’s architecture, which synthesizes the architect’s sense of balance with the cosmic psychedelia of Thor’s early comic book years and a hint of art deco. And the film’s 3D, which is the best I’ve seen, adds weight and texture to the cityscape (instead of, say, making you think your head is going to be eaten by a piranha).
Yet once on Earth, there’s a different kind of heft, as Thor’s godly arrogance hilariously collides with humanity, or at least a team of scientists (Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis, and, in a nice bit of casting, Scandinavia’s Stellen Skarsgård as Erik Selving) studying atmospheric phenomena that Thor runs into (really, vice versa) during his descent. The team, like the audience, thinks Thor is ridiculous (even though both Jane and Darcy do appreciate his physique), and their giggling disbelief lets us know that, actually, Hemsworth’s acting has been just as it should be. It’s pretty funny to watch a Norse god eat breakfast in a roadside café or walk into a pet store and ask for a bird he can ride on.
But the film never hammers (ha!) us too hard with jokes or anything else: explosions aside, Thor is the subtlest 3D superhero Norse god epic ever. The villains aren’t bloodthirsty psychopaths — they’re just misguided like that side of the family you only see at Thanksgiving, but with superpowers. The romance between Jane and Thor is more full of tension than clichés. And even when juggling complicated subplots involving a secret government agency and problems with the royal family back at Asgard, there’s never any need for one of those talks where two characters painstakingly explain something to each other for the benefit of the audience.
Most subtle of all, though, is Thor’s transformation from arrogant prick into Scandinavian god I’d most like to drink a stein of beer with. Sure, Thor performs a heroic act of self-sacrifice to save a bunch of mortals, dramatically proving his moral worth. But martyrdom doesn’t make you likeable. As the film ends, the dude’s still speaking like he’s from the 12th century, but somewhere along the way, he picked up the slightest smirk, as if the god of thunder realizes he sounds ridiculous, too, and is finally laughing at himself.