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Thor is the next step in Marvel's massive multi-superhero world-building effort that will culminate with The Avengers next summer, but unlike Iron Man 2 before it, it manages to stand as its own engaging, slightly cuckoo narrative as well. Despite the shiny pseudo-mythic land of Asgard where much of the film takes place and director Kenneth Branagh's Shakespearean credentials, Thor utterly lacks pretension, sticking to a simple story and doling out jolts of spectacle at all the necessary moments. The workmanlike writing by committee fails badly on the character level, and there's little in Thor that approaches the giddy, look-ma bravado of comic book movies at their best. But by embracing the oddities of Thor's mythology and building a very specific and fully realized world around him, Branagh and the Marvel brain trust have kept the superhero genre on its feet for another round.
The long list of things in Thor that work better than you might expect has to start with Chris Hemsworth, the Australian hunk of beef who nails both Thor's princely self-regard and good heart even when the writing isn't there to back him up. We meet him briefly on Earth before flashing back to Asgard, where a surprise attack from the enemy Frost Giants prevents him from being officially named as the successor to his aged father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). The George W. Bush parallels are there if you choose to pursue them-- a hotheaded son seeks revenge when his father would rather try diplomacy, rounds up his friends and invades the planet of the people who may or may not be such a grave threat. Invading the Frost Giant planet is the dumb move that gets cocky Thor banished from Asgard, but it also makes for a thrilling early fight sequence, full of weird magical weapons and powers along with the first hint that Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) might not be what he seems.
Crash landing in the New Mexico desert, his trusty hammer Mjolnir magically embedded by Odin in the earth until he's humble enough to pull it out, Thor is left essentially powerless and bunking with an astronomy research team, led by the inevitable love interest Jane (Natalie Portman). It's risky to leave your lead character essentially twiddling his thumbs for the entire second act, and though there's plenty going on between Loki's hostile takeover of Asgard and the efforts of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to figure out who Thor really is, the plot in this middle section sags considerably. Branagh makes up for it, though, with an odd and appealing visual style of Dutch angles that emphasize the wide open spaces of the desert, plus a well-executed sense of humor that gives Hemsworth and especially Kat Dennings, as Jane's assistant, a long series of crack one-liners. Everything on Asgard has to be taken seriously in order for us to believe in it at all, but on Earth Branagh and his cast get to cut loose, remembering that beyond spectacular and cool, superhero movies are really just supposed to be fun.
Fans of the comics will probably have a slightly easier time understanding all the mythology and monsters that play into the finale, and could explain to me why Idris Elba's Heimdall, the most interesting character in Asgard by far, is stuck on the outskirts of town the whole time. And for all the talk about the humility Thor must learn or the budding romance between him and Jane, the character development in Thor seems to have been sketched out in the first draft and abandoned in favor of focusing on cool production design. But you can be aware of all these flaws and still get a lot out of Thor, a movie that sidesteps cynicism and its own sloppy script to become a perfectly good, perfectly scaled bit of summer entertainment.