'Thor': God of Awful
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Thor," the new Marvel superhero movie that boasts a more conventionally impressive pedigree than your average Marvel superhero movie on account of having been directed by Shakespeare guy Kenneth Branagh, is a confusing motion picture. Not because its plot is inordinately Byzantine; no, the story, by the comic book-experienced J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, expanded into a screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, is straightforward enough. It blends both mythic and sci-fi varieties of hoo-ha, chronicling the origin, such as it is, of Thor as Norse god and contemporary action hero. No, "Thor" is confusing because it's been getting reasonably favorable word of mouth despite the fact that it's as thoroughly a mediocre superhero movie as you'd care to imagine.
No, really, it is. And I'm not an anti-comic-book-movie person. Heck, I'm not even an anti-comic-book person. Read quite a few issues of "Thor" the comic book back in the day. Always considered it a trifle goofier than my other fave Marvels, which were "The Fantastic Four," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Doctor Strange" and, sure, "The Eternals" and the Steve Gerber run of "Howard the Duck." Despite all the arcane "thee"s and "thous" and the overused plot device of always making Thor decide whether he was gonna save the universe or revert to his earthbound alter ego of Dr. Donald Blake in order to perform an operation to save the sight of a blind young woman (the Thing's sculptress girlfriend, I think it was, maybe more than once), it had its moments (particularly when the distinctive artist Walt Simonson took over the books in the '80s). And then I had sex for the first time, and I kind of stopped following comics, not out of a put-away-childish-things compulsion -- no, really -- but more of a time-management issue. In any event, the prospect of a motion picture version of "Thor" didn't seem like anathema to me, not in the way that the idea of a "Fantastic Four" movie did right off the bat; I just knew that there was no way any film version could approximate the beauty of Joe Sinnott's inking of Jack Kirby's rocky Ben Grimm.
In the movie world of "Thor," the mythic kingdom of Asgard looks like a nightmare Maxfield Parrish-on-meth vision. Wise one-eyed Odin (Anthony Hopkins, phoning it in, from his agent's office) squires two young sons, one blond and wide-eyed, the other black-haired and introverted; and those sons grow up to be pro wrestler Chris Jericho and goth-rock combo Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy. OK, OK, Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth as Thor and other dude Tom Hiddleston as Loki, dude of mischief. On the eve of his coronation as Asgard's new king, the grown-up Thor decides on a unilateral assault on the villainous Frost Giants. Dad gets ticked and exiles Thor to another world, separating him from his Shake Weight -- I mean, mystic power hammer -- for good measure. Loki learns a terrible, sort of, secret about himself, which motivates some evil machinations. And Odin is so traumatized he falls into the Odinsleep, which is the Norse mythology term for Coma-that-conveniently-ends-just-at-the-moment-a-deus-ex-machina-or-just-literal-deus-is-called-for.
The Thunder God-in-banishment stuff plays like "The Man Who Fell to Earth," only dumb, with Thor running around breaking stuff and charming an astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman and befuddling her boss, who's played by Stellan Skarsgård, so of course his character knows all about Norse mythology. Soon some of Thor's multiracial warrior playmates descend from Asgard to help our hero, and are followed by an admittedly neat robot killer called a Destroyer, and at this point the movie picks up a little, playing kind of like a "Superman II" except Zod and Co. are the good guys, crossed with "The Day the Earth Stood Still," only, you guessed it, dumb.
Add to this some plot stitching to set up the upcoming multi-superhero spectacular "The Avengers" (blink and you'll miss Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye cameo, unless you're a Comic Con regular, in which case you might spontaneously orgasm at it), and you've got ... well, actually, the "Avengers" setup stuff, right up to the after-the-end-credits "teaser" featuring Samuel L. Jackson, is some of the most relatively (and I can't stress that "relatively" enough) engaging material in the movie. Indeed, it's not entirely irrational to look at "Thor," all 114 minutes of it, as the longest trailer for another film ever made.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.