Tempering its sweeping scope with wit, humor, and just a little dose of dramatics, Thor is a super-charged fantasy epic that can stand alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is the fourth MCU film to be released and the first of two Marvel superhero movies to come out this summer -- Captain America being the other. Thor was originally slated for a 2008 release with X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn helming, but after several years in "development hell," Vaughn was replaced by Kenneth Branagh -- a surprising choice considering that his directorial filmography consists of at least five Shakespearean plays. However, despite all the eyebrow-raising, Branagh manages to orchestrate a superhero film that plays to both comic-book fans and laymen alike -- a Thor that's fun and that never takes itself too seriously, which you need for a summer movie blockbuster of this caliber. Though the battle scenes are a little muddled, Branagh fuses together striking production design and art direction with larger-than-life set pieces to create an often harmonious result.
The film begins in the deserts of New Mexico, where astrophysicist and all-around good girl Jane (Natalie Portman) is doing research with her assistant, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings), when suddenly Thor (Chris Hemsworth), an arrogant hammer-wielding warrior form the mystical realm of Asgard, appears out of nowhere and the team literally hits him with their car. Flash back to the mystical realms, where Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of the Asgard, wages war against the Frost Giants and their leader, Laufey (Colm Feore), to prevent them from conquering the Nine Realms. With peace achieved, Odin is able to focus on his two sons, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), one of whom will take the throne as king, but when Thor breaks the peace treaty with the Frost Giants, defying his father in the process, Odin strips him of his mighty hammer and casts him out of Asgard. Now in human form, Thor must live among the humans on Earth and hopefully learn a little humility in the process.
Chris Hemsworth makes quite an impression, both physically matching the description of the "God of Thunder" -- with his dirty blonde locks and ridiculously chiseled physique -- and possessing the right amount of humility and regality, and a little bit of humor, too. Not only does he prove that he can foster the right amount of emotional impact to make an audience cheer for the stranded titan, but he also proves that he can carry a film. It's fun to watch Thor navigate Earth as a god without powers -- smashing plates on the floor, attempting to stop cars with his bare hands, drinking poor Erik under the table -- and to see Jane and her crew react to his behavior. Speaking of Jane, Natalie Portman plays her character pretty straightforwardly. She giggles and swoons and bats her eyes like a lovesick schoolgirl, but who can blame her, really? Still, the relationship between Jane and Thor seems rushed -- they essentially fall in love in one syrupy scene complete with a trailer-park bonfire and shooting stars. Ultimately, though, the love story is secondary to the mythology surrounding the nobles of Asgard.
While Thor is exiled on Earth, his sneaky brother, Loki, plots behind his back in an attempt to assassinate their father, Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, who gives a commanding performance; it's Hiddelston, however, who is the standout here as Thor's complex half-brother, who is more than he seems to be, even in this context. Hiddelston gives a truly humanistic performance and his arc evokes genuine sympathy, which one rarely feels for a comic-book villain. What easily could have been a schlocky mess is instead an elegant tale of a father and his sons and the bond that can only be broken over time -- it's practically a Shakespearean tragedy, which may be what Branagh was going for in the first place.
Note: For the fan boys and girls out there, Marvel cameos include Clark Gregg, who reprises his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson from the Iron Man films and Jeremy Renner as sharpshooter Hawkeye. Plus, make sure you stay through the credits as Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. The coda hints at the next film in the universe -- Captain America -- and alludes to the infamous "Avenger Initiative."