'Thor': Preposterous but Never Quite Stupid

A review of the Kenneth Branagh-directed superhero movie

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Paramount Pictures


The first written reference to the Norse god Thor is believed to have been by the Roman historian Tacitus in De Origine et situ Germanorum in 98 A.D. The first written reference to the superhero Thor wouldn't occur until 18 and a half centuries later, in August 1962, in Marvel Comics' Journey Into Mystery #83. The latter began: "Our story opens on the windy coast of Norway, where we see a frail figure silhouetted against the bleak sky! He is Dr. Don Blake, an American vacationing in Europe! And, as Doctor Blake turns and leaves the site, he doesn't see the strange alien spaceship which silently lands behind him!" Such innocence! Such simplicity! Such exclamatory punctuation!!

The spaceship in question contains a gaggle of extraterrestrial invaders (the "Stone Men from Saturn") intent on enslaving humanity. Fleeing the craggy aliens, Blake hides in a cave, where he happens to find an old walking stick. When he accidentally bangs it against a rock, it ignites like an otherworldly match and—poof!—the stick transforms into a warhammer and the doctor into, well, he's initially not quite sure what. Long blond hair, rippling biceps: could he be Fabio? Such fears are quickly laid to rest when he reads the large block letters on the hammer's side: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of ...Thor." (One can't help but wonder what Asgardian legalese might be hidden within that ellipsis.)

Thor arrives in multiplexes a mere half-century later but, in keeping with the temper of the times, the movie does away with Norway, the Saturnian Stone Men, and the frail Dr. Blake himself. Directed by Kenneth Branagh (from whom the producers clearly hoped for a little Shakespearian oomph), the film opens as a cosmic tornado eases down on the smooth sands of New Mexico. Observing the phenomenon are astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her avuncular mentor (Stellan Skarsgard), and a halfhearted intern (Kat Dennings). In an effort to get closer to the action, the gang drive their van over a man standing dazedly at the epicenter of the storm. (Blond locks? Check. Biceps? Check.) "Where did he come from?" Jane exclaims.

Glad you asked. A substantial chunk of backstory establishes that this is indeed Thor (Chris Hemsworth), newly banished from celestial Asgard by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Incited by his deceitful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the headstrong Teutonic hunk had caused a political incident by launching an unauthorized incursion against the frost giants of Jotunheim. His resulting sentence comingles the Christian and Arthurian: Thor is sent to Earth to live life as a mortal, and his hammer, Mjolnir, is implanted in the Southwestern bedrock, from which it will only be pulled by one who is worthy—unlike, at the moment, Thor—of Thor-ness.

Following his abrupt introduction to the front bumper of Jane's van, the Asgardian and the astrophysicist quickly begin exchanging interested glances. The attraction continues even after a zealous midlevel agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg, reprising his role from the Iron Man films) confiscates Jane's research, and Thor tries, with limited success, to retrieve it.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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