In Hollywood, imitation follows innovation. Marvel Studios’ “Thor” is their decent imitation of their runaway hit “Iron Man.” Forget the fact that Thor’s appeared in Marvel Comics longer than Iron Man has, forget the property’s likably goofy mishmash of Norse mythology and Oedipal overtones. Beneath all of that, Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” is basically just “Iron Man” with a cape and magical hammer instead of a suit of armor.
Like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is the brash son of a wealthy and powerful family. Like Stark, Thor believes that a nation’s best defense is a strong offense. And like Stark, he’s an egomaniac in desperate need of a lesson in humility. Over the course of their respective films, with the help of a plucky female sidekick-slash-love interest, each comes to grips with their responsibilities and their festering daddy issues. They also regularly doff their shirts so we can ogle their equally impressive physiques (in summer blockbusters the most important lesson anyone could learn is that with great cardio comes great musculature).
Hemsworth, like Downey, is his film’s secret weapon. After his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) casts him out of the heavenly realm of Asgard for impudence, Thor lands on Earth sans Mjolnir, his enchanted battle hammer, and we watch with a great deal of satisfaction as this big, burly fish out of water try to adapt to the local customs (his preferred technique for ordering drink refills is particular hoot). Though Thor learns his lesson awfully quickly — about a day and a half with astrophysicists Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kat Dennings undoes a thousand years of ingrained Asgardian habits — Hemsworth is consistently fun to watch. And his sibling rivalry with his jealous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) brings a surprising element of pathos to the film. You come to really enjoy the company of these characters and get a kick out of watching them interact.
Where “Thor” thuds, and where it doesn’t match “Iron Man,” is in the action department. Branagh, the great Shakespearean actor and director, really understands Thor’s knotted family tree but he’s a lot less confident about the massive battle scenes, some of which are totally incomprehensible. Though it seems to be the preferred technique of most directors these days, I remain convinced that the best vantage point from which to view a movie fight scene is not six inches from the combatants’ faces. When you take all these choppy close-ups, factor in a dimly lit setting like the homeworld of the malevolent Frost Giants, and pile on the added dinginess from a pair of 3D glasses, what you’re left with is a big, muddy mess.
Like its godly protagonist, “Thor” is a charming film. And its story of an unmotivated invasion by a son who feels empowered by birthright to conquer the evildoers that embarrassed his father adds a clever subtext about American foreign policy. But like a lot of charming people, “Thor” just kind of coasts along on its good looks. It’s also got way too much extraneous material setting up the upcoming “Avengers” movie, including a dreadful post-credits teaser that looks like it was written and shot in about fifteen minutes. Still, you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to know you’re watching a star being born here. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hemsworth does with the character in “The Avengers.” It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to Tony Stark. They should have a lot to talk about.