Thor (2011)

Action/Adventure Rated PG-13

This is twice now that Marvel Studios has made me care for a comic-book figure who initially struck me as dopey.

First it was Iron Man (which I had thought of as Batman for gear heads until I saw what Robert Downey Jr. did with the character). Now it’s Thor. An extraterrestrial superhero, based on the Norse god of thunder, who wields an all-powerful hammer as his weapon? Yes, the folks at Marvel make that work.

They do so by adopting the same overall tone that defined Iron Man. There is unashamed fidelity to the comic book, yet also a veneer of self-deprecation that acknowledges the story’s silliness. Thor is geeky yet inclusive, silly but not stupid. Altogether, it’s a deft and entertaining balancing act.

The director is Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), who seemed like an odd choice until I realized how much palace intrigue was at play in the Thor mythology (imagine one of Shakespeare’s histories on steroids). In the world of Asgard, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is about to transfer authority to his son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) when Thor embarks on a rash and bloodthirsty military campaign. Odin consequently strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth, where he must learn to balance wisdom with might.

You can probably already see the real-world parallels at play here. Thor is a one-man, war-mongering superpower: cocky, able, throwing his weight around the universe at whim. As the movie explores when and how the superpowerful should deploy lethal force, Thor becomes as timely today as it was when the character made his comic-book debut, just a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Americans have seen Thor, and he is us?)

Geopolitics, Shakespeare – be assured that Thor is also very funny. Hemsworth, an Australian beefcake who looks like he would be about as humorous as a bottle of bronzer, showcases some excellent comic timing, especially once Thor hits earth. (Wait until you see how he orders his coffee.) Natalie Portman, the scientist who wilts under Thor’s blondness, also has a light touch, while Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is invaluable as the research assistant who’s simply happy to have something other to do than compile stats.

It all sails by rather breezily for a blockbuster, punctuated by occasional bursts of decent action. That’s another thing about Marvel’s recent output: For comic-book properties, they surprisingly rely more on wit and character than battles and explosions. In other words, Thor is correctly the focus here, not his hammer.