Hammer and tongs


That’s one big, mean, good-lookin’ hammer-throwin’ machine.

That’s one big, mean, good-lookin’ hammer-throwin’ machine.

Rated 3.0

Thor isn’t really a movie; it’s a come-on. It’s certainly no work of art, but it gets the job done, priming the audience for Marvel Comics movies to come. It’s a pilot episode, like those used to sell prospective sponsors on a TV series, only here the target isn’t corporate investors (some of whom are already on board) but the paying public, and the strategy is straightforward: Give ’em their money’s worth and leave ’em hungry for more and eager to pay for it.

Thor is, in fact, a two-hour preview trailer for The Avengers, promised in May 2012; Captain America, coming this July from Marvel Studios, will be likewise (it’s even subtitled The First Avenger). Both Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) are among the title characters in The Avengers, as are others from the so-called “Marvel universe.” Even Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) will be along for that ride, raising the question: Will The Avengers be a sequel, or were Iron Man and Iron Man 2 merely prequels? No doubt about it, this Marvel universe is a complicated place.

Any come-on has to be sexy, and Thor has that base covered, particularly in the person of Chris Hemsworth. The 6-foot-3-inch Australian is certainly sexy enough, and the movie’s posters emphasize his resemblance to the Patrick Swayze of Dirty Dancing and Ghost. Hemsworth even modulates his native Melbourne accent into something resembling Swayze’s Texas-tinged American—without openly clashing with the cultured British of Anthony Hopkins as his father, Odin.

In Marvel’s neo-mythology, Thor, Odin and other figures of the Norse pantheon are real beings inhabiting their own dimension (or “realm”), Asgard, outside what we humans call the space-time continuum. It is suggested that on previous visits to Earth, these characters interacted with primitive Viking cultures and were worshipped as deities.

King Odin of Asgard maintains a long, tenuous truce with another race and realm, the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, keeping their hunger for universal domination in check. When Odin’s impetuous son Thor leads a raid on Jotunheim in an effort to destroy the Frost Giants once and for all, the raid is a disaster and only the intervention of Odin gets the raiders back to Asgard alive. Angry, and to avoid a ruinous resumption of the ancient war, Odin disowns his son and heir, banishing him from Asgard.

This is how Thor ends up on Earth in the company of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), two scientists engaged in some vague but very important kind of astrophysical research in the high desert of New Mexico. Also banished is Thor’s invincible weapon, the hammer Mjolnir, which falls to Earth like a meteor and becomes embedded like the Sword in the Stone, there to remain until Thor is once more worthy to wield it.

The action shifts back and forth between Earth, where a shadowy black-ops agency led by one Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) confiscates Jane and Erik’s research and sequesters Mjolnir from public view, and Asgard, where Thor’s foster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plays a sinister double game, scheming to depose Odin and turn Asgard over to the Frost Giant king Laufey (Colm Feore, digitized beyond recognition).

It’s to the credit of Thor’s committee of writers (Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich) that this stew of Götterdämmerung myth and Area 51 UFOlogy doesn’t dissolve into utter nonsense. And director Kenneth Branagh avoids the artsy floundering that sank Ang Lee in the mire of Hulk. Branagh’s scenes in Asgard have the Shakespearean conviction that Branagh was probably hired for, while those in New Mexico are down-to-earth in every sense; Branagh has fun with the material, and he passes it on.

The 3-D was probably a miscalculation. It’s not really needed, and those glasses dim the dazzle of light a story like this thrives on, but you can hardly make a movie like this without it anymore, so there it is.

Finally, a word of warning: Stay through the credits to the end, or you’ll miss the teaser epilogue with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. For all Thor’s thunder and lightning, that epilogue is the reason Marvel lured you into the theater in the first place.