The smart move Marvel Pictures made was to appoint Kenneth Branagh as director. Not an obvious big action movie choice, but throughout their work to create their cinematic Universe Marvel have repeatedly shown enough faith in the pull of the characters themselves to get people involved who wouldn't have gotten near a Summer Blockbuster tm at the time. It worked with Robert Downey Jr. and John Faveau on Iron Man in spades, and Branagh was a perfect choice here for what is a very Shakespearean set up in the Asgard portions of the film. He knows how to get large performances from the actors without it feeling too OTT or hammy.
Instead the film actually shares a structural problem with the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie. There Grace, supposedly the audience identification character, is confronted by a mysterious man who is making amazing claims about his life. Only the audience is way ahead of her because the film opens with a voice-over explaining the entire format of Doctor Who and a prologue where we see he really is a time travelling alien.
Here Natalie Portman (doing good work with a rather thankless role) runs over a man who seems to have fallen out of the sky and is presented with a riddle as to where he came from. Only for this scene to be immediately followed by a lengthy flashback showing his entire life story up to that point. It's a mystery plot with no mystery in it.
Now, you could argue that there's no point trying to create a mystery about his background when the film's called Thor and has him waving his hammer about on the poster, but then you don't plot out the movie like this in that case. It just winds up feeling like a slightly desperate attempt to reassure doubters than no, it's not going to be all Vikings and some normal people will be turning up later.
Thankfully though, the flashbacks are at least well done, with Asgard and the Realm of the Frost Giants being stunning and Chris Hemsworth being instantly great fun at the title character (unsurprisingly considering how well he did with brief screen time as George Kirk in the last Star Trek film), an arrogant son of a bitch at the start but still a very likeable one.
Tom Hiddleston is also very good as Loki, though the character is obviously the villain from the start (if nothing else, the name is a give-away), but he walks a fine line making the character always sympathetic even at his most villainous. Initially he just wants to have some fun and stop Thor ascending the throne as he (rightly) doesn't think his brother was ready for it. When he discovers he's really a Frost Giant orphan Odin (Anthony Hopkins in what must be the easiest role of his career, he spends most of it in bed) stole after the final epic battle between the two Realms he goes off the deep end.
The other Asgardians are a mixed bunch, Thor has four comedy sidekicks (who are apparently from the comics, though I've never previously encountered them) who don't contribute anything to the film after Thor's initial attack on the Frost Giants and get a disproportionate amount of screen time. I've not had time to go through the deleted scenes yet so I'm hoping there was at least initially an intent to have them contribute something during the final, as it is Thor just tells them to stay out of it and they all dutifully do. However, Ultraviolet star Idris Elba (yeah, screw The Wire) in nice and imposing as Heimdall.
Once Thor is exiled to Earth by his father for an ill judged (and Loki inspired) attack on their old enemies the Frost Giants, things go pretty much as anyone who has ever seen a culture clash comedy would expect. It's trite, but still very funny and the one real action sequence of the piece, Thor fighting past a lot of SHIELD guards (complete with a cameo for future Avenger Hawkeye) is played for laughs as much as anything else, with Iron Man (and also future Avenger) regular Agent Coulson getting some nice sarcastic asides in as he watches the carnage.
The rest of the bulk of the film is mainly about Thor (without his superpowers and unable to pick up his hammer until he changes) learning to be a better man after being inspired by Portman. It's not completely convincing as it mainly seems to involve him getting drunk, but there's still enough chemistry between the two potential love birds and Portman's fellow scientists to make it easy watching.
The Earth sequence ends with Loki (now having taken over as King of Asgard after Odin has fallen ill) sending a giant metal robot thing to kill his “brother”, which culminates in Thor sacrificing himself in a way that proves he's now worthy of his Hammer, and, in a sequence where it's very hard not to think of He-Man, holds it above his head to get his powers and costume back.
So far, so obvious, but it's with the films climax it becomes something a bit special. It turns out that despite finding out his true origin Loki is still desperate to prove himself a worthy Asgardian, and tricks the Frost Giant leader into attacking Odin as a prelude to using the Bifröst Bridge (nominally the only means of going to the other realms, including Earth, but by leaving it on it can have devastating effects on where its aimed at) to completely destroy the one time enemies of his adopted people. Thor stops him by destroying the bridge and the only chance of seeing his love again.
What's cool about this is there's no direct threat to Earth or any of the characters we've been following for the two hours, and the Frost Giants themselves have been presented as a race of nasty ugly monster people. In a more conventional action film it'd be the hero trying to kill them, so counting on the audience caring about their fate was a bit of a gamble. But it does, and the final message that just killing your enemies because you can even when they don't pose any real threat to you is wrong is nicely handled and completes Thor's growth from the start of the film where he was keen to go kick the crap out of all of them and start a war.
Things end with Loki seemingly dead by jumping off the space bridge and Thor unable to return to Earth. But as Portman's character was investigating wormholes and Loki had previously said there were other, secret ways of getting to the other Realms it's left with little doubt he'll be back for The Avengers even before the James Bondish “Thor Will Return...” note in the end credits and coda showing Loki is indeed on Earth and very interested in what Samuel L. Jackson has in his briefcase.
Thor is, despite the great ending, an undemanding film. Most of the plot beats and jokes are very obvious and there's little that happens in the bulk of the running time that will surprise you. It also feels like most of the budget has gone on the Asgard sequences, the Earth set scenes, despite taking up a good chunk of the film, feel decidedly low key with the only things close to any action being the SHIELD fight (requiring no special effects) and one lone robot threatening a very small town.
Despite this, and the fact that Iron Man remains the only one of the Avengers characters to have really broken out fully into the mainstream as a full on phenomenon, this is still a hugely fun film. It's well directed, well acted and is light and fluffy enough to become a staple of Saturday afternoon telly for years to come.
Thor out of five.