" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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Thor drops the hammer that gets the summer-movie parade rolling, and if it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, it delivers a pretty loud whack.

A Marvel Comics character since 1962, Thor does his hammer throwing in a grandly scaled entertainment that hits the screen with enough sound and fury to leave little room for doubt: Another comic book hero has left his calling card at the nation’s multiplexes, and has done so in bold, emphatic fashion.

Thor: Son and Father
Thor: Son and Father

In chronicling Thor’s transition from arrogant warrior to humble king, director Kenneth Branagh goes big, flooding the screen with everything from epic-sized fights to lightening-like flashes of energy to large men wearing Viking helmets that go heavy on horns.

What can I tell you? Any movie that makes room for Frost Giants and Anthony Hopkins can’t be accused of taking itself too seriously. Hopkins plays Odin, Thor’s father and king of Asgard, the realm where Thor and his fellow Norse gods cavort in robust fashion.

Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, an Australian actor who looks like a cross between a Norse warrior and a California surfer. Hemsworth, who slips into the American argot as easily as he tosses off the script’s portentous dialog, helps keep the movie from swirling down the cosmic drain. He’s strong enough to pull a slightly scattered script together, has a godlike physique and manages to make his character more likable as the movie progresses.

After an hour so, you may feel comfortable enough around Thor to call him, “Dude,” as in “Dude, where’s your hammer?” Or maybe, “Dude, I like your cape.” Better known for staging Shakespeare than for throwing spears, Branagh piles on the special effects as he paves the way for next year’s Avengers movie, an exercise in comic book crossbreeding in which Thor joins other Marvel superheroes.

In this edition, the action alternates between Asgard and Earth. Thor lands in New Mexico after displeasing daddy. As punishment for leading an unauthorized raid on Jotunheim, the realm where the Frost Giants reside, Thor is banished to Earth.

Had Thor been less arrogant, he would have ascended to the throne in the movie’s early going. Evidently ready for retirement, Odin wants to cede his kingdom to Thor. But the old king is put off by his son’s epic-sized flaws: arrogance, impetuousness and an eagerness to make war.

Thor and Odin have an argument in which they shout mightily. Get used to it. At key moments, the actors don’t talk; they bellow.

Working from a script by a trio of writers, Branagh mostly finds the right balance for a comic-book movie, blending action, humor, stabs at grandeur and thematic issues involving fathers, sons, sibling rivalry and a burgeoning love between a mortal and a god.

Natalie Portman portrays Jane, an astrophysicist who catches Thor’s eye, setting up a possible romance between a mortal and a god. During his exile on Earth, Thor also encounters a group of scientists led by Erik Selvig, played by Stellan Skarsgard, whose befuddled expression suggests he may be asking himself exactly he’s doing in this movie.

Despite her recently acquired best-actress Oscar, Portman’s stuck in a supporting role, and she’s not as interesting as another of Selvig’s colleagues, portrayed by an acerbic Kat Dennings. On the Asgard side, we’re introduced to various Thor loyalists, notably Volstagg, an ebullient Norse warrior played by Ray Stevenson with enough hair and beard to clog a thousand drains. A more carefully groomed Tom Hiddleston plays Thor’s younger brother, Loki, a character with a complicated background that steers him toward treachery.

As is the case with most such movies, Earthlings in black suits eventually show up to add a note of bureaucratic menace. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) leads the contingent of black suits; he’s an investigator we’ve already met in the Iron Man movies.

Many of the Asgard scenes sprawl across spectacular backdrops that can’t quite disguise their artificial look, but there’s enough going on here to please comic-book fans, as well as those who like movies that leave them feeling as if they’ve been subjected to sonic boom.

And don’t look now, but there’s more where Thor came from. Due later this summer, another movie taken from Marvel’s superhero storehouse: Captain America.