Thor is ultimately about these two fellas right here.

There was no way a Marvel superhero movie about a technological super-being version of a Norse God was going to work was there? With all that spectacle edging into the pretty grounded version of the superhero universe established by Iron Man (and its sequel) or The Incredible Hulk, it was all destined to fall apart wasn’t it? Too many ridiculous hats and just too goddamn much power in the hands of a guy who ultimately has to work with other, arguably less powerful, individuals in order to stop some titanic threat in a later movie we know is happening. Just no way Thor was ever going to be made to fit with all that shit.

Or was there?

Let’s get the plot out of the way before answering that question:

Thor follows the life and times of its titular hero who is kind of a selfish berjerker as he comes into adulthood and prepares to take over the running of Aesgard, the land of cosmic superhumans. Due to his berjerker ways, Thor gets into a fight with the Jotun (or Frost Giants) centuries after Odin beat them all into submission. Because this is going to be some heavy shit if Odin can’t do damage control, Thor is banished to Earth, stripped of his powers, where he is adopted by a team of eccentric astrophysicists and their slacker-hip assistant. Meanwhile, Thor’s mischievous brother Loki finds out about some shit that ratchets his penchant for scheming up a few notches into a full-on bid to discredit Thor forever while claiming Aesgard for his own. In order to stop all this from happening, Thor has to learn a few lessons about tempering his inner berjerker with a bit of humility and sacrifice so that he might be redeemed in time to put the boots to Loki for the good of all.

Now that sounds fucking ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yes, it does. But it’s the kind of ridiculousness that draws a guy like Kenneth Branagh into doing a superhero movie.

Now we can talk about why this movie works:

But what’s behind that cartoonish plot is a fairly relatable story about a father and his sons. It’s a cliche for sure but you’ve never quite seen it writ this large where the fate of entire chunks of the universe are the stakes in what amounts to a couple of overgrown boys squabbling for their father’s favor using their particular gifts. Thor is a warrior first and foremost, aggressively trying to “protect” his people and lead them with an eye toward becoming the fearsome king his father once was. Loki, on the other hand, can’t see past Thor’s pride and his schemes seem to revolve around screwing with the attention, praise, and reputation associated with his golden-boy big bro.

If the three key actors in this dynamic didn’t bring a level of believability and humanity to the core of the unavoidable ridiculousness of the setting, costumes, and godly angst… the movie would be sunk. I’m here to tell you that they bring it in spades. Even Anthony Hopkins as Odin is better than he has been in anything lately. His Odin is a wise old man who can still intimidate his bratty brats when need be. There’s a scene where he quashes Loki’s objections to Thor’s banishment with a primal utterance that is actually frightening showing that even as he gets older and more ridiculous looking, Hopkins still has the power of Hannibal Lecter deep in there somewhere. Odin as Hannibal Lecter the God-king? Yes indeed. While Hopkins is indeed delightful, it is the one-two punch of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Thor and Loki that carry this film. Both characters have major arcs on the path to becoming hero and villain and these lines are not clear cut even up to the very end of the film. Hiddleston’s Loki is a sympathetic villain but not in the lame way Raimi’s spidey villains always were. Loki is a guy you can really feel for, the revelations of his origins being truly fucked up and his primary motivations always being about his father’s love. Because so much attention is paid to who this guy is, Thor functions not only as the titular character’s origin story but also as Loki’s, which is laudably clever given that Loki is going to be a principal villain in The Avengers.

And then there’s Hemsworth’s Thor, a character he completely owns. I was skeptical because I always thought it ought to be Alexander Skaarsgard (True Blood‘s Erik Northman). I am happy to say that not only does Hemsworth deliver, he does it with such apparent effortlessness that it’s nothing short of a star-making performance and the key to  making Thor the unlikely success that it is. Marvel has shown a propensity toward lucking out and/or selecting its leads in such a way that they are the best part of their films. As RDJ is the main piece of the puzzle that makes Iron Man work, so it is with Hemsworth and Thor. And for my money, it’s Thor that is the harder sell. RDJ was already a proven commodity. Thor is Chris Hemsworth’s launch party.

The other cast members are all likable even if they are a bit undersold. Thor is ultimately a well written movie dialogue-wise (though there are some heavy flaws I’ll get into later). Almost every secondary character has something fun or interesting to say or do at some point. While Kat Dennings (as Darcy the lab assistant) is given a lot of the sarcastic wit needed to balance out the sheer grandeur of a movie filled with absurdly cosmic events and characters, she is not solely responsible as all the Earthling characters get to take turns being funny, skeptical, or caught in the awe of what they experience. Stellan Skarsgaard gets that one scene with Thor that Dennings doesn’t and really needed to have to connect her to the film a bit better. This one scene, which you’ll know when you see it, is one of the aggregate of small moments that make these Marvel movies work. On the Aesgard side, we mostly have Lady Sif and the Warriors Three (with Ray Stevenson playing comic-relief fatass Volstagg) who are Thor’s buddies and Heimdall (played with fierce and awesome otherness by Idris Elba of The Wire… one of the more inspired casting decisions in the movie it should be said). All five of these characters get solid bits, especially in the big Jotunheim battle that leads to Thor’s banishment. Heimdall is especially well-served by the script and by Elba’s performance, giving him a weight and truly alien feel that the other characters don’t need to possess. Heimdall as presented here is more a force of nature, part of the superstructure of Aesgard, than as a true character and it works very well.

I hope to see more of Lady Sif and the Warriors Three in future Thor movies especially considering that a love triangle between Sif, Thor and Jane Foster would be perfect considering the state Jane and Thor are left in as potential lovers at the end of this one. As it stands, the one nitpick I have about them has to do with the way they are written. When they go to Earth to get Thor there is very little proper motivation for them to do so. Yeah, they feel like the exile is wrong. Yeah, we the audience know Loki is up to no good. Yeah, Heimdall suspects much and helps them as a result. But no, this foursome are not given sufficient cause to do what they do. They do it because the movie needs them to but somewhere along the way they either forgot to include a scene to insert the required motivation or they cut it.

Also bearing mention is Colm Feore as the Frost Giant king Laufey. There’s a menace under that CG-enhanced makeup that only a master like Feore can bring. Laufey is a complex character, too, although this is a subtle element mostly delivered in the performance rather than (I assume) on the page. Laufey is a guy who, like Odin, knows he high price of war but can’t resist a chance to strike back against Odin and Aesgard for the defeat of his people, which has left them in the ruins of their civilization with the source of their power in Odin’s possession. And this is not all that Odin took from Laufey. I actually think a major misstep of the movie is in the perfunctory way Loki deals with Laufey in spite of the revelations about their relationship. More attention should have been paid to this, though I can understand why they didn’t want to pull TOO much in Loki’s direction let alone shade another character in a movie that is fucking full of them.

Similarly, the romance with Jane Foster as the source of Thor’s motivation to become a better person is given remarkably little of the required set-up in the script. Natalie Portman is not an actress you waste in a role like this. And again, you can tell they either trimmed the script or trimmed the final cut of the movie to speed it up. Left by the wayside is enough grounds for a romance that is given too much impact in the final third for what we’ve seen of it. There’s enough to say that an attraction is understandable and romance a definite possibility but asking us to believe that Jane is the love of Thor’s life or something is asking too much. I mean, I get what they’re going for. Thor meets Jane right around the time he’s at his most vulnerable and she is kind to him and he feels protective of her and her friends but even this seems more part of his general “stand back, I’ll handle this shit” personality than something he’s turned onto. Giving him one or two more scenes with Jane and at least one bonding scene with Darcy would have drastically improved the sense of foster family that is so poorly served by the truncated way the movie tries to get all this across. That Jane is attracted to Thor seems more to do with his physique and charm than it does with anything deeper. It could be said that he represents a great deal to her given her curiosity about the universe and her ability to make leaps of faith about the possibilities he also represents. I can see how someone would fall for that but it is a classic example of being into an idea more than the person behind it. I guess that is an element ripe for exploration in a future sequel. I surely fucking hope so because I don’t want to see some “quest for love across the cosmos” scenario. Give me a love triangle with Sif and Jane vying for Thor’s affections, Sif knowing him better and being more complimentary to his warrior side and Jane being the exotic and challenging “other”. If they can handle that as deftly and with as much emotional truth in spite of the cliche as they handled the Father-and-Two-Sons stuff, it’ll be a worthy human drama to wrap all this thunder god stuff around.

But I digress!

A lot of folks are complaining about the amped-up SHIELD presence in the movie. I don’t get it. Coulson is a fun character, the dedicated company man caught up in between all of these superheroics, massive egos, and grand events. Hopefully Whedon realizes that Coulson is a ready-made Xander Berkely to play off the supers in The Avengers. Thor’s swagger in dealing with some kind of alliance with SHIELD is also the perfect way to set-up his role in the Avengers. Getting Selvig and possibly Jane Foster involved is also a good way to pull all these pieces onto the same game-board.

By now everyone knows that the Marvel movies are full of geek references and cameos hinting at upcoming shit. Yes, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner ftw) is in Thor very briefly. Yes, Sam Jackon’s Nick Fury shows up again after the credits. We’re used to this by now. I won’t spend the time other reviews do cataloging this stuff. By now it’s a given that Marvel is taking great care with building the shared cinematic iteration of their comic universe. Thor delivers on this level. Of course it does.

One thing that has been a bit lackluster in the Marvel movies to date is the action. Thor has perhaps the best action sequences of any of them, though none that feel as cool as Rhodey fighting Tony or Hulk vs. Abomination. I have to say though that they really brought the goods with Thor’s personal fighting style and attitude toward combat. His spinning hammer, which I think should have a longer handle ffs, and lightning powers are well represented here and there’s a more definite sense of superhero power than there ever was in Iron Man or its sequel.

All in all, Thor riding the same wave of “I can’t believe they made this and that it’s good” that all of Marvel’s movies have. It’s got problems on a script level that could have been easily resolved, but it skates easily by them on its abundant strengths.