Review: "Thor" starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman

Ever since "Thor" was announced, I had my doubts as to whether anyone could make a "Thor" movie work within the constructs of the expanded Marvel movie universe. There's no getting around the fact that Thor himself is a god, or at the least a god-like being, and has always seemed to be to be something of a strange fit in The Avengers and their continuity. Plus, I doubted the movie would be able balance Asgard and Earth, and find a way to humanize the character without completely depowering him.

After seeing the movie, I can admit that my doubts were unfounded, as director Kenneth Branagh and the team of writers who crafted the story have put together a movie that works amazingly well as a standalone Thor vehicle, establishing both sides of the character, while also working towards placing him in a larger Marvel continuity.

The movie starts off much like "Iron Man", with the scene of Thor's arrival on Earth, then bounces back to Asgard to establish the character's pre-Earth history. We're quickly introduced to Odin (Thor's father), Loki (his brother) and the war between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants. I wasn't a huge fan of the Anthony Hopkins narration over the establishing scenes, but it was necessary to condense all that mythology quickly and get into the meat of the story.

From that introduction, "Thor" essentially becomes a movie about family, betrayal, revenge and redemption, so it's easy to see how Branagh was able to find a Shakespearean undertone to the proceedings. The story does slow down a bit when Thor is banished from Asgard and lands on Earth, with the romance between Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Natalie Portman's Jane Foster feeling a little forced. The reasons for the two characters falling for each other -- outside of "that's how it is in the comics" -- are never really well-established. Surprisingly, Hemsworth is charismatic enough to make it work despite the script falling a bit short in this regard.

Hemsworth is something of an unknown quantity here in America, but he really shines in the movie, bringing what could have been an outlandish character to life. He balances the warrior's immaturity in the early Asgard scenes with the eye-opening experiences on Earth without falling too far into the territory of turning him into an Earthbound buffoon. Plus, he really does look the part, which is pretty damn important with a character like Thor.

Tom Hiddleston is also fantastic as Loki, the primary villain of the movie. His ability to express so much without saying a word goes incredibly far to establish the character without having to overtly make him the villain from the beginning (though the villain being someone close to the hero at the beginning of the movie is becoming something of a staple of Marvel movies).

Of course, without action in a comic book movie, character development gets old pretty quick. There are four major battle scenes in "Thor", two on Earth and one each in Asgard and the home of the Frost Giants. The latter is the first real Thor-centric battle scene in the movie, and probably the coolest, really allowing Hemsworth to explore the pure power of the character. The battle on Earth with Thor, the Three Warriors and Sif fighting against The Destroyer isn't quite as well done (I thought it spent too much time blowing up cars), but is solid nonetheless. The final battle between Thor and Loki, while strong, spends too much time in quick-cut close ups for my tastes.

The most striking part of the movie was the visuals, particularly in the rendering of Asgard. Obviously for comic book continuity reasons it made sense to set the Earthbound scenes in New Mexico, but it also worked to establish an even more striking contrast between Asgard and Midgard. The former really shines, as does the Bifrost (though it's rendered more as a multi-colored gem bridge than a true rainbow bridge). Really, the entire movie is a masterpiece of eye candy, and you'd be wise to treat yourself to the IMAX 3D edition.

I'm not enough of a "Thor" reader to be able to comment on the accuracy of various pieces of the character's history, though I will say there were enough things touched upon for even general Marvel fans to pick up on. I particularly liked the Hawkeye cameo, as it takes care of establishing that character before he suddenly appears in next year's "Avengers". Also, the much talked about post-credits scene is probably the most revealing of any of the ones that have appeared in this series of Marvel films.

"Thor" is not a perfect film by any means. None of the major female characters -- Portman's Foster, Kat Dennings' Darcy or Jaimie Alexander's Sif -- every really gets established very well, and Portman in particular is responsible for some of the movie's draggier moments. I also thought the reuniting of Thor and Mjolnir was something of a letdown -- it lacked the Arthurian "sword from the stone" gravitas that had been built up tin the trailers. Still, it's worlds better than I expected and definitely a positive addition to the Marvel stable of films.

"Thor" is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence. Runs 114 minutes. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins and Stellan SkarsgÄrd. "Thor" opens nationwide on May 6.