Silver Screen: Thor ***
Of all the characters in Marvel Comics' stable, Thor seemed perhaps least-suited for transition to the big screen: His origins and (relatively) complicated backstory are in Norse mythology rather than an easily filmed science accident, he talks funny, he lacks a prominent romantic lead, he has few recognizable villains. But at this point Marvel has put nearly every other property into a movie production, so, hey, this is what's left.
Moreover, the Thor movie isn't even really a Thor movie-- it's one part of a grand franchise that will see Marvel Studios releasing a series of tangentially interconnected films (starting with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and now on to Thor and Captain America) that will see all the characters unite in The Avengers.
But unlikely director Kenneth Branagh makes the standalone Thor flick work surprisingly well, consistently teetering at the brink of silliness with the sci-fi-tinged fantasy (a bridge made of rainbow glass, digitally reimagined sets from Lost Horizon, lots of dudes in bulky armor eating turkey legs, et cetera) without ever getting lost in it.
Branagh's biggest challenge is to merge the godly realm of Asgard with the real-world setting of the rest of the Marvel universe. That's the concern of the entire first act of the film, which is framed by a sequence in which astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman) and her team discover our hero beamed down to Earth. Turns out the hotheaded Thor (Chris Hemsworth), son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), heir to the throne, and full of hubris over his impending coronation as king, makes an impulsive decision to travel to the land of the Frost Giants to seek restitution for a perceived treachery. The disastrous result nearly tips Asgard into war, and angry Odin strips his son of power and banishes him to Earth.
While on our planet, Thor becomes the center of an investigation by the shadowy government agency SHIELD (led by Samuel Jackson, with his inevitable bit part, and Clark Gregg). But while Thor seeks a way back to his kingdom, his nefarious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots to usurp their father and plunge the realm into chaos for his own glory. As the battle spills over into our planet, Thor must reunite with his warrior friends (including erstwhile Punisher Ray Stevenson) to save his new human friends and return to save his world.
Branagh and his cadre of screenwriters do a nice job of highlighting the incongruity of Thor's very presence on Earth-- he's both awesome and absurd as he stomps around a small New Mexico town like a Viking and says things like "Verily!" Most of the action, though, takes place in Asgard, which is nicely rendered as a computer-generated shining city of gold. That action drops off toward the end, however, as the film lacks a satisfying climax-- perhaps partly because it's engineered as a lead-in to The Avengers.
Occasionally Thor threatens to get lost in its own weirdness, especially when trying to justify Thor as a "god" without defaming the real God-- you know, the one who loves Christians above all other people and who invented AIDS, Toby Keith, and Sunday school. Asgard is rationalized as an alien world beyond our galaxy whose inhabitants, upon visiting our world in the past, were treated as deities. This way you can enjoy Thor fighting alongside Iron Man and Captain America and still believe in Jesus, which is a relief.
Ultimately, Thor's weirdness is its most charming element. The mashup of pseudo-mythology, science fiction, action-movie setpieces, and government conspiracies plays surprisingly well, and Hemsworth, along with formidable costars Hopkins, Portman, and Stellan Skarsgå rd, with the adorable Kat Dennings providing comic relief, sell the material nicely. It's mostly a long windup to a payoff to come in another movie a year from now, but it's an enjoyable diversion.