Certain superheroes have very little difficulty in making the leap to the big screen. Sure, you need a little set-up for Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man to work as a movie, but visually speaking, these are special guys who wear cool costumes and fight crime. As far as "suspension of disbelief" is concerned, those heroes have it pretty easy. But then there are the superheroes who, beloved on the page though they may be, have a much tougher time "translating" to the world of the walking and talking. Fantastic Four, for example, is tougher to take seriously on the big screen (the characters are just a touch TOO goofy), and I felt fairly certain that the Norse God of Thunder might have similar problems while finding his way into the movie world. Yes, Marvel's version of the legendary Thor now has his very own movie, and despite my early concerns that the character would be mishandled (and goofily), it turns out to be one of the coolest Marvel movies since Iron Man.
Credit to the screenwriters and to director Kenneth Branagh (yep, that Kenneth Branagh) for somehow finding the exact right tone for a movie version of Thor, and for forging ahead on what must have felt like one huge gamble -- even for the often-unbeatable Marvel movie machine. My main fear -- that all of the "outer space meets Mount Olympus" material that's absolutely integral to the Thor story would turn out clumsy, goofy, embarrassing even -- was allayed early, even as the first hour of Thor leaps through a truly bizarre world known as Asgard. This is the part that's an actual gamble for Marvel: moviegoers have shown that they love superheroes kicking ass on Earth, but how well will they take to a flick that jumps back and forth between New Mexico and ... Asgard? It's doubtful that Thor will ever haul in Spidey-type box office numbers, but box office numbers don't interest me very much. Filmmakers who treat an established and admired character with some sort of legitimate sincerity, even if it might turn out a little "strange" on the big screen? That sort of stuff interests me very much.
Basically two nifty stories in one lean two-hour frame, Thor give us a nice meaty chunk of who our hero is: a cocksure prince of Asgard who knows how to swing a mean Mjolnir (mega-hammer), but has very little in the ways of insight, patience or wisdom. Thor has a sneaky little brother, a doe-eyed queen mama, four loyal sidekicks, and a daddy complex straight out of Shakespeare. But right before Thor is to be made King, those darn Frost Giants invade the Asgardian stronghold, which leads Thor on a hot-tempered and ill-fated quest. Things go very poorly and Odin furiously banishes Thor to Earth...
...and then we settle into a decidedly more conventional, but no less amusing, piece of Marvel "origin story" fun. All you need to know is that Natalie Portman is the astronomer who somehow predicted Thor's arrival, Stellan Skarsgård is the requisite father figure / scientist, Kat Dennings is the cute one who dishes out all the funny quips, and Thor ... is now a fish out of water with none of his former awesomeness. Not even a reunion with his beloved hammer Mjolnir seems to work ... and that's when our hero begins to understand the meaning of the word, well, "hero." Plus there are giant fire-breathing robots, several sly laughs, and a bunch of nerdy little Marvel references. Best of all, none of this seems rote, obvious, or lazy. This film may exist only as one small branch of Marvel's massive Avengers movie plan, but there's a good deal of wit, creativity, and plain old goofiness to be found in Thor.
And while the ladies will no doubt delight in the arrival of a hunky new screen hero (Chris Hemsworth, best known as "Kirk's ill-fated dad" from Star Trek) who can smile and disrobe with the best of 'em, it's the essential spice added by the women -- Portman's admirably horny heroine, Dennings' quick-witted intern, the Asgardian lovelies Rene Russo and Jaimie Alexander -- that keep Thor so light-hearted. The icing on the cake is a rather great performance by Anthony Hopkins as Odin, who could have single-handedly sank the Asgard sequences by chomping around and over-playing the "comic" side of "comic book," but here the old veteran is comfortably cool and, in one memorable scene, pretty damn powerful. (It's the banishment scene, and Branagh shoots it like something out of Hamlet.)
Comic books fans will no doubt agree that there were an infinite number of ways for a Thor movie to go wrong, but I guess it pays to trust in a talented director and keep your fingers crossed. Not only did Branagh and company pull off a surprisingly solid adaptation of a truly "difficult" superhero, but they also made one of the weirdest Marvel heroes out there into a mainstream winner. Can't really ask for much more than that.