I don’t know exactly where Thor rates on the pecking order of Marvel characters, but judging from the press coverage, few if any of the cast had heard of the comic book version of the Norse thunder god before they started working on this film. I suspect that, ten years ago, if you had told even the most ardent Thor-head that a movie version would star two Oscar-winning actors and would be the work of a director known for his Shakespearean films, that person would have backed away slowly and warily.

Fortunately, the top-notch talent in front of and behind the camera elevates the material well past what it rated in terms of cultural penetration before the film was announced. Kenneth Branagh may be slumming but he is not doing it grudgingly, not just cashing a check. By all accounts, he was the only major player on the scene who had been a fan of the character as a boy. Maybe Thor was big in Northern Ireland or may Branagh was just odd that way. Either way, the director respects the material enough to raise the game of his actors. Thor may not ascend to the heights of Iron Man, but as a necessary piece in the later Avengers movie, it’s worth a couple of hours of Netflix streaming.

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As the story begins, we learn that the Norse gods of Asgard were really ultra-powerful aliens, and the stories of Norse mythology were accounts of their battles with other worlds. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the first born son and heir of King Odin of Asgard (Anthony Hopkins). He’s arrogant, impatient, and ignores his father’s counsel. When their mortal enemies, the Frost Giants, infiltrates Asgard in a failed attempt to retrieve their ancient ultimate weapon.

Legend tells us one thing; history, another.

Thor disobeys his father’s orders and leads an ill-advised attack on the Frost Giants’ home planet, breaking an ancient truce. An outraged Odin strips Thor of his title and banishes him to Earth, specifically the middle of New Mexico, where he lands in the lap of a team of scientists led by Jane Porter (Natalie Portman). Fortunately, Ms. Portman has experience with romantic interests with delusions of grandeur, so at least this one doesn’t turn into Darth Vader. Equally fortunately, this time she is not saddled with the writing and directing deficits that George Lucas brought to the party.

While Jane and her crew (Kat Demmings and Stellan Skarsgård) are dealing with a lunatic claiming to be the God of Thunder, his hammer has also fallen into the middle of the desert, attracting the attention of Nick Fury’s man, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Nothing ungod-like can even budge the thing, so Coulson’s men build a big top secret government installation around it. And since Jane was there when Thor fell to Earth, Coulson confiscates all of her research, just to fulfill his duty as a Sinister Government Agent Hiding the Truth from the American People™.

Back on Asgard, Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is taking advantage of his brother’s absence to maneuver himself in to position to claim the throne and betray the kingdom to its enemies. This quasi-Shakespearean power struggle is clearly where Branagh feels the most at home, because it is the scenes inside Asgard that really come to life. Back down in New Mexico, the action seems a little more pedestrian and perfunctory. For all the conviction that Portman brings to her role, the character of Jane Porter does not amount to much more than an obsession with her work and a case of the screaming thigh sweats when she gets a look at the Thunder God. That is a script problem, to be fair, but also a factor of this movie’s role in the Avengers franchise, setting up Thor and Loki’s sibling squabbles. What goes on in New Mexico isn’t the real point of this story.

It may not compare well with the best of the other Avengers movies, Iron Man and Captain America, but Thor can at least be enjoyed as a sincere and entertaining effort to bring a minor figure in Marvel’s pantheon to life.

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