In terms of Phase One of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the oddball of the group was most certainly Thor. Sure, it was no easy task to introduce a big green monster in The Incredible Hulk, or a frozen-in-time super-soldier in Captain America: The First Avenger, but to introduce the universe and mythology of a Norse god, and to make him fit in with the Earth-based characters, was the meanest feat of all. Despite all the issues it faced – a delayed production, struggling to nail down a director, and a disappointing box office performance – Thor is a better movie than it’s given credit for.
The element that makes Thor such a unique entity in the MCU is its visual design, which truly shines. From the stunning Asgardian landscapes to the colourful palette of the inter-realm Bifrost, Thor‘s visuals are on another level to its counterparts. It’s an incredibly visceral viewing experience that brings Asgard to life in an unprecedented manner: the realm feels more lived-in and authentic than the more compact, streamlined environments introduced in entries such as Captain America: The First Avenger, and it makes it far easier to gravitate to the characters and invest in the story when their universe is so convincing, and visually stunning.
The counter-argument to this is that when stretches of the movie’s plot take place on Earth instead of Asgard, it pales in comparison. The small New Mexico town in which Thor lands feels incredibly bland – little of import occurs within the town itself, and its size feels more down to the writers’ unwillingness to expand the Earth-based plot rather than to streamline Thor’s self-discovery that takes place here. There are elements of this plot thread that prove interesting: Thor’s fruitless attempt to reclaim his hammer Mjolnir is particularly thrilling to watch, as director Kenneth Branagh superbly balances the film’s two aims (to tell a self-contained story while setting up 2012’s The Avengers) in one sequence. While previous MCU entries, notably Iron Man 2, struggled to balance world-building with a satisfying plot, Thor maintains this plot balance brilliantly.
On top of this, Thor‘s action scenes are a joy to watch – the opening battle between Thor and his Warriors Three against the Frost Giant army is Game of Thrones-esque in its scope and style, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos handles these scenes excellently. Screenwriters Miller, Stentz and Payne also manage to inject high stakes into battle scenes, especially the climatic, scrappy final battle between Thor and Loki. Action is not only visually thrilling and well-choreographed, but also rich in stakes and emotional investment.
In terms of characters, it’s rather hard to strongly gravitate towards many of them. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is initially portrayed as being brattish, ungrateful and downright unlikeable, though the screenplay does an admirable job of bringing viewers onto Thor’s side, as layers of his personal struggle are unfurled. This is all aided by Hemsworth’s strong performance – he comes across as both smarmy and sympathetic, one part confident and another part out of his depth – especially in the hilarious fish-out-of-water sequences. Thor’s the star here, but he’s challenged for the spotlight by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who is portrayed as being deeply conflicted, but also manipulative, happy to do whatever is necessary to get what he wants. The remainder of the supporting cast are woefully underwritten, either not being given enough to do or not giving viewers a reason to root for them. Instead of being the ensemble piece that a universe of this size could’ve warranted, Thor divulges into a two-horse race for the most entertaining character.
Converting Thor to film was never going to be an easy task, and his MCU debut isn’t perfect. There’s pacing issues, as the film drags when spending too much time on Earth, with uninteresting scientists, and a lack of depth in the script at points. This perhaps boils down to the scope of Thor, trying to introduce a host of characters and locations from two distinct realms, and it doesn’t quite manage to find the sweet spot between these areas – not to mention having to tie into the MCU ready for an Avengers team-up. That said, there are some strong performances, good battles and a mesmerising mythical world in Asgard – and it’s worth a watch even just to see this gorgeous realm in action.