Some of the best moments in Thor, an adaptation of a long-running Marvel Comics character, don’t spotlight its hero’s abilities as a hammer-slinging, battle-loving, monster-fighting Norse god. They come from Natalie Portman, who co-stars as an astrophysicist who discovers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the middle of the New Mexico desert. The film establishes her as a hard-driving, fiercely committed professional using the usual shorthand, but the way she melts into a stammering, smitten, girlish mess in Hemsworth’s presence is all her own. It’s not hard to see where her character’s coming from, though. In a star-making turn, Hemsworth plays Thor as an uncomplicated man of action with the moral clarity and love of derring-do of a ’40s swashbuckler and the toned physique of a 21st-century underwear model. He’s also the embodiment of the big, loud, relentlessly entertaining film around him, the sort that should remind moviegoers why they used to get so excited about comic-book movies in the first place.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who’s never managed a film this big before and acquits himself well, Thor divides its time between Earth and Asgard, the realm of the gods and a hotbed of palace intrigue. Though unhappy when Odin (Anthony Hopkins) passes him over as heir to the throne, Hemsworth’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) joins him and a handful of other deities as they raid the realm of some frost giants after they break an uneasy peace with the Asgardians. Exiled to Earth by an unhappy Hopkins, Hemsworth finds himself confused by modern life. But not that confused. The way he simply goes about his godly, heroic business provides the film with its best running gag
That too is something like the movie around him. Whether on Earth or in the high fantasy world of Asgard—rendered here as something like a Frank Frazetta reimagining of the Death Star—Thor keeps charging forward with its head down. If its many action scenes weren’t so exciting or its characters less charming, it might seem businesslike, just another part of Marvel’s continuing attempts to build the film equivalent of its comic-book universe. Like other films from that effort—the two Iron Man movies and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk—it does spend some time attending to that agenda, but it’s a film with its own identity, the simple, thrilling story of a handsome god who falls to Earth and reminds everyone what heroes do.