Big budgets and special effects have not always been kind to Marvel movies. Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (2003), for instance, featured an utterly and profoundly abstract transformation by Nick Nolte’s character into a hodgepodge of Zzzax and the Absorbing Man. Jon Favreau’s ending for “Iron Man 2″ (2010) opted for a shock’n awe treatment that was visionally much more articulated, but it still felt tacked on. No matter how smoothly a Marvel movie seems to be going for the last few years, the final battle scenes tend to loom over my final critical opinion like a guillotine until the final credits roll. (Post-credits moments, by contrast, have never let me down.)
Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” (2011) really set a new bar for structural integrity and balance, placing the best fight scenes at the beginning and in the middle, while letting the last scenes land organically. The phenomenal Asgard designs and renderings were already enough of a spectacle that attempting to pull off anything ridiculous would have definitely seemed like overkill, and I’m impressed that Branagh showed the restraint he did in letting the story work itself out.
This wasn’t a perfect beast by any stretch of the imagination. Natalie Portman’s character, Jane Foster, wasn’t the worst big female character to grace a Marvel movie, but despite a fine performance, Foster just wasn’t written into this film to be much more than a gushing babe who just magically becomes attracted to “Thor” when she looks at him and vows to use her science skills to find him again. The chemistry just didn’t seem to be there between them, and I think that mainly had to do with the writing.
The humor was wonderful, though. Kat Dennings fired off memorable one-liner after memorable one-liner as Foster’s assistant. And the barbarian meeting modern culture moments were amusing as well. Hemsworth played the noble brute role with charisma and valor, and the Warriors Three and Sif complemented him superbly.
As Rick Marshall pointed out with his “Thor” Easter eggs list on Splash Page, the fan service for comic book readers appeared all over the place. Jack Kirby’s art glistened throughout Asgard and even in the costumes. I also appreciated that the film didn’t bend over backwards to over-explain every element of backstory and mythos. It was refreshing to see a movie like this be true to its material and let elements like Odinsleep and Bifrost explain themselves for the most part.
They didn’t come anywhere near overdosing on the lightning, either, which was almost odd. Thor used his iconic powers as if Mjolnir required a half-hour recharge between energy attacks, which is much better than overusing them, but, I mean, this is Thor.
In the end, that seems to be the tone that defined the film for me. It achieved balance and practical restraint better than any of the other Marvel Studios projects thus far, and it owned its own aesthetic. Branagh and Marvel should both be proud. They didn’t break their genre’s mold, but they inhabited it as elegantly as anyone who’s come before them.