I experienced three brief bursts of pleasure during Thor (Paramount Pictures), Kenneth Branagh's 3-D adaptation of the Marvel comic book series: two involved blond men smiling, and the third came from a line reading by Natalie Portman. Chris Hemsworth, the amply muscled Australian who plays the titular Norse god of thunder, and Stellan Skarsgard, who plays a Norwegian astrophysicist investigating unexplained phenomena in the New Mexico desert, each had one moment when—portentous soundtrack and CGI spectacle aside—they seemed to be having good clean Scandinavian fun. And Portman, as the astrophysicist's' plucky protege, Jane, took one particularly predictable bit of dialogue toward the end and skewed it unexpectedly toward the whimsical. The screen time taken up by these three surprises must have totaled about six seconds. All the rest of Thor's 113 minutes felt so synthetic and overfamiliar that those brief flashes of spontaneity stood out like Morse code messages from another, better movie.
Look, I've accepted our comic-book overlords. I understand that those slim 20th-century periodicals, which recounted the exploits of heroes in colored and paneled storyboards, are now the founding documents of our popular culture, and that we must revisit them each summer with solemn pomp, like ancient Norsemen making their annual pilgrimage. And to its credit, Thor does go relatively light on the solemn pomp (cf. those unexpected smiles). But the whole problem is that Thor only exists relative to other summer comic-book movies: Is it better or worse than Iron Man 2? Deeper or shallower than Spiderman 3? More or less likely to flop at the box office than the upcoming The Green Lantern? Thor's very competence is dispiriting—it gets the job done, I guess, but what job? Even a light popcorn entertainment can have a voice and a point of view—look at the sprightly first Iron Man film, or Guillermo del Toro's flawed but vivid Hellboy movies. Thor seems to have little more on its mind than winning the first weekend and making its money back overseas, which it probably, predictably, will.
It's a shame, because the story's mix of Old Norse mythology and '50s-style sci-fi (scientists in the desert menaced by enormous armor-clad aliens!) had a real potential for loopy charm. Thor is one of two sons of King Odin of Asgard (Anthony Hopkins—did you even have to ask?). Odin is growing old, and Asgard—an empyrean and timeless realm that looks like the Emerald City of Oz cast in pyrite—will soon need a new ruler. But when Thor picks a needless fight with his father's ancient enemy, the Frost Giants, Odin ragefully casts him out of Asgard and onto Earth, where the flaxen-haired behemoth lands in the middle of Portman's scientific expedition. Culture shock rages on both sides (short vs. tall, woman vs. man, scientist vs. supernatural being) while, back in Asgard, Thor's younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) schemes to claim the throne.
Perhaps your reaction to Thor will come down to how you feel about Chris Hemsworth, who struck me as a generically pleasant slab of beefcake (am I the only viewer who's more attracted to Stellan Skarsgard?), but whom some critics are hailing as a star in the making. Whatever his gifts or lack thereof, it isn't Hemsworth's fault that his character evolves from bellicose hothead to scrambled-egg-serving nice guy much too quickly. The many long battle sequences are so dependent on computer augmentation that it's impossible not to imagine the actors numbly jousting in front of a green screen. (The middling post-production 3-D neither adds nor takes away much.) Portman looks cute in her field-researcher togs, and gets off that one fun line reading, but the primary reaction she elicits in this viewer continues to be "Oh, there's Natalie Portman." And the multi-ethnic pack of Norse deities who join forces to help Thor out of a jam get less individual characterization than television's Superfriends.
An extra scene tacked onto the end of the credit sequence neatly sets up the upcoming Marvel movie The Avengers (just as this movie was teased last summer in the closing credits of Iron Man 2). It's in these final seconds that Thor reveals at last its reason for existence: This saga is but the portal to the birth of the next race of gods.