I'm of two minds when it comes to reviewing Thor, because as much as I want to convey to readers that the movie is not only watchable, but eminently better than the garbage passing itself off as "summer entertainment" year after year, I also feel a responsibility to point out that half of the film is much better than the other. I feel this is directly attributable to Thor's director, Kenneth Branagh.
Branagh, whose output varies from the likes of Dead Again to a remake of Sleuth, is best known for his Shakespearean films - Henry V, Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It (as well as appearing in Othello) - and the influence of the Bard on his adaptation of the Nordic-God-Turned-Marvel-Comic-Hero is apparent throughout the film.At least, part of the film.
In the realm of Asgard (one of the nine cosmic realms), Odin (Anthony Hopkins), King of the Gods, is preparing to step down and enter Odinsleep - his period of hibernation - but first must decide which of his sons to hand the throne of Asgard to. His oldest son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is brave, if stubborn, whose rule may be undermined by a sense of entitlement. His youngest son, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) spent his life living in the shadow of Thor, and while his mischievous nature is recognized, his desire to win Odin's approval is evident. When the Frost Giants invade Asgard and try to steal back the Casket of Ancient Winters (their power supply), Thor disregards Odin's wishes and travels to Jotunheim with Loki, Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and The Warriors Three - Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) - in tow to destroy the King of the Frost Giants (Colm Feore). Furious, Odin strips Thor of his powers and orders Heimdall (Idris Elba) to banish his son to Earth.
And that's the first half hour or so of Thor. That doesn't take into account astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her advisor Dr.Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings), who discover Thor while searching the deserts in New Mexico for wormholes (or, as the film insists on calling them, "Einstein-Rosen bridges*"). No sooner have they found the brash, unruly son of Odin than Mjolnir, Thor's hammer, also falls to Earth and is discovered by S.H.I.E.L.D., headed up by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who continues to appear in all Avengers-related Marvel films.
The New Mexico part of the story, including a well-staged action sequence involving Thor, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team (including an extended cameo by Jeremy Renner, who will play Hawkeye in The Avengers**), is unfortunately the half of the film that doesn't really work. It's clear that Branagh is more interested in the Shakespearean power play at hand in Asgard, where Loki assumes power as Odin collapses after banishing Thor and proceeds to manipulate events in order to keep his older brother from ever returning. What happens on Earth, the place where Thor learns humility and earns his "God of Thunder" powers - which should be the most important part of the film - takes a back seat to Asgardian politics.
Portman and Skarsgård are wasted in roles that serve no purpose: Jane Foster's developing romance with Thor never really makes sense because there's no story arc to support it. Selvig seems to exist in order to bridge Norse mythology to the story at hand (as is evidenced by the many times Skarsgård is forced to mention or read tales of the Viking Gods during the film), and for one good scene where he (badly) lies about Thor's identity to free him from S.H.I.E.L.D. captivity. There's also the after credits tease, but I'll get to that in a minute. I have no idea why Kat Dennings is in the film at all, as Darcy contributes nothing to the story unless the three screenwriters (plus two credited "story" writers) felt the pressing need to have three people discover Thor.
Gregg is, as usual, fine as the "been there, seen that" second hand man of S.H.I.E.L.D. This time, he's on his own (Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury doesn't show up until later), and makes a credible Earth-bound foil for Thor, I guess. Since Thor pretty much gives up on beating goons after failing to raise Mjolnir, it's hard to really say. Again, the Earth-bound business feels perfunctory, second to the far more interesting Asgard story.
Branagh seems to be more comfortable with Hopkins, Hiddleston, Hemsworth, Elba, and Renee Russo (who I didn't even recognize as Odin's wife Frigg) and the power struggle between father and sons. It's as though he's reveling in a pulp fiction twist on King Lear, and the film comes to life during throne room conversations. That's not to say that the Asgard half of the film isn't without its problems, though - another Branagh idiosyncrasy pops up that further confuses the narrative.
Audiences have some idea when they are introduced to Loki that he's supposed to be the villain: his posture is slightly stooped, his hair is slicked back and his sullen, sunken eyes just scream "bad guy waiting in the wings!" But when the time comes for Hiddleston to shift from younger brother with an inferiority complex to full on baddie, Branagh doesn't convey that. This shouldn't be surprising: Branagh also devoted as much of his Hamlet as possible to give nuance to Claudius, typically portrayed as the moustache twirling villain. And there's something to be said for nuance, for giving a villain dimensions, or even to make him sympathetic, but Loki is such a muddled antagonist that he's never a genuine threat for Thor.
In fact, Loki doesn't actually behave in a villainous manner until the after-credits sequence (directed by Joss Whedon, it turns out), where Selvig is summoned by Nick Fury to examine the Cosmic Cube. This brings me to another problem that isn't Branagh's fault, per se, but more attributable to Marvel Executive Producer Kevin Feige: the "set-up" effect.
To be fair, Thor integrates Marvel characters (specifically Avenger-related) in a less intrusive way than say, Iron Man 2: there are small asides that indirectly mention Tony Stark and Bruce Banner; there's the aforementioned "Hawkeye" scene, and The Cosmic Cube is their way of anticipating the Captain America film to come. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that Thor on Earth isn't really about Thor among humans, but as laying the groundwork for The Avengers, right down to the last thing he says to Agent Coulson before leaving for Asgard.
Okay, so I've nitpicked Thor as a way of addressing why there's a small (but vocal) backlash against the film online, so why do I think it's better than most summer entertainment? Well, the Asgard sections of the film are very good, as is the battle with the Frost Giants. Hemsworth and Elba are both great; Hopkins hasn't been this watchable in a while, and while they don't make much of an impact in the story, Sif and The Warriors Three have a natural chemistry with Thor that hints at a stronger relationship than we see in the film.
* I mention this because Ain't It Cool News, of all places, has an actual astrophysicist that breaks down the science of Thor here, and it seems like while the name is appropriate, it's really just a fancy way of saying "wormhole."
** I mention this because Coulson never actually uses his Avengers moniker, so either you know about the casting or are enough of a Marvel fan to know why he chooses a compound bow over sniper rifle. Or both, I suppose. Otherwise, it's just "hey, why is Jeremy Renner in this movie?"