The ladder scale of Superheroes: Thor, a movie review

There is a power scale to superheroes and the threats that they face. Different superheroes have different levels of abilities, and thus the opponents they usually tangle with vary in scope and ability as well. Daredevil, for instance, usually takes on criminals and other low-powered types. Iron Man and the X-Men team much more formidable dangers. And generally these rules, with some variation, remains in place. You generally don’t see Cyclops going after muggers, and Kato and the Green Hornet, in the DC universe, do not go hunting after Darkseid.
Spiderman breaks these rules, as he always does, as comic book writers seem to love to have him punch far above his weight class. Similarly, the Joker, ostensibly not a dangerous threat to the more super powered denizens of the DC Universe, also breaks the rules as being an antagonist that even Superman takes very seriously.
Thor, the superhero featured in the latest movie, is near the top of the scale of ability and power. He’s a certifiable deity, and a major one at that. The power he and his hammer wields are vast and varied. And thus, making a movie with Thor as the protagonist is a challenge. There are two major tacks that comics take when using Thor. Either give him truly cosmic challenges to overcome, challenges that few other superheroes can take on directly, or, depower him, cut him off from his power and abilities and force him to deal with matters without having nearly unlimited strength. The Thor movie uses both approaches to its titular hero.
Thor starts Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Norse God/superhero, as directed by Kenneth Branagh. After a brief opening scene with Natalie Portman’s astrophysicist Jane Foster, who literally runs into Thor, we flash back to find out how Thor wound up on Earth. The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim, done with the latest CGI are gorgeous, and establish the Shakespearean family dynamic of Odin and his two sons, Thor and Loki. Once Thor is stripped of his power and exiled to Earth for breaking the peace with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, the story truly starts to get in motion. Mostly.
As I said above, Thor stories usually have him either depowered or facing cosmic threats, and in this movie, we get both. Thor’s time on Earth is nothing more than as a pretty talented mortal, but he is not a world-beater by any stretch of the imagination. The overarching story, as Loki’s villainy develops and his plan comes into focus, IS a cosmic threat, and Thor, when powered up again, IS facing a threat equal to the vast powers he has when at the height of his abilities. In this regard, Thor the movie gets it exactly right.
However, Thor, as a movie, does not rise to the level of the top tier superhero movies for the simple reason that it feels as if it was designed as a clothesline between previous films and new ones. At 2 hours long, the movie is, I think, a bit too short to really get a handle on all the characters. Branagh does try, hard, and it does work for an extent with the family trio listed above. But the rest of the characters do not far anywhere near as well.
It’s a pity, too, because the potential is there. Portman’s Jane Foster seems to be far more capable than most Jane Fosters in the comics (I can think of one who picked up the Hammer herself, but she is an exception). The movie does pass the Bechdel test, by cleverly giving Portman a female assistant (Darcy, played by Kat Dennings). Stellan Skarsgård plays Foster’s academic advisor, and resource for information on Norse mythology. And as for Thor’s quartet of martial friends from Asgard, Sif and the “Warriors Three” of Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun? We learn very little about them. I amused myself, inspired by a friend of mine, to recast them as characters from a fantasy novel, and thus give them an artificial depth of character not really present in the movie.
There are a few nice touches of humor in the movie here, and there, ranging from Thor learning that smashing cups in a diner is NOT a sign of respect, to the humorous attempts at New Mexico locals to try and pick up (or even move) Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir.
What the movie does very well, for better or worse, is to tie into the shared universe Marvel is trying to build in its films. Some might even say that the entire point of the Thor movie is to continue to string the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” along. The obligatory credit cookie scene at the end of Thor features Skarsgård ‘s character and suggests that there is more to him than meets the eye, but it is little more than a teaser and a revelation of who the villain of the Avengers might be. There are also appearances by Hawkeye and most notably, Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wikipedia actually has a webpage to keep all of this straight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvel_Cinematic_Universe
As entertainment, despite its weaknesses, the movie entertains and there are worse ways to spend $10 and 2 hours of your time. I saw the movie in 2-D myself, and can’t imagine, personally, it being worth any extra money to see it in 3-D. Branagh’s direction, and a story co-created by J. Michael Straczynski don’t rise above the bar of mere entertainment though, as I had hoped they would.
While Thor the comic book superhero, God of Thunder, is in the top bracket of superheroes, this movie, unfortunately, is not. I wish it was, I really do. It’s not Iron Man or the Dark Knight, instead Thor is a second-tier superhero movie, serviceable, but nothing more.