Thor is easily the most ridiculous Avenger. During the run-up to the Avengers, the Marvel team must have worried that the God of Thunder would be a hard sell to the mainstream audience of the time. This was 2011, when The Dark Knight was still the biggest superhero movie ever, so a campy, cosmic Superman-like character could well have fallen out of the sky like a lead balloon. Iron Man and the Hulk were comparatively easier characters to bring, or bring back, to the big screen, as one is close enough to Batman except with a coat of paint, a more charismatic actor, and apparently much richer, according to Forbes, while the Hulk was on his second big budget film of the decade. Cinematically, Thor had zero game when film’s resident Shakespeare expert Kenneth Branagh came on board.
It’s a controversial opinion, especially since it has been overshadowed by last year’s Ragnarok, but I think Thor is the best standalone movie of Phase One. It’s fun, it’s really, really, weird in a pre-Guardians’ context, and it has the fantastic Chris Hemsworth at the centre of it all. As an origin story, Thor doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, but it uses its distinct corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to expand and explore a portion of Marvel that was never on screen before.
This film gets so many things right in terms of blockbuster entertainment that I’m going to just go through the most important. The first is the casting of Chris Hemsworth. Now synonymous with the role, Hemsworth embodies Thor completely as a warrior, as a bit of a moron, and also a guy with his heart in the right place. While Robert Downey Jr leans more into the comedic side of Tony Stark, Edward Norton into the side of Bruce Banner that sent me to sleep, and Chris Evans… nope, can’t skip ahead. The point is that Hemsworth gives Thor real depth – he makes a bloody God relatable, for the love of Odin.
Speaking of Gods, let’s talk about Asgard. Three films in and the MCU doesn’t have any sense of visual flair – yes, Iron Man and Hulk are colourful characters, but Earth in these films looks really bland. Asgard is the exact opposite: think of it as a Shakespearian world designed by the History Channel after some pot brownies. It’s gorgeous, and the decision to film the Earth scenes in New Mexico are totally worth it for this grandeur and the distinctive visual style it lends the film versus its more urban counterparts.
The plot of the movie itself is pleasingly simple – Thor gets to play with his awesome hammer again as soon as he proves that he is a selfless warrior and leader. He learns this by falling to Earth and seeing the type of people and world that he should be fighting for. The fact that the first person he sees is Natalie Portman is a huge stroke of luck for the human race.
Ticking the Romance Box
Thor is the first MCU film in which the title of this section barely applies. Unlike Iron Man’s petty squabble of a romance, or The Incredible Hulk’s wet blanket of a pairing, Thor and Jane Foster have actual romantic chemistry. It helps a whole lot that Jane is played by Natalie Portman, even if she does seem half checked-out for most of the runtime. Jane’s an astrophysicist, with her own sidekicks – the love interest has sidekicks! In a superhero film! It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.
The Actually Not Wasted Villain Corner
Thor is the introduction of the MCU’s best villain to date: Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Granted, this is his weakest outing as Hiddleston was yet to really make the role his own (that would come in The Avengers) but he is more than a match for his heroic brother. For once, the family drama in a superhero film is really compelling, as Loki’s quest for power comes from feeling inferior to both his father and his brother. That’s much better than some fucking soldier or a rival businessman, don’t you think?
Thor even handles its obligation to the larger Marvel world it becomes a part of with impressive style, with characters introduced in previous films, most notably Agent Coulson, feel essential to the narrative rather than an advert for what’s to come. It’s not perfect though, as Thor has the worst cameo in the history of the MCU. Picture the scene: Thor, an ancient and near-invincible literal God, is decimating SHIELD’s agents as he tries to get to his hammer. So who does Coulson call on take him out? Well, obviously, the guy who’s pretty alright with the bow, of course. I know that Hawkeye had to be introduced before The Avengers, and in 2011 Jeremy Renner was a huge get for the studio, but that was just plain dumb and by far the clunkiest part of the movie.
Thor has been unfairly forgotten due to the criticism of one sequel and the overwhelming praise of the other. It’s a great film in terms of action, comedy, and is the best Marvel origin story since Sam Raimi’s Spiderman.