Thor Kenneth Branagh

Thor Kenneth Branagh
If you'd told me a week ago that Thor would be one of the most visually awe-inspiring cinematic achievements to date, I'd have smirked sceptically and said, "It looks fun." But now I'm forced to tell you that Thor is the biggest, most gorgeous piece of spectacle filmmaking since Avatar and is arguably the most accomplished Marvel film yet. The plot, however, is familiar for more understandable reasons than James Cameron's blue-hued box office beast.

Thor is the God of Thunder of Norse legend. This is readapted mythology, precisely one of the primary cultural functions of comic books. I never got too into Thor's solo adventures on the printed page, as the presentation of a Norse God as a modern superhero always felt a little hokey, which is what makes Kenneth Branagh's Thor all the more surprising. He nails the tone. This is epic, cosmic myth building, with a relatable connection to our reality (well, at least Marvel's reality) that understands and plays with the ridiculousness of the concept of these Gods out of the context of their realm, to use the Asgardian vernacular.

Thankfully, most of Thor takes place in the stunning magical environment of Asgard and the realm of the Frost Giants, Jotunheim, where we can take the fantastical melodrama seriously. A short pre-title sequence introduces astrophysicist Jane Foster (an adorable and refreshingly light-hearted Natalie Portman) investigating an anomaly in New Mexico with her partners, Erik Selvig (a well-cast Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings, on effective comedy relief).

A lightning vortex shoots down from the sky, pulling their vehicle towards its swirling base and they hit a guy just as it's ending. Darcy and Jane check on the man, asking, "Who is he?" Perfect timing. The opening credits role and Branagh sets about answering the question, his sweeping shots ascending through the cosmos, racing through inverted skylines, an ocean that spills into the emptiness of space and over the magnificent landscape and masterfully crafted architecture of the kingdom of Asgard.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins, digging deeper than he has in a while for a marquee role) is giving his children, Thor and Loki, a history lesson that clearly sets in place much of the mythology necessary to comfortably follow the rest of the story. Swiftly flashing forward to grown Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who absolutely owns the role), the story flow and action are expertly paced, slowly unveiling a sinister conspiracy that eventually spills over to affect the realm of Earth.

There are a few convenient plot devices that make some of Thor's emotional growth feel a bit rushed, but with a cast this strong and likeable, Oscar-worthy art direction, costuming and special effects, a little broadness in the plot and dialogue is easy to look past. It must be said that Idris Elba (The Wire) is extremely badass as the Bifrost gatekeeper, Heimdall, and the inclusion of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) works organically within the plot, teasing The Avengers only with a cameo that'll set off geek radars and a post-credits scene that pertains very specifically to the larger story of the Marvel universe.

To further my surprise and add to the reasons this is a must-see theatrical extravaganza, Thor also boasts the classiest and most functionally rich use of 3D this side of Avatar. Thank you, Kenneth Branagh, for proving that cinema is capable of handling a new scale of cosmic mythmaking. (Paramount)