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How many reasons do Thor's makers have for not messing with the Marvel Comics movie formula? About 3.3 billion.
That's the cumulative North American box office, in dollars, for movies based on Marvel Universe characters since X-Men launched the current wave in 1999. So expect three big action set pieces, a Stan Lee cameo and a few insider details for comic-book nerds to geek out over. This is the way of things, and fighting it would be like trying to arm-wrestle the Hulk.
So if Marvel movie directors use a paint-by-numbers kit, what is it that separates the good from the bad, aside from Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider)? Two factors: tone and casting. Iron Man hit paydirt thanks to Jon Favreau's high-energy direction and the inspired choice of Robert Downey Jr. as the hero; meanwhile, the Hulk features have already run through two lead actors and will be working on a third when The Avengers hits theaters next summer.
Thor shows that director Kenneth Branagh grasps these fundamental realities: He nails a unique tone, and he has a lead actor who understands how to play a god.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isn't actually a god, but one of the immortal inhabitants of the realm of Asgard, where his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) rules. Centuries ago, the Asgardians defeated the Frost Giants who sought to destroy humanity, and a truce has existed ever since. But when the cocky Thor threatens that fragile peace, Odin banishes him to Earth and strips him of his powers. He's found in the New Mexico desert by astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), spouting gibberish about his origins.
That's a twist on the typical superhero origin story: Rather than following a normal person as he adjusts to having extraordinary abilities, this one does the reverse. And it's here that Hemsworth proves himself not just an impressive physical specimen, but a fairly deft comedian. The writers give him some solid fish-out-of-water moments, and Hemsworth plays them with the twinkle in his eye of someone accustomed to having the world bend to his will.
Branagh, meanwhile, shows with the Asgard-set scenes why a Shakespearean actor/director was the right choice for this material. The story is essentially one of jealousy and treachery inside a castle, as Thor's trickster brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), tries to manipulate his way onto the throne. That's a milieu Branagh knows his way around. There's such dramatic grandeur in those scenes that the juxtaposition with the Earth-bound scenes is at times jarring. That's one of the quirks Thor throws our way: Its two halves are appealing, but don't always feel like they work together.
Perhaps the frustration is that the unique tone of the Asgard scenes is the only opportunity for Thor to carve out a distinctive identity. While the battle between Thor and his friends and the Frost Giants offers the discovery of a new context for superhero action, the climactic battle plays like something that could just as easily have been an outtake from Iron Man 2. The romance between Thor and Jane feels rushed toward a sense of consequence, and the tidbits tossed to the fanboys are often as distracting as they are amusing.
There's little question that Thor will succeed largely because of the Marvel formula. The tricky part is wondering if there could have been more room for the satisfying ways Thor is one of a kind.