Thor is the next step in Marvel's slow progression towards the on-screen merging of the Avengers in 2012. Later this summer, they'll take a second with Captain America. In gathering the team, they're also forming a virtual galaxy of supporting characters and major actors in minor roles. Where last summer's Iron Man 2 teetered on the verge of being too full of subplots and introductions, Thor takes those numbers and doubles them: distracting you from a mediocre comic book hero with mortal and immortal realms full of folks you know crammed into roles that feel almost like mere cameos. This is, in some respect, the problem with Thor. Our hero's origin story balances between two worlds. On the same eve he very nearly ascends to the throne, our buffed up, blonde poster boy (Chris Hemsworth) gets cocky, screws things up with his people's enemies (the drab Frost Giants), and is cast out of the heavenly, gorgeously CGI'd Asgard by his pissed off daddy king (Anthony Hopkins) until he can grow enough to deserve his powers. Thor lands via rainbow bridge in a washed out desert town where he immediately manages to get himself tangled up in the life of pint-sized astrophysicist Jane Porter (Natalie Portman) and her team of semi-bored friends. By my count, what this means is that in less than two hours, we're introduced to approximately fifteen characters (including a sneaky intro to Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye), three very different worlds, Asgardian politics, the continued going ons of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the necessary character growth of privileged, brawny Thor. That's a lot to manage in any movie. In a summer blockbuster with a fairly brief running time, it means you're guaranteed a sacrifice or two.
It should be no surprise, then, that Thor feels abridged. A lot happens, there's a definite story, but in the meantime the characters are loosely sketched. This is most noticeable in the case of Thor himself. Apart from the immortality, Thor's origin story in some ways mirrors Tony Stark's. Both are entitled and militant, carving paths of accidental destruction in their carelessness. Of course, Stark is made more complicated by money, excess, and genius. He himself is not engaged in war, but merely a war monger. His personal enemies are alcohol and competing corporations. In the framing of Stark Industries, Tony Stark must have charisma. Robert Downey Jr., and the film, pull this off. In Iron Man, Tony Stark becomes a fully dimensional character who we can watch, frame by frame, develop from reporter-bagging playboy to accidental vigilante philanthropist. Thor, by contrast, is shallow. He's a one-dimensional alien god whose best qualities are blonde hair, blue eyes, and an apparent grasp of irony. He battles for good without question, and has an intact moral compass. His only real problem is that sometimes he's just too gung-ho about the glory of wars he wages to seek out the right enemies. That said, as superheroes go, he's explicitly not human and just not really that interesting.
The woeful offense, perhaps, is that director Kenneth Branagh and company don't try to hard to make him so. Instead, they pad his transformation with other characters. These individuals each serve their purpose, becoming collections of characteristics or personalities instead of characters. Jane Porter is nice, smart, and hesitant. Her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) is there to make an amusing aside every now and then. Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) is there because his ancestry demands he knows something about Norse mythology. Thor's ragtag band friends are token female warrior, token Asian warrior, token big overeating warrior, and warrior who stole Branagh's Hamlet look. The amazing thing about Thor, and what should be cited as its greatest achievement is that in spite of all the skimping, it remains a very easy to consume, uncomplicated piece of entertainment. Indeed, as I waited for that inevitable bit of Nick Fury at the end of the closing credits, my biggest complaint wasn't that Thor was a jumbled mess, but that it was already over. It seemed as though the film could have been easily stretched out at least another half hour, that its plot lines had been closed up too easily and that no one in the audience would have complained if it ran the Pirates of the Caribbean standard 2 1/2 hours. The film is a strange one, a remarkably shallow, overblown fluff of sparkling special effects, ludicrous costumes, and not slimy enough villains (I'm looking at you Tom Hiddleston...was Cillian Murphy not available?). Yet, for all its faults, it's fun, frequently comedic, and uncomplicated. Thor manages, somehow, to be the comic book movie version of that restaurant in the old joke: "the food at this place is terrible..." to which we respond, "yeah, I know, and such small portions..."