After more than a decade of high-profile Hollywood reboots, the shelves at Marvel and DC are starting to look empty. First came the obvious candidates: comic book vigilantes like Batman and Daredevil transformed seamlessly into action and/or crime antiheroes. Then came teen idol Spider-Man, social-pariah supergroup the X-Men, righteous rageaholic Hulk, and the warmongering peacemaker Iron Man, all fitting analogues for the American aughts. Now, however, we're on to characters adapted neither for topicality nor timelessness, but for the simple fact that they're next in line. An astonishingly awkward marriage of ancient Norse mythology and 21st-century nonsense, Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, works too hard at simply functioning to assert why it, or we, should bother.
A headstrong young prince known for smashing heads first and asking questions later, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is set to be anointed king of Asgard — a fanciful, otherworldly realm populated by Scandinavians who talk like Englishmen — by his revered father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But after his grand coronation is interrupted by an invasion of the dreaded Ice Giants, Thor defies Odin's pragmatism by fighting back (with four costumed compadres, as extraneous and flat as a Hanna-Barbera B-team) and disrupting an uneasy peace. As punishment, he's stripped of his powers, separated from his weather-taming hammer, and banished to the American desert. Soon thereafter, Odin falls into a coma, elevating scheming stepson Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to the throne and setting into motion rusty wheels of intrigue, betrayal and redemption. On Earth, Thor teams up with a trio of star-chasing scientists, including skeptic Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), dreamer Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and superfluous hipster Darcy (Kat Dennings, whose every line is a Facebook or iPod reference), who all gradually grasp the big bloke's true identity and stand aside as he battles intergalactic giants and judo-trained feds.
Asgard seems realized from storyboards rejected as too tacky for even Star Wars 2.0 and Avatar, evoking instead the epic chintziness of Peter Yates's Flash Gordon — another B-movie bomb helmed by a seriously slumming Brit. But what's surprising isn't that Branagh took on Thor; his once-promising career hasn't really rerailed since his Frankenstein monstrosity of 1994. It's that there's scant evidence that a classically trained dramatist had anything to do with what's onscreen. The closest he comes to a visual signature is a sophomoric preference for slanted frames, forsaking actual shot-making for Joel Schumacherian funhouse shenanigans. The CGI landscapes are monumentally lifeless, a verdict that unfortunately also applies to his un-doctored two-shots, bloodless faces fixed in IMAX 3D space.
From the cast, Branagh gets exactly what you'd expect: Hopkins shows up in a strapless eye patch like an even more wizened Rooster Cogburn, briefly aroused by his own loud-quiet-loud vocal modulation; Skarsgård always seems faintly embarrassed or soused or both; Portman is stiffer than usual, delivering catchphrases on the downbeat like an early, phonetically dependent Arnold Schwarzenegger; and newcomer Hemsworth, a strapping Aussie with ocean-blue eyes, is a charmless hunk of meat. Which opens the door wide for Hiddleston to steal the movie, for whatever it's worth, as the dandy baddie. Unlike the muscled-out, metalhead, beach-blond (from head to candy-corn eyebrows) hero, Loki is like a walking Spandau Ballet music video, with a trim, bottle-black New Wave shimmer; pale, angular features; mirror-trained smoldering affect; and custom-tailored, dance-ready formalwear. He's a fresh-faced villain, unflappable in antlered headgear and trapped in his more famous beefcake brother's yarn about responsible might, the regality of humility and the galaxy-saving love of Natalie Portman. I wouldn't expect a Loki spinoff anytime soon — too moody, too cosmo, too intellectually elite — but that may be just the problem. Marvel continues to polish off its mid-20th-century hypermasculine heroes when what we really need is a new mythology for this more ambiguous age.