HERE'S THE THING about Thor: He's weird. And not in the way all superheroes are weird, just by virtue of the pulpy medium from which they spring. No, even back in the '60s, when the Norse god of thunder was first appropriated for Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the guy stood out: long blond hair. A chrome hubcap of a helmet, decorated with a couple of dorky white wings. A propensity to shout pseudo-Shakespearean declarations. Later, Thor gained even more weirdness: His tweaked-out backstory, which relied on amped-up Norse mythology. Beta Ray Bill, an alien/cyborg/camel who fought Thor, then decided they should be BFFs. Thor's methods of transportation? Flying around with his giant hammer Mjolnir, or happily trotting across the cosmos on bridges made of rainbows. Next to Thor, Spider-Man's just some nerd from down the street.
In other words, Thor—Marvel's latest summer popcorn flick, and, like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and July's Captain America: The First Avenger, yet another prelude to next summer's already-hyped-to-death The Avengers—could've fallen on its face. It's not easy to bring a character as strange as this to multiplexes, and yet, here he is, his blond locks flowing as he rides space-horses across cosmic rainbows. And here's the thing about Thor, once you embrace all that goofiness: It's pretty much awesome.
The story's as simple as it can be, given the daunting amount of world-building that unlikely director Kenneth Branagh finds himself saddled with: Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is a petulant jerk, until an ill-fated battle with some pissy frost giants (embrace it, I said!) gets him banished from Odin's kingdom, Asgard, and sent to crappy old Earth. Naturally, once the newly powerless god touches down, he meets a smokin' astrophysicist (Natalie Portman), learns about some Asgardian deceit that's the doing of his emo brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and gets a lesson or two in humility: Thor might be a badass in Asgard, but on Earth, he's just some ranting hobo.
Thor is summer pop, and those seeking anything more are likely to be disappointed, but what makes it work—what makes it such a great example of pop done right—is Branagh's keen direction and his cast's solid performances. Predictably, Branagh ladles out plenty of Shakespeare, Siddhartha, and Excalibur parallels; somewhat less predictably, he proves adept at capturing the epic scope, rumbling action, and good-hearted humor that justify seeing a movie like this on a big screen. Meanwhile, Hemsworth's Thor is everything he should be—aloof, charming, badass—and even though they don't get much to do, Hopkins, Portman, and Kat Dennings (as Portman's funny, dopey assistant) carve out memorable moments among all the frost giant-smiting. This coming summer is jam-packed with wannabe blockbusters and big-budget comic book flicks—but this weirdo from Asgard has already positioned himself as the guy to beat.