If Iron Man was a risk because it had to launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor was a risk for several more reasons. It’s about a Norse God whose weapon is a hammer. The characters speak more like Laurence Olivier than Tony Stark. It ushered the MCU into the cosmic realm, giving us Asgard and teasing us with other realms we’d see in subsequent movies. But most importantly, it gave us Loki.
Thor is the movie that did the heavy lifting for The Avengers. By introducing us to Loki here, and developing him into a three-dimensional villain we at least understand, if not agree with, The Avengers didn’t have to spend time establishing its main villain. We already know Loki, we already know what drives him and makes him tick, and therefore The Avengers can spend the vast majority of its time focusing on the team itself.
Why does Age of Ultron feel so jam-packed? Because we have to catch up with the core team, meet new members, set up future installments, and on top of all that, get to know Ultron. What was one of the many complaints about Justice League? We don’t know Steppenwolf. He just comes to Earth to destroy it. The Avengers doesn’t have that problem, and it’s thanks to Thor.
Thor can also be credited with upping the humor quotient for the Marvel movies. Sure, there were plenty of laughs in those first two Iron Man flicks, but they fit the title character’s persona. This is the first movie in which we see Marvel actively pumping up the humor for their more outlandish heroes, using Kat Dennings’ character as something of an audience surrogate. “If we laugh, they’ll laugh, too.” Clearly the formula has worked, and we’d see it go to a whole new level in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Director Kenneth Branagh does a fine job of balancing those comedic elements and the more dramatic ones, clearly drawing on his profuse Shakespearean background to tell a story of a father and his wayward sons. Costume design and art direction are the real stars here, as are the visual effects, which hold up surprisingly well seven years later. Thor and Jane Foster’s romance is a bit undercooked, but there’s enough chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman to sell us on their relationship.
Speaking of Hemsworth, talk about spot-on casting. Ditto for Hiddleston, whose performance here is among the best of the entire MCU; his one-on-one scene with Hopkins is fantastic (“TELL ME!”). Portman, Hopkins, Skarsgaard, and the rest of the cast are all fine. In retrospect, it would’ve been nice to get more scenes with Frigga, so we can actually kind of care about her when she bites the dust in The Dark World. Perhaps having fewer obligatory S.H.I.E.L.D. scenes would’ve helped.
Thor tends to rank pretty low on most peoples’ MCU rankings, but there’s more to appreciate than you might remember. Is it a misunderstood masterpiece? Of course not. But after seeing so many of the more overproduced, “the world is ending” superhero movies in the last few years, the simpler pleasures of the Phase 1 movies are easier to enjoy.