Of all the comic book movies in recent years, Thor has inched its way toward a release date with some of the greatest pre-release potential for disaster. For the last year, within the film blogosphere, a number of factors have worked against director Kenneth Branagh’s enormous, Marvel-backed production: a new actor (Australian big man Chris Hemsworth) cutting his teeth with a dynamic and possibly overpowering character; a perhaps confusing and dangerous alternation between an earthbound storyline and one set on the CGI-laden, easy-to-make-look-like-cheese, mystical realm of Asgard; a director (Branagh) known more for Shakespearean dramas than blockbuster summer fare; and, more so than the Robert Downey Jr.-led Iron Man movies, a make-or-break quality as it sets up next year’s massive The Avengers.

Frankly, we weren’t expecting much from Thor; some simple popcorn entertainment would’ve sufficed, as long as the final product ended up being more Iron Man than Daredevil. So it’s with great surprise and thick delight that we can hail Thor as a real triumph; in fact, Branagh’s deeply plotted, yet still slyly humorous and altogether entertaining, extravaganza is a more complete film than either of Tony Stark’s pics.

There’s More Compelling Story To Chew On Here Than In Either Iron Man Movie

complex-review-thor-chris-hemsworth-tom-hiddlestonWhereas Downey Jr. completely owns both of the Iron Man pics, Thor is a compendium of top-notch performances, namely from a breakout Hemsworth and newcomer Tom Hiddleston, who brings a wide range of emotional skills to the multilayered role of Thor’s villainous brother Loki.

What’s most impressive about Thor, though, is how rich its narrative is, establishing the stakes early on, letting the conflict play out in exciting ways, and, unlike both Iron Man entries, delivering a satisfying payoff. The story should be familiar to any lifelong Marvel comic reader. On the far-away realm of Asgard, the king, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is ready to relinquish his throne to his warrior son, Thor, much to the chagrin of Loki. Just as he’s about to get crowned, however, Thor ignites a war with the Frost Giants, Asgard’s longtime enemies, which prompts Odin to banish Thor to Earth.

On our planet, he befriends a young, super-hot astrophysicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her wisecracking, and similarly sexy, friend/colleague Darcy (current Complex cover girl Kat Dennings), and their mentor (Stellan Skarsgard). Odin falls ill and Loki wears the crown back on Asgard, and soon the two worlds collide and Thor has to save the day while daydreaming about showing Jane his mighty hammer, and then possibly also the one he uses as a battle weapon, Mjolnir.

Sorry, Pre-Release Haters Of Chris Hemsworth, But Thor’s Star Kills It

Had Branagh and Marvel cast a WWE behemoth (Triple H, obviously) or an unknown blonde HGH model, Thor would’ve easily toppled under the weight of a horribly acting lead. But in Hemsworth, they’ve discovered a full-blown movie star. Simply put, the kid has it, in bulk. He’s likeable without ever coming across as a panderer; athletic enough to convincingly whoop ass with the agility of someone half his size; and, most importantly, he can actually act, and well, at that. His presence in Thor keeps the movie grounded and appealing throughout, something we wouldn’t have imagined saying a few months back. Like every other comic book-loving cynic, we were wondering, “What the fuck’s a Chris Hemsworth?” Now, it’s, “Chris Hemsworth is that dude.”

Thor offers more heart and soul than your typical blockbuster while never skimping on its exterior treats.” Equally impressive is Hiddleston, though for different reasons. As Loki, the English actor weaves in and out of a vast array of emotions with subtle nimbleness. In Thor, Hiddleston has created one of the most sympathetic villains in years, a tortured soul with unshakable daddy issues and jealousy toward his bro. He’s an otherworldly Jan Brady; you can practically hear Hiddleston shouting “Thor! Thor! Thor!” whenever Loki struggles to hide his resentment toward his pops and sibling. When it’s time for him to fuck shit up and antagonize the hell out of Thor and his earthly pals, Hiddleston nails the menace of a neglected guy acting on pure bitchy rage.

Thor’s Not Exactly Shakespeare, Yet Kenneth Branagh Finds His Comfort Zone

It’s not a surprise that Thor’s biggest strength is its acting. A classically trained thespian himself, Branagh brings to the project a veteran’s sense of dramatic filmmaking, and it shows. The dialogue-heavy and action-light interplay between Thor, Loki, and Odin is the movie’s bread and butter, adding depth to Thor unseen in most comic book movies. But we’re not talking about Hamlet, for crying out loud—Branagh’s latest assignment is a summer tentpole, so one of the most crucial questions going into Thor was whether or not he could handle the effects-stuffed fights sequences, computer-rendered Asgard sets, and prerequisite explosions.

The verdict: Branagh stages the superficial goods much better than expected. The finale, split into two parts (one taking place in New Mexico with Asgardian robot-like bodyguard Destroyer; the other wrecking landscape inside Odin’s castle and on the Bifrost Bridge), feels particularly rewarding, considering that both Iron Man movies shit the bed with lackluster hero-versus-villain showdowns. It’s not all good for Branagh, however; he often times follows the lead of Hollywood’s many blockbuster semi-hacks and shoots highly populated battles from about five feet away from the characters, resulting in sporadically unintelligible shots. Especially during an early brawl with the Frost Giants, who all look alike to begin with; since Branagh zooms in on their nostrils for half of the sequence, it’s impossible to tell who’s who and what’s what.

complex-review-thor-natalie-portman-chris-hemsworthThor also suffers from an underdeveloped romantic subplot. Late into the movie, Thor gets all googy-eyed over Jane, a sentiment that’s mutual. But their growing love is an afterthought, only explored through two brief one-on-one scenes for Hemsworth and Portman. If the Aussie leading man wasn’t so damn agreeable, his random-seeming love for Portman would infuriate more than it actually does; Hemsworth’s charismatic performance makes it easy to accept the obligatory mushiness as proof of the guy’s ability to sweet-talk as well as beats in faces.

Did we expect to dig Thor so much? Admittedly, not at all. Yet Branagh’s laudable spectacle is a fine piece of summer escapism, offering more heart and soul than your typical blockbuster while never skimping on its exterior treats. Between this and the also far-better-than-anticipated Fast Five, this year’s warm weather season is off to a roaring start.