It's easier judge Thor than it may at first seem: one movie having to act as its own movie, as a prequel to the imminent Avengers supercrossover and as an Origin story introducing not just a new Superhero, but it turns out, a highly unfamiliar mythology to a crowd of viewers who don't know what they're getting themselves in for. Fortunately for us all, us reviewers especially, it manages to succeed in all these fields.
First off though, let's get my only real problem with Thor out of the way. Thor tells the story of the titular Norse god, whose hot temper ends up reviving the Norse Pantheon's war with the Frost Giants, prompting his banishment. Now, if you spat whatever beverage was nearby onto your computer screen, I'm going to assume that you're aware of even the very first thing about Norse religious beliefs, because yes, they butcher it; once again, they make an entire ancient mythology analogous for Christianity. Asgard is Heaven, Odin is God, Thor is Jesus (Spoilers: complete with getting sent back to earth to sacrifice himself, when he is revived as a God) Loki is Lucifer and the Frost Giants are, I dunno, Hell's forces (which is almost clever - Hel, as it was known, was an icy wasteland). Also, banished for inciting war? Viking heaven WAS a constant war - they'd fight all day and feat all night. War was their heaven. And Thor having to grow out of his hotheadedness? I know it's a stock plot, but the real Thor was the original berzerker - his crazed violence was a virtue! If you have even a brief knowledge of world mythology (how I spent my primary school years), then the MST3K mantra will do you well here, as well as the knowledge that this was all Marvel's fault, not the filmmakers'. Plus, it has some fun additions; Gungnir and Sleipnir make an appearence with Odin, which is something.
Anyway, this has ended up as one impressive film. Shakespeare specialist and supposed actual Thor geek Kenneth Branagh takes on directing duties, and his theater chops really lend the Asgard-based side of the story bombast and style. Let's just say that the scened involving most of the Asgardians aren't exactly part of a kosher diet. But it's pulled off with real mythic gravitas, making the Earth scenes seem small and dainty by comparison. Indeed, if there was an actual substantial criticism of the film, it's that the Earth-based side of the story is that oldest of the stock plots, the fall from grace and quest for redemption, and without the sumptuous theater stylings of the Asgard side, we simply don't have anything to distract us from the derivative storyline. It's predictable every moment we're on Earth, and only when we're in Asgard is it trutly its own story. And unlike Iron Man or The Hulk, there's not much in the way of secondary subtext. This isn't a movie about the destructive nature of power or anger issues, it's just about a Magic Viking, and while this isn't a bad thing, it's that much less in terms of actual human drama to distract from the tried-and-tested main plot.
However, while the story has been told a thousand times, it's the telling of it here which is exemplary. The lead performers flourish with their roles - Anthony Hopkins as Odin is awesome, and on a less ironic level than the rumoured Brian Blessed casting. The relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth makes a convincing action lead and makes some very good dramatic turns, plus his neck is thicker than his head, which reminded me of George Fisher and made me happy. The real dramatic heavy lifting falls to Tom Hiddleston as conflicted antagonist (and first Avengers villain, hint hint) Loki, who is the only one in the cast who can get across his character's conflicted emotional state without bellowing, so kudos for that. Natalie Portman is always welcome on screen, of course, here playing The Love Interest™, though Black Swan may have spoilt us in the categories of both "Natalie Portman as an actor who can take on big roles" and "Natalie Portman as an actor who is willing to make out with other girls on camera" and both are absent here. And I know that this has been discussed endlessly, but Crowning Moment of Awesome to Kenneth Branagh to casting Idris Elba as "the whitest of the gods" Heimdallr. I'm always game for pissing off some white supremacists, especially the unfortunate failed abortions who take a Germanic bent to it.
Aside from the performances, the visuals excell as well. The realisation of Bifrost, Asgard, and Yggrasil's place in the Marvel Multiverse are all stunningly realised, with every bit of Thor's $150m budget on show. The set and costume design is gorgeous, and is another example of Marvel's total lack of shame over the charming goofiness of superhero outfits (see also: Yellow costumes in X-Men again!). Every costume here is a perfect simulacrum of the comic's equivalent, and they all look spectacular. The action scenes are well shot and choreographed, though they do occasionally delve into special effects clusterfuck, especially when Thor's carde are fighing the Frost Giants near the beginning (de-powered Thor's fight scene near the middle more than makes up for this).
One last note - they've taken a hell of a risk with the after-credits section here. The film gets by largely with only a few nods to the shared universe - aside, obviously, from the increasingly visible S.H.I.E.L.D - but the relative obscurity of the big reveal at the end left, I think, everyone in the cinema except me stumped. But let me just say - AWESOME. (And I love the new name too. The old one was a little lame. Also, maths references ftw!)
So yeah. Another great win for Marvel Studios, count me in for Captain America, Looking forward to the Avengers. Thor is totally worth your time, especially if you have kids or are a kid at heart yourself.