Somewhere or another this week, I read a review in which somebody lightly dismissed the problem of casting superheroes the approximate sentiment "Robert Downey, Jr. can't play 'em all, so take what you can get." This seems wrong to me: why can't Robert Downey, Jr. play them all? Why can't the long-threatened The Avengers, finally due to hit next year, feature our man RDJ playing every major role, Dr. Strangelove-style? Surely nobody would argue he's not actor enough to be up to the task, and the new film has only been in production for just a couple of weeks, so it wouldn't be wasting all that much to start it over as a one man show. We have computers for that now.

Among the many joys of this daydream of mine, would be that we would be spared the sight of aggressively inconsequential Australian actor Chris Hemsworth essaying the role of Marvel Universe thunder god/godlike alien Thor a second time, after embodying the character in his big-screen debut in the eponymously titled Thor, the eleventy-gajillionth entry in Marvel Studios' ambitious plot to reaveal each of the individual characters making up the Avengers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's mash-up of heroes from up and down the Marvel pantheon. Actually, this is only the fourth, behind Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk; but doesn't it feel like this has been going on forever, at this point?

At any rate, Hemsworth doesn't do very much to distinguish himself in the role, besides possess photogenic blonde hair and scarily blue eyes, very much the Germanic Superman, though it's hard to say how much of that his fault, and how much is the fault of his director, Kenneth Branagh, an unconventional choice to helm a popcorn epic, who treats the material with an entirely uncertain blend of broad humor and arch seriousness that never resolves itself all the way. This vacillation ends up hurting the cast, who have to strike an impossible balance between "boy, we're having fun!" hijinks and the self-aware gravity of A Universe-Spanning Tale of Betrayal, Humility, and Love. Imagine if Iron Man, instead of being a delightfully frothy counter to the steely grimness of The Dark Knight, was actually edited into The Dark Knight, so that between scenes of the Joker butchering people, Bruce Wayne swapped wacky banter with a robot.

Branagh's fairly alarming mishandling of tone notwithstanding - also his incredibly unintuitive sense of what to do with a camera for a man who's been making movies for over 20 years; the application of canted angles is extreme and arbitrary enough to drop us right into Battlefield Earth territory - there's actually not a single thing wrong with Thor. It's just that the film is every bit as inconsequential as its leading man: not since X-Men at the start of our current superhero movie boom has a comic book adaptation been so deeply concerned with every nook and cranny of its origin story as this, that there doesn't end up being much room for anything else, like actual conflict and plot.

What we get instead is a chain of events that can quite accurately be called a story, even one in which there's a direct causal link from one event to the next: in Asgard, wise king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) rules, a millennium after besting the Ice Giants in battle and winning peace; his headstrong son Thor wants to prove himself a warrior by attacking the Ice Giants; he sneaks away without permission to avenge an Ice Giant incursion into Asgard; he gets stripped of his powers and banished to Earth. There he crosses paths with astonomy student Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her advisor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgรฅrd), and her unbearably annoying assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings, who I'd rather thought we were done with). Back in Asgard, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is ravaged by jealousy of and concern for his brother, when he learns a terrible secret that pushes him over the edge and sets him on the inevitable path towards supervillainy. Back on Earth, Thor and the scientists run around like the Keystone Kops, while S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) provides continuity to all the other pictures under the proto-Avengers umbrella and generally makes things inconvenient.

A story, right? But the stakes just aren't there: Loki doesn't even begin to turn into an actual antagonist until the last third of the movie, while up to that point the only drama comes from Thor's attempts to find his magic hammer Mjolnir and get back to Asgard. Even without knowing for a dead certainty that Thor's adventures will continue next May - a fact helpfully, and redundantly, pointed out James Bond-style in the credits - it would be clear that Thor is just setting the table, introducing us to the characters and situations that will pay off next time. Promise. This kind of utterly functional origin story for the sake of an origin story is disappointing, to say the least, though much as was the case with X-Men, there's clearly nothing wrong with what happens onscreen, beyond the capital sin of general pointlessness. When the film does manage to rouse itself, as during Thor's initial attack on the Ice Giants, or a late battle against a too-obviously CGI robot in a dusty New Mexico town, Thor even gets actually fun to watch; not a pinnacle of the subgenre, or anything like that, but good enough to get the summer kicked off.

There are other compensations. The production design is generally pretty great, with everybody rightly pointing out that Asgard and the fortress Valhalla triumphs as a gorgeously kitschy achievement in capturing the idea of Jack Kirby's lines, if not necessarily the specifics; but what is going overlooked is that the weather-worn New Mexico locale was built from scratch, and is as convincingly shabby and physical as Asgard is loopy and shiny. Loki is a pretty great character, and Hiddleston gives the film its best performance as the trickster god, who comes across as spectacularly rounded and sympathetic and not even marginally the grasping, nasty bad guy of so many popcorn movies. Heck, despite my feeling that he's mostly so much banal Aryan prettiness, Hemsworth manages to have fun with some of Thor's more exuberant fish-out-of-water comedy, in the moments when Branagh ploddingly decides that it's okay if things are lighthearted for a few minutes.

On the other hand, we've got a sleepy Hopkins who only manages to convincingly play a warrior in a couple isolate moments when he gets to be shouty, Portman completely swallowed by a largely unplayable role - she gets to give and receive exposition, and try to climb atop unforgiving dialogue in which the phrase "Einstein-Rosen Bridge" pops up as often as "the" - and Dennings dragging the worst out of some particularly odious quippy comic relief. The whole thing has an unmistakably paint-by-numbers feeling, not even especially trying to carve out its own personality, but simply hitting all of the usual comic movie beats in the ways we've seen them hit five or six times already by this point. The geek in me wants to bitch a little about the treatment of the comics' Thor, including the film's dismissal of my favorite single element of the original character - he was initially given an alter-ego, weak medical student Donald Blake, who transformed into Thor when he wielded Mjolnir - but those kinds of reviews are awfully tiresome.

So again, not a "bad" movie; not a good movie, either, just a movie that takes up space for a little bit and won't hurt anybody looking for... stuff. Honestly, I'm quite baffled by the huge number of people who apparently found this to be a real corker of a movie; usually I can at least guess at the perceived entertainment value of a movie that I disliked, but other than some "crazy god can't get used to being mortal" jokes that have whiskers on them, Thor strikes me as being supremely unexceptional in every possible way. To each their own, I guess, and at least thing is mostly satisfying to look at. An exhilarating action picture it's not, but it's also miles better than, say, Branagh's experiments in sucking all the energy out of Shakespearean comedies.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 1)
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008)
Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)
Thor (Branagh, 2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011)
The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)