Ah, for simpler times when gods were gods and that was enough. They didn't have to worry about -much less compete with -mere superheroes. They didn't have to pay attention to box-office figures, or how their opening weekends compared with other immortals in years past.
Dealing with their cosmic destinies was enough to keep old-fashioned deities busy for a lifetime or more. They didn't have to be troubled by the fact that, as one industry box-office watcher put it, not all superheroes are created equal.
No matter. "Thor" succeeds on today's new computer-generated, blue-screen epic landscape by being true to what mythology has always been about: lessons gods can teach us about being better humans.
In this case, Norse mythology provided the launch pad for the Marvel Comics guys to do a little time traveling. Blond-bearded, twinkly eyed, abs-solutely buff Thor (Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth) starts the story in the mythic realm of Asgard. But being an impulsive, young god-in-training, he manages to incur the wrath of his dad, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and winds up banished -along with his weapon of choice, a honkin' hammer -to modern-day New Mexico.
New Mexico? Don't ask. This is the movies, after all, where laws of time and physics don't apply and Stephen Spielberg's eagerly awaited "Cowboys and Aliens" is poised to be a big summer hit. Besides, New Mexico, home of Roswell, seems the favorite getaway destination for frequent flyers from galaxies far, far away.
More to the point, Thor's trajectory intersects with astrophysicist Jane Foster (pluckily played by Natalie Portman), who does her research in a '50s- style former radio station in a remote town right out of a Western movie. Surreal touches like the radio station architecture remind us of "Thor's" origins in the Marvel Comics universe.
Hemsworth is funnier and seemingly a lot smarter than guys with abs like that need to be. He gets subtle comic mileage out of trying to learn to act like a human, too.
Portman is also funnier, not to mention more lovable, than her Oscar-winning turn in "Black Swan." She displays great gifts for making the camera fall in love with her without uttering a word. Kat Dennings and Stellen Skarsgaard co-star, but the real star of this show is director Kenneth Branagh.
The actor-director's Royal Shakespeare Company training is evident in every detail of the production, from making its mythology easily understandable to modern audiences to getting such nuanced performances from his terrific cast.
This is one of these action film from the "Spider-Man"- "Iron Man" end of the action spectrum where the characters are more fun to watch than the stunts and the FX. Which isn't to say that the visuals aren't magical in their own way, using new technology to create an old-fashioned sense of wonder.
It's with these classical echoes, both in the acting and in the storytelling, that "Thor" separates itself from more usual film fare like "Fast Five," which it knocked off atop the box office.
"Fast Five's" unpretentious stars were more than happy to let their physiques do most of the acting for them, and share the credits with the cars, which they drove all the way to the bank.
"Thor" wants more -not just to spin a yarn, but one punctuated with allegory and metaphor.
Interesting, how humans' need for storytelling has come full circle, so that now we've got ancient mythology translated into a comic book, which is brought to a movie screen by a Shakespearean stage- actor-turned-film-artist.
The quickly evolving way we tell our stories hasn't been limited to movie screens lately. Should we take note that the president and his security team monitored the mission to kill Osama bin Laden in the situation room in the White House, in real-time images, perhaps like a video game?
In place of the sense of relief, vindication or hope that the nation might start getting its mojo back -after having had it stolen for a decade by the perpetrators of 9/11 -what we got instead was nonstop replays and endless analysis.
All of a sudden, the spotlight is on Navy SEALS - even though the last place these heroes need to be is in the spotlight. And then there was the discussion of what to do with the gruesome bin Laden death photos, which had the potential of being the digital age's equivalent of ancient warriors parading their enemies' heads around on sticks.
It's all collateral damage from living in an age of too much information. And a reminder of how useful those old-fashioned gods can be in helping solve the endless mystery of how to be more human beings.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.