Chris Hemsworth didn’t start his career playing Odin’s favorite son in 2011’s Thor, but for all intents and purposes, Thor is the moment when he fully became “Chris Hemsworth.” Prior to signing his image away to Kevin Feige, the towering Aussie demigod had already played figures of mythic proportion and consequence: King Arthur in the fantasy series Guinevere Jones, and James Tiberius Kirk’s jawsome father in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot. But in the popular consciousness your career is only as old as the role that vaults you into—and over the course of seven blockbuster films, keeps you in—the spotlight in the first place. Before Hemsworth played Thor, had he really played anyone at all?
Yes. Yes he had. But none of his pre-Thor roles seem to matter that much compared to Thor itself, especially when, a decade later, sporting spandex, capes and cool-ass armor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a one-way ticket to instant visibility and brand recognition. Though Hemsworth starred in A Perfect Getaway and Ca$h, and appeared in Star Trek, Guinevere Jones and Home and Away, he was nonetheless a nobody until he was deemed worthy of Mjolnir, and then he became somebody.
This is a mixed blessing. Ten years later, Hemsworth is one of the highest paid actors on the planet with a respectable list of credits beyond his obligations to Marvel franchise maintenance: Rush, The Cabin in the Woods, Blackhat, and though the movie isn’t especially good, the 2016 Ghostbusters remake. (Blackhat is especially noteworthy—it remains an all-time banger in his and Michael Mann’s respective bodies of work.) But sit down with a randomly assembled group of strangers, start talking about how much you love Hemsworth, and odds are the Marvel association will dominate. Nobody’s seen Blackhat. Few remember Rush or Snow White and the Huntsman, even though more than enough people saw both. (Nobody remembers In the Heart of the Sea, either, but that’s for the best.)
But everyone remembers Thor, if not the movie then the character. Again, this is for the best. Kenneth Branagh takes his attempt at finding the Hamlet in Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber’s loose interpretation of Norse mythology both too seriously and not seriously enough: Hemsworth smashing a coffee cup in praise of the drink while demanding another is the energy the movie wants but can’t sustain. Instead, it buckles beneath the weight of pomp, palace intrigue, and one of the most straightforwardly dull settings in the entire MCU to date. (Nothing against you, New Mexico! Love your carne adovada.) Granted, the middle of nowhere in the Land of Enchantment feels like a reasonable place to exile unruly gods as punishment for arrogance.
Regardless how what one thinks about Branagh’s directing in the film, he’s undeniably part of the reason Hemsworth, after a rejection from one of Thor’s two casting directors, was cast in the first place. Hemsworth’s younger brother, Liam, went for the part, too, but was similarly rejected before a second chance in the form of a screen test put Chris over the top. But a decade after the fact, the accomplishment of Hemsworth’s performance and raw star power is Hemsworth’s alone. Put another actor in his place and Thor could well have become an embarrassing footnote in the MCU’s Phase One. This is one definition of “leading man”: one whose raw charisma and screen presence combine into a glue strong enough to keep structurally unsound productions bonded together. Even among costars that include Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston, Hemsworth leads.
The latter half of Thor’s journey through Marvel’s endless interwoven narrative of heroes and villains, trauma and grief, trauma and heroism, trauma and grief, and yet more trauma just to drive home all the other trauma, is considerably greater than the first: Thor: Ragnarok shows what a Marvel movie can look like when a director with a defined vision and aesthetic is allowed to exercise both, and Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame are so large together and separately that Hemsworth is able to make space in the noisome, scattered plotting for pathos. Fat Thor is more than just a meme; he’s an expression of self-loathing and failure, made with tongue in cheek as well as with heartfelt sentiment. This, too, is a marker of a real leading man. In a pair of films hostile to authentic performance, Hemsworth gives one anyway. The most resonant part of these movies (Ragnarok included) is Hemsworth’s grafting of a classic macho stance to contemporary male vulnerability.
Watching him work in any film means watching a man in competition with two sides of himself. Hemsworth could model and brood and stare stoically where he’s told to stare, and that could be his repertoire. But in every part he takes, he seems to look inward at the other components of his persona: the rogue, the softie, the comedian. It seems a cosmic injustice that a man so good looking should also be so goddamn funny. He doesn’t rest on the qualities that come up first when the name “Thor”—be it Marvel’s or the underlying Norse myths—comes up in casual conversation; he introduces new qualities, emphasizing playfulness in his craft over casual resignation over his body. He could just be a pile of muscles and make a living off of that. Instead, he pushes himself to show, and to be, more.
That’s one reason to be thankful for Thor in all its dry mediocrity. Even should the movie and the character ultimately constrain Hemsworth’s career going forward—at times the franchise feels like it might be a sanction on his talent—the depth he brings to Thor Odinson, far more than the figure demands, has left an indelible mark on the MCU and pop culture.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.