It’s nice to kick off the ‘Blockbuster Season’ – a period I’ve grown to fear almost as much as the ultra-earnest ‘Oscar-Bait’ months – with a popcorn flick that genuinely strives for greatness, especially considering the parade of ‘meh’ that is no doubt close behind. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor may not achieve the level of epic, Shakespearean awesomeness it so dearly covets, but its failings could only be a footnote in the annals of comic-book movie history. Consider the fact Kenneth Branagh directed Thor. That Marvel Studios would be wise enough to hire not a music video or commercial director, but rather a thespian and stalwart of the stage best known for adapting The Bard rather than The Batman. How could any film match the boldness of that decision alone? I still have trouble swallowing the concept, and I’ve already sat through the film. Knowing this, it’s less surprising to discover that Iron Man 3 was offered to The King’s Speech helmer Tom Hooper. No doubt James Ivory can expect a call from Marvel begging him to direct the Hawkeye movie any day now.
Branagh was hired for a reason, and it wasn’t just to class up a genre populated primarily by 90-minute car advertisements. The tale of Thor – God of Thunder, Son of Odin, He of the Impressively Stacked Man Breasts; Banished from the Hallowed Land of Asgard for his Arrogance – is told by Branagh as if it were an alternate version of Richard III (perhaps even an extended writing exercise by Willy Shakespeare while he was experimenting with cocaine and some of that sweet, hallucinogenic nutmeg, as he allegedly loved to do). The film’s first third takes place in the fantastical realm of Asgard, where King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), negotiates a tentative truce with the evil Frost Giants and tries to choose a successor from his two sons: brash, short-tempered Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and mischievous, mysterious Loki (Tom Hiddleston). If it weren’t for the stilted dialogue, you could easily imagine this kind of royal dilemma played out in one of Shakespeare’s great plays (in fact, the stilted dialogue only serves as a reminder of those awful modern-day adaptations of Othello and Hamlet starring Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles). The gorgeous and very shiny art direction and extravagant costumes seen in Asgard – seemingly frowned upon in the grittier superhero flicks current in vogue – are a refreshing twist, and seem right up Branagh’s theatrical alley.
Thor attempts to wage war against the Frosties behind his father’s back, leading us to a particularly hard-to-watch action sequence (Branagh is a newbie when it comes to the composition of action sequences, and you can tell). For his insolence, Thor is cast out of Asgard and into a hellish landscape that would make even the bravest mythical God crave the sweet release of death: New Mexico. O.K., that’s not fair. In New Mexico’s defence, the depiction of the state here is limited to a single street seemingly in the middle of the desert. I understand it’s not a bustling metropolis, but really … just the one street? It’s in New Mexico that Thor runs into (or rather, is accidentally run over by) astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her colleagues (Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings). Thus begins the portion of the film in which Thor has to adjust to normal interaction with non-cape-wearing humans, earn the right to return to Asgard and save it from the rule of his increasing evil brother, as well as see if he can’t romance the giggly, girly but supposedly super-smart Jane at the same time. She may be a scientist, but his abs defies the laws of nature.
Marvel fans will once again appreciate the numerous references made to their ever-increasing movie universe (including shout outs to Tony Stark, a special appearance from Clark Gregg’s SHIELD Agent Coulson and a cameo from a future Avenger). The cast is uniformly great; even Hopkins who’s been slumming it lately, and especially Hemsworth, who is not quite the super-charming revelation Chris Pine was in Star Trek, but he comes close. They do their best with some clunky dialogue, but that’s often the price of a film adapted from a comic book (especially a big project like this, where the screenplay passes through so many hands it seems pointless even crediting any particular writers). Branagh – obviously – handles the character moments better than the action sequences, and it feels as if the special effects department took over in these scenes accordingly. The film is heavy on the CG, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but CG alone only gets you so far, and this reliance on special effects ultimately kills the finale. Instead of a genuinely intense climax with high stakes composed by a proficient action director, we’re given a SFX light show that is pretty, but feels mostly redundant (also see: Iron Man, Iron Man 2). And while the ambitious scenes of Asgard and character moments in New Mexico work separately, they feel like separate halves of different movies. Thor fails to be either epic or intimate. Still, it’s far from a failure, and a bold experiment that still manages to be mostly successful deserves plenty of respect. We need to reward the projects that truly roll the die, unless we want to return to the chilling days of soulless franchise features churned out without any consideration of the fans. Also, think of all the other period drama directors out there who, deep down, want to blow some **** up.
Side note: It’s peculiar that Odin, Thor, Loki et al are Norse gods, yet they all have English accents. I suppose this is to accommodate Branagh’s Shakespearean leanings, but if they really wanted to commit to the project, Marvel should have hired a cast of Swedes (maybe Stellan’s son Alexander Skarsgard as Thor) and attempted an Ingmar Bergman-evoking, black-and-white, existential exploration of the character. Reboot!
Thor arrives in cinemas April 21, 2011.