Spanning several worlds and aeon’s of time with wit, verve and appropriately theatrical grandeur, Kenneth Branagh’s superhero blockbuster Thor is enormously entertaining, the best film of its type since Iron Man.
On first glance, Branagh might seem an odd fit for the material, but when one considers the grandiose sweep of Marvel’s source material, it quickly becomes obvious he’s the perfect man for the job, bringing his Shakespearean background to bear on a film that demands as much pomp and circumstance as a $150 million budget can generate.
That’s not to say Thor is portentous. Branagh bravely chooses to play it straight, but stops just short of po-faced inanity, instead privileging humour, action and character development. It’s hardly the work of the Bard himself but certainly a cut above other big budget waffle. Additionally, Branagh has a mountain to climb in the form of the source material itself, which has little contemporary street-cred when compared with the Spider-Man’s and Hulk’s, and which also features enough back story to fill a galaxy with.
Mercifully, both the director and screenwriters dispense with the opening exposition in slick and accessible fashion, drawing both fans and non-fans into the savvy, dual-stranded narrative, one which cleverly has a stake in both the fantasy and non-fantasy worlds. And then of course, there’s the hugely entertaining moment where the fantasy crosses over into our version of reality but that would be spoiling too many surprises.
An opening taster sees a blonde, bearded stranger arrive on Earth in mysterious fashion, to the shock of scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and token comic relief Darcy (Kat Dennings). What they don’t know yet is the beefed-up, blonde bombshell is in fact the titular Norse God (one of the film’s many joys is the way it mixes richly archaic mythology with contemporary appeal).
In a smooth shift symptomatic of the film’s confident tone, we then plunge straight into a thunderous opening prologue, laid out in commanding voice over by Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Proud ruler of the mighty realm of Asgard, Odin is ready to hand power to one of his two sons: arrogant, foolhardy Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or insidious God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
Just when he is on the verge of handing over the reigns of power to the former, an insurgent movement by Asgard’s old enemies the Frost Giants causes the impetuous, haughty Thor to lead a retaliatory attack on his enemy’s home world of Jotunheim. It’s a reckless action that results in his banishment to Earth, where he must learn, in classic hero fashion, to embrace the real hero within. To give away any more of the twists and turns would ruin the fun, suffice it to say there are more than enough betrayals, romances, twists and turns to keep the Gods happy.
Across both the mortal and fantastical realms, Branagh invests his characters with a degree of depth, from the broadly played father-son angle of Asgard to the inevitable but charming romance that plays out between Thor and Jane on Earth. He does an admirable job keeping most of the character arcs dynamic and interesting, and where massive emotions are played out on Asgard, a lovely bit of Earth-bound, fish-out-of-water humour defuses any notion of pretentiousness, be it Thor strolling into a pet-store asking for a horse or smashing a coffee cup on the ground in satisfaction.
Yes, it’s a franchise-oriented movie, and clearly the fantasy/reality split has been carefully mapped out so as to appeal to the widest possible audience (although the comic also takes the credit there). Yet it’s never cynical and always sincere, moving in several different directions narratively but reconciling the various strands so well that it feels like a particularly rich canvas. Through a combination of strong casting, breathtaking production design and solid effects, the film is truly transporting, in the way all the best blockbusters are.
A bulked-up Hemsworth gives off Brad Pitt vibes in the title role and superbly conveys Thor’s sense of wilful arrogance; that said, it’s an immensely likeable, star-making performance. He’s backed by an excellent support cast. Portman is engagingly winsome with a side-order of pluck; Hopkins is dignified rather than hammy; and Stellan Skarsgard makes do with his underwritten role, although he does get a hysterically funny drunk scene.
That said, the standout performance by a country mile comes from young Brit Tom Hiddleston as ostensible baddie of the piece, Loki. Without wishing to sound disrespectful to this excellent actor, he possesses a wonderfully snake-like, ambiguous quality that makes one anticipate his every move with apprehension, perfect qualities for the serpentine Loki. Yet it’s a credit to the intelligent writing that his role, and indeed most of the other main parts, seethe with emotions and contradictions. They’re fantastical, cinematic characters but feel genuine.
Of course it’s not perfect. Some of the CGI is clunky, much of the action is noisy rather than visceral and several background players (hello, Rene Russo) barely get a look in, presumably because of cutting room constraints. Yet as an example of mega-budget madness done properly, Thor hammers the competition. As Will Ferrell might have said in Anchorman: Great Odin’s Raven, that’s good!
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