Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Thor’ is the kind of big, fun silly summer movie that looks more simplistic than it actually is. When you are adapting a comic book character that’s part of a big commercial tie-in with a franchise like The Avengers, this quality is a welcome one.
On the heels of Iron Man and The Hulk, Thor has the tricky of job of blending cosmic mythology and big, burly Nordic fantasy into the more grounded–yet still wacky–world of Marvel psuedo-science. That Branagh manages to sell the audience on planets full of trolls and garish, warring beefcakes existing in the same universe as Downey’s Tony Stark is a sign of his directorial talent. That he also makes Thor into a compelling character and sells us a souped-up comic as a dressed-down Shakespearean drama is kind of impressive.
Despite that added level of sophistication, adults expecting to find the same class as Branagh’s Hamlet or Henry V will likely be bewildered by Chris Hemsworth’s blond locks and glam sci-fi get-up, complete with jumbo hammer that could have fallen off of Fred Flinstone’s quarry pile. This is still a Marvel comic superhero tale and Branagh stages it like a big sprawling, colorful adventure through worlds both fantastic and mundane.
What works is that the director understands the Bard’s populist undercurrents and uses them to tell a story that feels both familiar and operatic. The same beats of paternal tension and corrupting power are here, it’s just that this time when portents of doom are spoken they are done so by people wearing costumes that look as if they were thieved from Dolph Lundgren’s Masters of the Universe movie. Branagh and his team of writers –a whopping six according to the credits—re-envision the comic’s blustery, straight-faced crusader as a penultimate man’s man, built of heroic cloth but also harboring a boisterous, blustery brat deep down in his celestial heart.
Chris Hemsworth, last seen as Jim Kirk’s dad in the prologue to Abram’s Star Trek, is Thor, heir apparent to the throne of Asgard. When the reckless youth is tricked by his brother Loki into attacking the Frost giants of Jotunheim he ruptures a centuries old peace and incites the wrath of his dad, Odin. Both brothers fall short of their father’s expectations. Loki’s trip to Jotunheim has instilled doubt about his origins, while Thor’s arrogance causes Odin to strip him of his powers and send him plummeting down to Earth to learn how to play well with others. The implicit familial tragedy drives the tale, and when the old king falls into the Odinsleep, a rest from which he may not awake, the arena is wide open for a royal rumble.
On Earth, Thor must begin the painful process of learning humility. He’s just a man in Midgard (Marvel’s Earth), possessed of a great hunger and worthy fighting skills but also cursed with the caveat of mortality and physical fragility. A warrior who once withstood the fists of rampaging giants is now dispatched with an intern’s tazer. When Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team run him down in the desert, Thor is cast into the orbit of human cares and human love. Back in Asgard, Loki takes the throne and schemes with the Jotun king Laffe (Colm Feore) while Thor’s battle buds, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif, conspire to retrieve their banished comrade. All of this drama culminates in New Mexico where agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have sequestered Thor’s hammer, Mjolner, embedded in rock Excalibur style awaiting a man of worth to set it free.
The cast does much to make all of this work. The scenes in Asgard are undoubtedly the hardest and also the most fun. Branagh keeps his players on point and saves us the embarrassment of watching stiff actors struggle in turgid, clumsy costumes. Hemsworth turns in star-making work as Thor, capturing the nobility and bravery of the titular hero as well as his impetuous and brutish qualities. He’s not just chiseled, he’s also charming. Whether he’s sharing small tender moments with Portman, who’s mostly cute window dressing, or doing battle with giant CGI impositions like the fire-breathing Destroyer, Hemsworth captures the heart of the character. His real contribution is making Thor’s change of heart actually register as a life-changing event, even when it’s coming after about an hour of screen time.
Anthony Hopkins does some of his best supporting work of late by making Odin Allfather aristocratic, strong-willed and also rather sad and weary. In his one eye shines the burnished soul of one who has fought many battles and found surviving more difficult than death. The Avengers cinematic universe has so far lacked a strong and worthwhile villain but Tom Hiddleston changes that by making Loki a multi-faceted creature, filled with lofty ambition and burning with bitter, frustrated desire. When he locks horns with Hemsworth there’s something classically epic about their light-vs-dark struggle and he holds the promise of a strong antagonist for future adventures.
Asano, Stevenson, Dallas and Alexander have good chemistry as Thor’s Asgardian friends, even if they seem to be waiting around for the sequel before they shine. Portman, Skarsgård and Dennings are also fine as the Earthlings but mostly exist as Thor’s cheerleaders. The scenes between Portman and Hemsworth are slight and chaste but exude a certain sweetness that a better movie might have extrapolated. Jeremy Renner has an un-credited cameo as future Avenger Hawkeye, but he’s only there to check off a box. It’s Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson that efficiently connects the franchise dots. Gregg better get something legitimately interesting to do in Whedon’s movie because he’s earned it with his consistently amusing straight-man cameos here and in Iron Man.
Ultimately, this is still a movie that plays more like an advertisement for buy-in from the summer movie audience. The filmmakers set up their wares, establish the mythology, and then tease the edges of a larger story. What this does is make Thor an occasionally frustrating experience due to the narrative ease with which dramatic events occur. Still, the framework is sturdy and the players appealing and Branagh shows panache both in the perfunctory exposition scenes and in the bigger, more explosive action moments. I enjoyed the way the movie wastes no time getting us right into the fantastical world of Asgard and then routing back us to Earth after we understand the scale and grandeur of the story.
Marvel is taking a slight risk in opening up their universe in this way and embracing the cheesier and more comical elements that exist there. In a twist I really like, Thor and his people are treated less like mystical gods and more like dimensional travelers who stopped in long enough to inspire the Vikings to put down the mead and write up a mythos. That Bifrost the rainbow bridge is both a literal structure and also an Einstein-Rosen bridge through space and time is one of my favorite touches. Thor too, isn’t shy about flying around like Superman or spinning his hammer as if it were the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil.
There are the usual references to other films, a hilarious Stan Lee cameo, and an after-credits sequence that teases yet another mainstay of the Marvel universe, although these visual associations are getting harder to identify for the non-comic geek. Despite fan service and a truncated structure that purposefully requires sequels, Thor emerges as the best of the Avengers-related movies yet released. Here’s a story told with craft, skill, possessing a thematic lesson worthy of even a God; fate is fickle, and sometimes even the mighty experience turbulence. Some days you eat the troll, some days the troll eats you.