“Thor” probably needs no introduction, but for anyone who hasn’t visited a comic or movie themed website in the last year or who has somehow managed to avoid the advertising blitz, the film is the latest in the ongoing line of Marvel’s superhero outings, this time following the god of thunder and his adventures. Interestingly, the film, and indeed the fate of any continuing franchise, was placed not in the hands of some up and coming music video director or helmer known for breakneck-paced flashy visuals, but in those of Kenneth Branagh, the Oscar winning prime purveyor of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare.
It’s this more than the predictably huge budget which in itself suggests a certain ambition for the material and a determination to do things right, as does the interesting casting that sees Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (recently in the “Star Trek” reboot) taking on the mantle of the title role, with recently crowned Best Actress Natalie Portman as his love interest and British television actor Tom Hiddleston as his villainous brother Loki. Even more impressive are the supporting players, most notably Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgård, with Asian film fans likely to get a kick out of seeing cult Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu dipping his toes into the Hollywood waters.
The plot is basically a take on the currently popular origin story character arc, beginning in New Mexico with Thor crashing to earth, where he is found in the desert by Portman’s not particularly convincing scientist Jane Foster, her slightly cranky mentor Erik Selvig (Skarsgård) and her annoying comedy relief friend (Kat Dennings). The film then leaps back to reveal the reasons for his being cast down to earth, having been exiled from Asgard by his father Odin (Hopkins) after rekindling war with the planet of Frost Giants – handily establishing at the same time that he is a member of a race of omnipotent trans-dimensional beings who were the inspiration behind the original Norse gods. While poor Thor loses his mighty hammer and powers and generally struggles to come to terms with life on earth, Loki causes havoc back home, taking control and threatening to destroy his brother.
Without having any familiarity with the source material, it’s a little hard to say how faithful “Thor” is to the comics or the Marvel universe in general, though what can be said is that Branagh proves to be a brave and inspired choice of director, bringing real gravitas to what could have easily been an exercise in “Flash Gordon” style high camp. The plot itself does a great job of condensing an impressive amount of ground, not to mention a sweeping cast of characters, into a fast moving couple of hours, and though Thor’s character arc from arrogant warmonger to wise warrior is utterly predictable, it still carries weight and is sufficiently different to most other recent superhero films. Branagh’s Shakespearian leanings are evident throughout, as he focuses on the various struggles between the two brothers and their father, attaining a reasonable amount of emotional drama and conflict along the way.
Pleasingly, Branagh balances such weighty themes with some very effective comic relief, and this again serves well to defuse any threat of daft campness. If anything, the film is at its best and most entertaining during its many moments of humour, getting a lot of mileage out of Thor’s fish out of water style behaviour as he tries to adjust to the modern human age. The script is frequently very funny, making the most out of some priceless dialogue as he bellows “You dare attack the son of Odin?” at hospital attendants and anyone who inadvertently gets in his way. This does at times give the film the feel of a family friendly version of “Your Highness”, though it certainly benefits from not taking itself too seriously, especially given the essential ridiculousness of its premise and grandiose, shiny costumes and billowing capes.
The film delivers spectacularly in terms of special effects, and although the use of 3D is predictably lame, the visuals are stunning throughout, convincingly creating Asgard and giving the proceedings as a whole a winningly fantastic feel. The film also scores highly in the action stakes, with some thrilling set pieces and battle scenes, as Thor takes on legions of frost giants, a giant fire breathing golem, and eventually, inevitably, his brother. Hemsworth does a fine job as the hammer wielder, hitting just the right note of charisma and conceitedness, and the rest of the cast are similarly decent in their roles, with even Portman managing to edge her Jane Foster above eyelid fluttering romantic interest. It’s worth noting that Marvel fans are offered a few tantalising “Avengers” titbits here and there, with Jeremy Renner being briefly wedged in as Hawkeye, Samuel Jackson skulking around and dropping a few of his now de rigueur cryptic future plot hints, and with there being the usual post-credit teaser sequence.
These do add to the fun and the overall sense of Marvel continuity, and unlike some other recent comic book films, “Thor” gives an impression of having been genuinely crafted rather than having been rushed to the screen for the start of the money spinning holiday season. Although not particularly advancing the genre or offering anything unpredictable, Branagh does an excellent job of adding weight to the characters, while at the same time serving up plenty of big budget thrills and popcorn enjoyment.
Kenneth Branagh (director) / Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne (screenplay), J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich (story)
CAST: Chris Hemsworth … Thor
Natalie Portman … Jane Foster
Tom Hiddleston … Loki
Anthony Hopkins … Odin
Stellan Skarsgård … Erik Selvig
Kat Dennings … Darcy Lewis
Clark Gregg … Agent Coulson
Idris Elba … Heimdall
Ray Stevenson … Volstagg
Tadanobu Asano … Hogun
Josh Dallas … Fandral
Jaimie Alexander … Sif
Rene Russo … Frigga