Thor should not, by any conventional logic, work as well as it does. It introduces magic, parallel dimensions, and Gods into a universe that was previously based in hard (er, semi-hard) science; carries with it a grand, complex mythology; features over-the-top costumes and fighting abilities; and has a plot that is unsettlingly similar to the horrible live-action Masters of the Universe movie. It was not just Marvel’s greatest challenge up to that point, but one of the more difficult properties any film studio had ever tried adapting.
Yet Thor works, not despite of any of these issues, but because it embraces them all warmly and pushes forth with confidence and bravado. Kenneth Branagh was an ingenious choice for director, as his Shakespearean sensibilities allowed him to take this material seriously. He never once shies away from the grandeur of Asgard, or the demigod nature of his title character, but instead finds clear and compelling reasons for us to invest in this new, cosmic mythology. Thor is, at heart, a simple story of jealousy, arrogance, and brotherhood, and because we can all relate to these universal issues, the action remains palatable no matter how fantastic it becomes.
Branagh’s visual and textual depiction of Asgard is awe-inspiring, so much so that one wonders if more fun could have been had keeping the characters away from Earth for an entire film. But Thor’s exile is the best way to make his character arc feel intimate, and Branagh still maintains a strong sense of cosmic significance.
The key to the film’s success, as always, is the casting, and I cannot imagine a more perfect fit for Thor than Chris Hemsworth. Just as immediately perfect in his part as Robert Downey Jr. was in Iron Man, Hemsworth simply owns the role. His utter confidence and arrogance can be emotionally compelling and raucously hilarious, often at the same time, and he is just as adept in the quiet moments as he is in the bombastic ones. It is a tremendous performance. I may not know what it would be like to meet a real Norse God, but if I ever came face-to-face with one, I imagine he would look, sound, and act exactly like Chris Hemsworth.
Thor is also notable as the first Marvel film to have a true, standout villain, one who is just as interesting as the hero. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki certainly fits that bill. He is not ‘evil,’ per se, so much as conflicted and corrupted by jealousy and his own staggering intelligence. Loki can be a physical force, but he is mostly an intellectual one, using his mind to manipulate his foes. Hiddleston is so effective in the part that it’s little surprise Joss Whedon chose to make him antagonist in The Avengers as well. It’s a breakout performance in every sense of the term.
The supporting cast is good – Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and especially Idris Elba are particular standouts – and Branagh’s cinematography, while over reliant on canted angles, is generally excellent. The film has its problems – Portman and Hemsworth may share tremendous chemistry, but their romance is criminally underdeveloped – but they are easy to overlook. Thor is a unique and entertaining superhero film, one that proved there was much more to Marvel Studios than just Iron Man. I cannot wait to see this franchise explored in future films.
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