The summer season begins and in no better way, with a bang. I have to admit ever since I heard Kenneth Branagh, the popular Thespian actor and director, was going to be directing a mega budget version of Thor from the Marvel comics, I was as excited as a giddy little school boy. My thought was precisely the same as Natalie Portman‘s when campaigning for the lead female role of Jane Foster. She said “Kenneth Branagh doing Thor is super-weird, I’ve gotta do it.” Or in my case, I need to see this.
As we heard of all kinds of stories around the production about the 3D, the reshoots and Chris Hemsworth‘s acting ability, my anticipation lowered somewhat. But then we saw trailers and more of the marketing and I was back to the giddy school boy again. This is a film that is sincere in intention but knows how silly parts of it actually are. Branagh is an incredibly intelligent man and he knows that the story of Thor is essentially a silly comic book conceit. So very much like Jon Favreau did with Iron Man, you underpin it with a sense of humor and make it a rollicking good time.
And at the very least Thor accomplishes this with ease. This is a film that deserves to cement its lead actor, Chris Hemsworth as a bankable Hollywood star and make Kenneth Branagh a name director among the Hollywood circles. Surprisingly for a massive Hollywood product, that has been messed around with multiple times by the very hands on producer Kevin Fiege, this is a film with a big heart. You can tell that everyone involved in this wanted so much to make it work and make it an enjoyable time.
The story of the film essentially works to set up the character of Thor and the world of Asgard, an alternative universe where there are nine realms, each inter connected via ‘bridges’. Asgard is the home of the Norse Gods of old, ruled over by Odin (played with fearsome power by Anthony Hopkins) but as he ages he realises that me must pass on the crown of King to one of his sons, Thor or Loki (a menacing Tom Hiddleston).
Being the eldest, and seemingly the more powerful of the two, Thor is given the throne. However on the day of his coronation, Asgard is broken into by 3 ‘Frost Giants’ from the realm of Jotenheim. They attempt to take back The Casket of Ancient Winters, that was won by Odin from the King Laufey in a battle years before and subsequently giving Asgard the power of the nine realms.
This break in prompts Thor to travel with his brother and cohorts to the realm of Jotenheim to confront Laufey and threaten them, against the wishes of Odin. However an unforeseen battle ensues which puts Asgard on the brink of war. For his recklessness, Thor is banished to Earth, losing the majority of his power. He lands in New Mexico, where astro physicist Jane Foster, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis are studying the night sky. Initially believing Thor to be delusional, they soon realise there is much more at stake.
Let’s start off by saying that the film is thoroughly enjoyable, I enjoyed it so much that the retrofitted-post production conversion-’dimensionalized’-whatever 3D work didn’t even bother me. It’s very well directed, casted and acted, the design is close to flawless and the two hours simply drift by. It sets an awesomely high bar for the rest of the summer blockbusters to come this year. I was gripped from the beginning and felt that by the end that I had completely got my money’s worth. I haven’t been this entertained in a cinema since J.J. Abrams‘ Star Trek reboot, and believe me there is no higher praise. I have to admit part of my delight in wanting to watch Thor was to see how cataclysmically Kenneth Branagh could fuck up a comic book action movie.
The idea of him doing it sounds completely ludicrous. A man known for Shakespeare attacking this genre, a silly comic book movie, was bound for a critical lashing. However there is no one better suited to it and with this, not only does he show he can put on dramatics but also how much of a spectacle he can put on too. Thor looks dazzling, the production design and visual effects are amazing. A lot of it is very ‘designed’ and this is clearly a fantasy world, it isn’t going for realism.
Therefore, pulling in production designer Bo Welch is a genius idea, he knows how to create stylised fantasy from his collaboration with Tim Burton but also the corporate world (which clashes with the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D.) from his work on Men in Black. The costumes worn by the characters of Asgard are fabulous, at times some of the worlds do look a bit sub-Lord of the Rings, but for the most part there is complete belief in the world that Branagh and his team have created to go completely all out with it.
You could criticise a lot of the design for being completely ridiculous and over the top, but believe me, the film knows how silly it is. We are invited to look through the eyes of the ‘human’ characters, especially of Jane and Erik, and suddenly, as an audience, we realise that we are allowed to laugh at this and at the way the character of Thor acts. There is a beautifully done moment when Thor’s friends and Asgard warriors: Sif, Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun arrive to take Thor back to defeat Loki. As they walk down a New Mexico street in the terrifically theatrical Asgard costumes, it is genuinely funny. The human characters think it’s funny and we do to. The film’s collected tongue is firmly in cheek during some of those moments.
However Branagh, in that humor shows a definite sincerity. If nothing, the sincerity comes from the performances, Branagh being an actor himself knows how to cast a movie and knows that seriousness comes from the actors you bring in. The cast list is usually what you expect to find in a classy drama not a big budget, summer blockbuster. However they’re all pretty much terrific in each of their roles. Portman and Skarsgard are great as they both usually are, Skarsgard is more avuncular here than before, but he’s an always watchable screen presence. And if this is Natalie Portman relaxing into less-heavy-acting mode after Black Swan, then this is a much better vehicle for her than the thoroughly awful No Strings Attached.
Anthony Hopkins manages to surprisingly not ham things up for once despite his role being over the top. He’s Odin for God’s sake, but it isn’t embarrassing, it’s almost the good side of his character from The Wolfman. Tom Hiddleston, who we will see next in War Horse, makes for a fantastic villain who does that most difficult of things, creating an antagonist where you actually sympathise with and understand his reasons.
Before we conclude, let me say that the film isn’t perfect, for all its delights and pleasures there are occasions where some of the dialogue and the awkward romantic moments just become a tad cringeworthy. Also, the film continues Marvel’s annoying tradition of tying in other franchises in order to lead to The Avengers. Here we have an entirely pointless cameo from Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, which in any other circumstance wouldn’t be a problem, but his character interrupts a fairly gripping set piece and although fun, that cameo just takes you out of the film for a little bit. There is a whole mystery there that isn’t explored.
Also for all the complaints about Idris Elba being the wrong actor for the role, the last thing to complain about his character is his skin colour. More appropriate is the criticism of not being able to understand a word he is saying as he mumbles his way through his role, and as a seemingly crucial role that is a problem. It also has that annoying directorial habit of Branaghs that when characters get a bit cross they display their anger by pushing over some furniture, which does raise a slight smile. In me anyway.
However for the most part, Thor is never a bore, it is thoroughly entertaining and delivers exactly what you would expect from its completely bonkers headline: ‘Thor, a film by Kenneth Branagh‘. I was cynical about it on being announced and I still can’t believe it has worked. The summer season has officially begun.