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A Sight for Thor Eyes: Thoughts on the Set Design of Thor…

The first on-set photographs of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor have arrived on-line. And a lot of people are, understandably, turned off. I’ll be honest, I can see where they’re coming from: it’s camp and kitsch in a way that would allow it to serve as a backdrop for an Abba music video – and that ain’t the demographic we’re going for here. Anthony Hopkins looks like he has fashioned his eyepatch out of Ferraro Roche wrappers. However I, ever the contrarian in small and insignificant ways, love it. Let’s call it the Donner factor. Because that’s much more sophisticated than “the Superman factor”.

I think that style is quite super...

I am, of course, alluding to the presentation of Krypton in Richard Donner’s Superman. It’s a planet literally carved out of crystal – perhaps reflected in the gold here – where its near mythical inhabitants dress in flowing robes and seem to amble everywhere. Even in the wake of an attempted military coup and as its leading scientist proclaims the world would end, the Kryptonians move as if time is infinite. If Superman is Jesus, that makes Krypton heaven and it residents angels. It seems somewhat fitting Branagh would design his own sets in these terms.

Even today, the stylised nature of the original superhero blockbuster stands up. Metropolis is a city that is simultaneously all of America and none of it. It’s the fifties America that we remember with a vague sense of nostalgia, but never existed. It’s the style which defined the earlier superhero films, arguably defined by Burton’s Gotham, a monument to a darker, fascist thirties that we ever so luckily avoided.

Since then, the tendency has been to ground these creations in the real world. Nolan’s Gotham recalls Chicago, in architecture and social structure. Sam Raimi’s New York is perhaps a little brighter than the real Big Apple, but it made a conscious effort to retain the city’s unique energy. Jon Favreau boasts that Iron Man is the first big-screen West Coast superhero. The trend is more towards the real world than in stylised set design. And, let’s just admit there’s an elephant in the room, that is probably due to the… less than stellar Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. There, I said it.

It’s a shame that we lost that element of hyper-stylised comic book visual. Of course, there are exceptions – the crisp visuals of 300, the stylised noir of Sin City or the attempt at stylised noir of The Spirit – but these are all computer-generated and influenced. They’re all practically animated – or at least a fusion between live action and animation. I miss the grandiose architecture which used to define these sorts of productions. You could argue that the style dates back to the original Hollywood epics – Cleopatra, for example – and has only really remained alive through the visual opportunities of comic book storytelling. Instead of an emphasis on what’s real, an attempt to offer the audience a heavily stylised backdrop – something too often given to CGI these days.

Im keeping an eye on this one...

Indeed, most of the movies which followed seemed a conscious reaction to those films. It suddenly seemed that comic book movies had to grow up. To become grim and serious in order to be taken seriously – as much as they are, anyway. And this suited the movies. Batman works as an almost noir superhero. The X-Men work best when the camp is turned down (not least due to the issues that they deal with).

However, the comic books which inspired these films have undergone a reaction to this trend themselves – embracing the previously taboo Silver Age. Looking at these images, the first thing that occurred to me was that Branagh might be going for something similar – a conscious homage to the era of overwhelming superhero set design. After all, it isn’t like this hero is a geneticist or an arms dealer – he’s a god. He carries a big hammer. In the comics, he speaks in ye olde English. He has a plait. And a helmet with horns. He doesn’t exact scream “cool and edgy”.

Hell, even the casting of Anthony Hopkins harks back to Brando in Superman, a respected Oscar-winner “slumming it” in a movie starring an unknown. Indeed, it was Ebert himself who famously suggested that superhero movies became a credible genre with Brando’s fourteen minute cameo.

So yes, it looks a little camp and maybe even a little self-consciously stylised. But there’s got to be something good to the fact that the first association it formed in my mind was to the the grandfather of the genre. I have to admit that – while my hopes for Captain America: The First Avenger have entered freefall – I have seen and heard nothing that leads me to doubt Kenneth Branagh’s other adaptation. And this is from a guy who doesn’t know Thor from Adam.

Of course, like Green Lantern, it’s the trailer that will be make-or-break time, but so far I’m more than a little enthuised.

8 Responses

  1. Those stills look really impressive.
    It’s amazing how the film and TV world themselves are edging in on and impacting on the comic world so heavily. I remember reading how Chloe in Smallville almost changed the whole structure of Superman comic books, before they realised she was too similar to Lois, among other reasons.

    With the standard of films out this year, I think I’m anticipating TV series more than films…for the probably the first time in years! Namely, The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire. The images circulating regarding both look really good.

  2. Yeah… Thor may end up feeling like a strange fit in the whole Avengers film universe. I’ll hold off judgement until I see more but I am a little worried. He’s already one of my least favorite Avengers.

    • Yep. He’s the one I go “meh” to. I mean, I can even peg Antman as a wifebeater, but Thor has no distinct identity, beyond being kidnapped from Norse mythology. On the upside, I thought the Comic Con trailer looked quite decent.

  3. I’m really curious to see how a guy like Tony Stark reacts to the existence of Thor. What I’m less invested in is actually seeing how Thor pans out, as the current crop of stills looks…well, hokey. Like, Flash Gordon hokey. But without the Flash Gordon sensibilities. Seeing characters in costume, all I can think is that someone made cos-play outfits for these actors or bought them get-ups from a Halloween outlet.

    I want to believe in Thor but I have not at all been impressed. It’s not a problem with real-world grounding or stylization– they just look really, really low-rent.

    But I agree that TV looks crazy good this year. Walking Dead in particular looks amazing.

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