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Non-Review Review: Thor

A special thanks to the guys over at movies.ie for sneaking us into an advanced preview screening.

To paraphrase the immortal Odin-son, “I say thee yay!”

In other words, a great start to blockbuster season.

If I had a hammer...

Note: Those unfamiliar with Thor might like to take a look at my informal introduction to the mythos, but – to be honest – Branagh handles it well enough you’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ve also written a piece about the film over at ComicBuzz, if you want to check it out.

It has been suggested that Thor is Marvel’s answer to Superman. Kenneth Branagh makes a very strong case, perhaps coming closer than any director to capturing the epic fantasy and warm humanity which has made Richard Donner’s Superman a classic for well over a generation. I had honestly worried that Thor, the most fantastic of Marvel’s three leading Avengers, would be the most difficult to transition to the big screen, but Branagh offers us a movie that feels as snug as a flowing red cape.

It’s clear to see where the director’s influences lie. He may have been Oscar-nominated for Henry V or given us the truest version of Hamlet ever to make it to the big screen, but here Branagh displays an obvious affection for the true classics, the progenitors of today’s superhero films, without veering too far into the ridiculous or the camp.

He came, he Thor, he went...

There’s an obvious comparison to be made to Richard Donner’s two (well, one and a half) Superman films. The mystic realm of Asgard (and, in particular, the Frost Giant realm of Jotunheim) owe a large debt to the iconic design of the crystal Krypton, updated for a modern audience. There’s even a scene in the middle of the film where a small town is attacked by forces from beyond this world, while the government stands by helpless, and our hero is trapped by his own humanity – much like that great sequence from Superman II. Even Thor’s eventual ascent to godhood seems like a slight nod towards the Donner mythology.

There’s more. Branagh isn’t afraid of his subject material. He doesn’t hide his world in shadows or muted tones so as to play down the fantastical elements. Like the artwork of Jack Kirby, one of the creators of Thor, he fills the eye with yellows and reds and blues. He even has a fondness for dutch angles, a filming approach with subtly evokes the classic Batman! television show, without the burden of the associated camp.

I guess Odin is catching a 2D screening...

There are occasional problems. Asgard is breathtaking to look at, and the action sequences are generally incredible (including a trip off-world near the beginning), but sometimes it’s just a bit too much. Branagh seems a little too fond of slow motion, which is a shame – because one or two of the shots are absolutely stunning, but they’re drowned out by a drop-kick which seems to last thirty seconds. There’s also the issue of Thor flying, by use of his hammer. I know that Tony Stark jets around on an equally ridiculous premise, but there are moments when it just looks a little bit too much like Superman, with the character’s red cape billowing behind him. Still, these are minor complaints – and Branagh earns enough credit with the audience for us to overlook them.

That’s not to say that Branagh is too focused on the past. As I mentioned, the special effects are stunning, but there are also elements which feel like they might be drawn from a more modern source. We’re introduced to the adult version of Thor on the day he is to receive the crown of Asgard, his birthright. It’s a great little sequence which Branagh uses to assure the viewer that, even in the court of the gods, things won’t get too stuffy. Thor arrives, looking like the champion quarterback, giving out winks and nods as he treats his sacred hammer like a toy, basking in the glory of this day: his day.

I am Thor, hear me roar!

It’s not too far from the introduction that Tony Stark received at the start of Iron Man 2, all ego and arrogance, solid in the belief that his cherished existence is relatively secure. Indeed, it’s remarkable how Branagh models his central arc on that of Favreau’s Iron Man. Thor, like Tony Stark, lives in the shadow of his father. Howard Stark worked on the attack bomb, while Odin is known as “the all-father” – that’s the sort of background where you need to become a superhero in order to avoid being a disappointment. Both Thor and Tony are overgrown children. Laufey, the king of the Frost Giants, describes Thor as “the boy desperate to prove he’s a man.” And he’s not far wrong.

While unconsciously seeking to appease their father figures, both Tony and Thor prove themselves entirely unworthy of the gifts bestowed on them. Thor nearly starts a war, to the point where his father grounds him on Earth and confiscates his own private toy – while Tony gets drunk in the Iron Man suit and alienates everyone close to him. In fairness, the idea of a son developing into his own man is a large chunk of all fiction, ever, so I’m not holding it against either film.

Well, controlling thunderstorms at least means you never have to worry about atmosphere...

I just find it fascinating that two of the four leads in the Avengers have very severe “daddy issues” and start out in a position too immature to wield their power. You could certainly even argue that the Bruce Banner of The Incredible Hulk is also irresponsible, and daddy issues get thrown into the mix if you consider Ang Lee’s Hulk (even though it’s not part of this cycle). And don’t get me started on Spider-Man, whose own irresponsibility effectively killed his surrogate father figure.

Of course, these are archetypes, and this is what Marvel’s Thor has always been most effective dealing with. After all, you could argue that superheroes are the modern equivalents of ancient pantheons, old gods in spandex and domino masks. What could be more self-aware than an old god as a superhero as a new god? Walt Simonson famously made Thor about cycles and death and reinvention of old concepts in new ways, and Branagh gets that. I mean, really, honest-to-goodness gets that.

Is Thor a stick in the mud?

At one point, the token Scandinavian character remarks that Thor reminds him of the stories he read as a child – he could just as easily be talking about comic books as Norse mythology (though later scenes imply he did in fact mean the mythology). Later on, as the Warriors Three wander into town like something from a Western, a SHIELD agent reports that “Xena, Jackie Chan and Robin Hood” have arrived, immediately tying these Norse gods to more modern popular concepts which pre-date this particular iteration of the Warriors Three. So they are simultaneously older and younger than the examples cited.

I remember reading about Branagh’s interview for the job. He effectively went into the meeting with a stack of comics and just read them. Kenneth Branagh – one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his generation – speaking Stan Lee’s dialogue because he loves and grew up with it? They really should have put a tape recorder in the room and released it as an audio CD with the recent omnibus edition. I’d buy that.

Sparks fly...

My point is simple: what makes Thor effective is the self-aware way that it channels ancient mythology through pop culture mythology. The central father-sons arc of Branagh’s film is so effective because it is played so perfectly and incredibly straight. It’s not complicated or convoluted. You could take the basic emotional arcs for the major players (Thor, Odin and Loki) and act them out in a garage and they’d still be compelling. It’s the story of a father and his two sons struggling with their roles and identities, told as just that. It’s King Lear, it’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, it’s Stan Lee’s superhero spectacular!

My favourite sequence in the entire film isn’t a big one, or a loud one. It’s a quiet one. Odin has cursed (or magicked) Thor’s hammer so only somebody “worthy” can hold it. Loki is wandering around, trying to seem inconspicuous. He looks around a bit to be sure nobody can see him as he moves closer to the hammer. Not because he’s doesn’t want them to see him hold it, but because he doesn’t want them to witness the embarrassing failure he knows is coming. He slowly reaches out and touches it, feigning casual disinterest. “Ah, sure, why not?” his body language seems to suggest as he gives it a gentle tug. And then he starts pulling harder… and harder… but it won’t move.

Hes a little bit Loki...

It’s a rare moment of honesty featuring the character, but it’s powerful. It’s the moment which makes it clear that Loki doesn’t want to succeed his father or take the throne of Asgard. He just wants, for once, to be as “worthy” as his brother is. He wants the things that come so easily to Thor, but don’t come to him at all.

It’s odd that this film, set amidst a magical fantasy landscape, should be the most human of the major Marvel motion pictures. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is one of the great comic book villains because the actor (and the writers and the director) understand his relationship to Thor. He isn’t an ideological opposite to the hero of the piece, like the Joker is to Batman or Magneto is to Professor X, he’s a brother trapped somewhere between hate and love for those close to him. He wants the exact same thing that he thinks Thor got so easily – the love and acceptance of those around him. The Warriors Three follow Thor into battle with little hesitation, but they struggle to acknowledge Loki’s right to the throne.

Hammering it home?

If the film has a weakness, it’s that the earthbound scenes aren’t quite as fascinating as the interplay between the gods. While Branagh’s Asgard ensemble includes actors as diverse as Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander and Idris Elba (in a superb role… “he’s a very complicated fellow”), the scenes set on Earth struggle with relatively bland performances from Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgård. On the other hand, there is Kat Dennings. I believe that her role was beefed up during filming, and I can genuinely believe it. Dennings takes a role that should be cringeworthy, but makes it fun. It’s partially the line-readings, partially the body language, but it just works.

Film fans will be relieved to hear that the SHIELD stuff works a lot better here than it did in Iron Man 2. For one thing, there’s less of it. For another, their involvement in the plot makes a lot more sense – and it’s a lot more direct and to the point than the “will they/won’t they” thing that SHIELD had with Stark. Thor and SHIELD are put on exactly the same page about the upcoming Avengers film with one line of dialogue, rather than an entire subplot. Plus, Gregg Clark is great as Agent Coulson again, and there’s no Samuel L. Jackson wandering in and out of shot to distract from him (I maintain the SHIELD role in Iron Man 2 should have been one character rather than three). It’s interesting that the movie portrays the group as a lot more morally ambiguous than the previous films, having them steal information from right out of people’s hands (“took”, “stole”, “borrowed”, it’s all the same).

"Son of Coul"...

However, the central strength of the film is undoubtedly the central performances from Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. Both are superb in their respective roles, with Hemsworth even managing a ridiculous quasi-British accent with a strange dignity. “You dare touch the god of thunder?” he demands of some puny mortals, and looks to buy himself a horse to quest on from the local petshop. A weaker actor would turn the movie into farce, while Hemsworth makes it endearing and witty. Hiddleston works equally well, given that he doesn’t get the same opportunity for scenery chewing that previous Marvel villains have had (in fairness, it’s a line-up that includes Tim Roth, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke and, if I may, Sam Rockwell). Instead, Loki seems a far more “human” antagonist, rather than a guy who is indulging in evil for the sake of evil.

So, Thor succeeds in offering something a bit different to film audiences. Indeed, with two period piece superhero films (Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class) and the space-bound Green Lantern, this looks to be the “alternative” superhero summer (especially when compared to next year’s relatively straightforward, but huge, glut of them). Thor kicks the season to a remarkable star and, to be honest, I think I can say that this is the strongest of the Marvel Studio movies to date. So, yes, it is truly worthy to possess the power Thor. And, more than that, Kenneth Branagh too.

10 Responses

  1. Awesome! Great to hear you liked it Darren. I was looking forward to this flick.

    • Yep, there’s a lot to love. I really skipped over how awesome Anthony Hopkins was as Odin, simply because Stan Lee’s dialogue was meant to be delivered in the style he uses. The movie opens with about three minutes of exposition which should be alienating, but Hopkins owns it. And then there the “Whosoever holds this hammer…” bit. At the climax, it gave me chills.

      I only hope Reynolds can make “In brightest day…” sound half as good in Green Lantern.

  2. Another positive review…I hope my expectations don’t get too big in the next month. Thor has always been my favorite Marvel character, but even I was questioning this film. Nice write-up.

    • Thanks Red. I have a soft spot for Thor, I must confess. Not my favourite, but certainly one of the more unique superheroes out there.

  3. The preview clips for this have been incredibly, depressingly bad and have kind of clouded over my excitement for the film (the “hey look it’s Hawkeye!” clip in particular broke my heart), so this is good to hear. Just keep in mind that by giving this movie you’ve, like, shown your support of Marvel’s social engineering or whatever.

    • The Hawkeye bit would be a bit much if not for the fact it’s his only scene in the film. As opposed to an entire subplot of “OMG! It’s Black Widow!” in Iron Man 2.

      And if social engineering means good actors like Idris Elba in juicy rules, you’re damn right I wholeheartedly endorse this product or service!

  4. I missed this review of yours, good thing it was on your sidebar. Can’t wait to see it this weekend. I was a bit skeptical because of the trailers but I had been looking forward to it when I first heard Branagh was involved. Glad to hear this isn’t your run-of-the-mill superhero flick. Great review as always, Darren.

  5. Didn’t read this until I’d seen it for myself but you hit on some great points here. I’m really getting pumped for “Avengers” now.

    http://www.undy-a-hundy.com/?p=1740

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