Director Kenneth Branagh brings his own distinct set of directing skills to another of Marvel’s heroes, resulting in a wonderfully crowd-pleasing fantasy action picture.
Thor is the next in Marvel’s massively ambitious campaign to stitch together their Avengers stable of characters to eventually converge into Joss Whedon’s 2012 Avengers film. Following after Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, and preceding this summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor adds another character to the roster and builds toward Marvel’s master plan. With it, I count myself considerably more excited for the endgame. Director Kenneth Branagh has put together a hugely entertaining and genuinely stirring fantasy action picture.
Relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth plays the titular character, who, in a fit of ignorance and blind rage after a trio of Frost Giants (who were once at war with Asgard) attempt an attack on Asgard, ventures to their realm and tries to fight all of them. Failing, he is cast out of his home Asgard and stripped of his powers by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor plummets to Earth, smack into New Mexico and the lap of a young astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman) as she searches for an anomaly that she has been chasing for months. Thor moves through Earth with a nearly childlike ignorance and destructive temper. Predictably, Jane falls for Thor within a matter of hours. Up in Asgard, Odin has fallen ill, and his other son Loki (Tom Hiddelston) has assumed the throne as king of Asgard. Anyone remotely familiar with Marvel Comics or Nordic mythology will recognize Loki as the God of Mischief, and, of course, the villain of the picture. The storyline essentially centers around Thor trying to regain his powers and recover his hammer Mjolnir so that he can return to Asgard and make amends with his father. It is Loki’s plan, however, to keep Thor exiled on Earth, Odin in his slumber, and to destroy the enemies of Asgard.
Easily the best element of the film is the interplay between Thor, Odin, and Loki. Kenneth Branagh, who has essentially only ever directed Shakespearean productions and a couple of films based on classic literature, is the perfect example of a fine actor’s director. The man knows how to handle the players on his set, and turns out some truly remarkable performances from the trio. It helps that the scenes that take place in Asgard have a distinctly Shakespearean flavor (with perhaps a bit of Gladiator) in the family dynamics. By far, Loki is the most well-developed character in the film. Far from Marvel’s usual mustache-twirling villain, Loki is a hurt and misunderstood son who feels betrayed and unloved in the shadow of Thor. Most of the evil that Loki does in the film stems from what he feels is the necessary action as his father’s successor. The scenes in which Thor, Loki, and Odin interact are the strongest in the film. The end result is a film that feels like a sweeping Shakespearean production wrapped in a colorful Nordic mythology wrapping. Of course, the movie still belongs to Thor and his own character arc that takes him from arrogant god, to humble human, and finally to courageous and selfless god (and one scene toward the end that illustrated his newfound heroism was truly touching), was also extremely well-executed.
The film isn’t all familial rivalry and character drama, however; it knows how to have a lot of fun as well. During the Earth scenes, there is a very distinct sense of lightheartedness. One-liners zing back and forth and Thor’s boyish ignorance is entertaining to watch, as well as the human characters and their reactions to the fantastical events that occur around them (a high point in the film is when a small handful of Thor’s allies venture to Earth to attempt to rescue him, and parade through the small town in their full armor as the townsfolk look on in shock). It’s fairly remarkable just how well Branagh balances the heaviness of Asgard and the silliness of Earth.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Marvel Studios production without a healthy amount of action, and Thor delivers just that in spades. While there are several times where the environment in which the action takes place is excessively dark, and some of the shots are too shaky and close up, the rest of the action is well put together, appropriately rough, and exciting. Thor swings, throws, and spins his hammer to lay waste to Frost Giants, and it looks nice and brutal when it connects and shatters his enemies. It really establishes Thor as the powerhouse that the namesake deserves. On Earth, Thor can hold his own as a mortal as well, in a small handful of hand to hand action sequences. While there might not be as much action as some other comic book films, it is still plenty exciting.
Looking at the production design, it becomes clear that this is by far the most ambitious project Marvel has ever worked on. The production designer for the film put together a positively beautiful vision of Asgard, with gold and crystal structures rising out of the rock, a rainbow bridge leading to a golden portal to the other realms, and the edge of each realm signified by the sunlight dissolving into space as the water pours over in an endless waterfall. It’s a sight to behold, and must be experienced on the big screen. Unexpectedly, the music score was entirely fantastic. Written by Patrick Doyle and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the film’s music was sweeping and epic, again perfectly conveying the majesty of Asgard and the power of its denizens. In fact, I think this may be the best work Doyle has done thus far. There are times when I notice a film soundtrack, and then there are times when I actively listen to it. Thor was certainly the latter, and by the end of the film was one of the most memorable elements.
Going into Thor, I was somewhat excited but wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. I certainly was not expecting the characters to be so well developed. The tonal shifts in the film feel totally natural, and the Marvel’s surprise move in bringing Branagh on as the director paid off magnificently in the Shakespeare-inspired scenes between the members of Thor’s family. Thor also feels like the first true “comic book” movie in years and does not attempt to become overly realistic as other comic book movies seem to want to do. The special effects and production are a sight to behold, and the main players do their part very well and play off each other excellently. This is, by far, one of the most completely satisfying and flat-out entertaining films I have seen so far this year.
Score: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence.