Blockbuster season 2011 officially kicks off, as Chris Hemsworth stars in Kenneth Branagh's film of Thor. So is it any good?
Of all of Marvel’s most recognisable superheroes, Thor was destined to be the most difficult to translate to screen. When Stan Lee conceived the character in 1962, he used the original Norse myths as a base, added speech patterns cribbed from the King James Bible, then pitted the character against the most natural opponents for a Norse god: the communists.
Those factors, combined with Jack Kirby’s iconic (but arguably inappropriate) red, yellow and blue superhero-style costume make Thor an odd mish-mash of ideas, a hero who has been repeatedly reinvented since.
When so many elements of the character actively resist a cinematic take, it makes sense for director Kenneth Branagh and his team to have pulled together several interpretations of the character for the screen interpretation. In doing so, they might actually have created the definitive version of Thor.
Beginning in the desert of New Mexico, Thor opens with expert physicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), investigating an atmospheric disturbance with her team. No prizes for guessing which God of Thunder interrupts things by falling out of the sky. Immediately, the film flashes back a thousand years, hoping to bring you up to speed with Asgard, its inhabitants, and the cold war (no pun intended) against the frost giants of Jotunheim that provides the background for the film’s events.
As an opening, it’s a little rough. There’s a lot of information being packed in, and the combination of wonderfully epic visuals, soaring music and deep-voiced narration means that you’ll start to feel as though you just walked into one of those all beauty, no substance IMAX documentaries, rather than a summer blockbuster. Where Iron Man started with explosions and guitar riffs, Thor threatens to talk you to into an early slumber.
Thankfully, once you get past the exposition, things start to get good. Really good.
Placed squarely at the centre of the film is the relationship between two brothers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). With the throne of Asgard at stake, both battle for the approval of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose wise rule has kept Asgard at peace for a thousand years. With his life coming to an end, war once again threatens their world, and both sons have their own ideas on how to handle it.
It’s a great character conflict, and one that easily translates to a political, plot-driven scale. Branagh positively revels in the tradition of ancient pantheons, in which the affairs of gods are decidedly human in motivation.
As Thor, Hemsworth gives the film its heart. His take on the character is a good-natured, but fiery-tempered lug, ruled by emotions rather than logic. By contrast, Hiddleston gives Loki a cerebral, deceptive ambiguity that means you’ll be guessing about the character’s true motivations and feelings to the last. Hopkins, meanwhile, has all the gravitas and severity that you’d expect from the father of the gods, yet steals entire scenes with a quiver of his voice. Three different but equally enjoyable performances.
Sadly, whoever hired Natalie Portman seems to have only paid for the No Strings Attached Portman, rather than the full Black Swan version. As a romantic foil and narrative chess piece, she supports her end of the bargain, but whenever she’s on screen alongside supporting actress, Kat Dennings (who, as Foster’s co-worker, Darcy, is quirky, funny, and warm), you can’t help but think they cast the wrong actress. It's no surprise to hear that Dennings' role was allegedly beefed up during filming, because, unlike the actual romantic lead, you can't help but fall a little bit in love with her.
With a strong sense of what its true story is, the movie is able to flit between the mundane and the grand without fear of jarring its audience, because the characters can easily make the same transition. None of the battles feel perfunctory. You care about the fate of every god you meet, from the conflicted, yet dutiful Heimdall (Idris Elba) to the swashbuckling and loyal Fandral. And the high emotion coexists with a light vein of comedy that prevents the film from ever feeling too po-faced. It’s fun, but at the same time, it’s true to the reality it has created.
Although the upconverted 3D adds nothing of value (just go see it in 2D, if only for solidarity with Odin, who lacks depth perception), the visuals and effects are flawless and engaging. You’ll believe a god can fly.
Asgard, in particular, looks great. Branagh and his team have managed to create something that simultaneously looks both futuristic and archaic, a unique fantasy world the likes of which we haven’t ever seen on the big screen before.
The film plays up the suggestion that magic is merely advanced science, and the design of Bifröst alone makes you believe such a premise. For a film that ultimately needs to integrate alongside the likes of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, this is no small hurdle to have leapt.
Indeed, if you’re interested in how the film ties into the ongoing narrative of Marvel’s filmic universe, you won’t be disappointed. Between the (admittedly cynical) cameo of a certain avenging archer and a traditional post-credits surprise, Thor offers the strongest hints yet at what we can expect to see in The Avengers. And let’s face it, we’d be disappointed if it didn’t.
It might not be perfect. I’d argue there’s at least one important beat missing from Thor’s character arc, regarding his changing attitude towards the Frost Giants. But when the film had the potential to go so badly wrong, it’s hard not to be impressed by the results. Branagh has created a version of Thor that realises the hero’s potential without getting bogged down by his patchwork history.
With fantastic effects, strong characters and a story you’ll find yourself wanting to see again straight afterwards, Thor kicks off the summer in style. Even if it occasionally stumbles, most blockbusters don’t even try to reach the heights Thor attains. It definitely enters Marvel Studios’ canon somewhere near the top, and if nothing else, it’s made life much, much more difficult for Captain America. It's just become the film to beat this summer.