By Matt Smith
To say that Thor is the most rousing comic book movie since Iron Man is to do the film a disservice. It’s one of the most entertaining movies of the year easily, and holds its own very well in the presence of the multiple superhero properties that have found their way to the screen since that first Marvel movie all the way back in 2008. Successfully juggling grandiose classical mythology and larger than life characters with (somewhat) realistic human drama and humor is no easy task, and director Kenneth Branagh, who has made several of the most successful adaptations of Shakespeare ever to see celluloid, proves that he has just the right sensibility for a superhero who is not conventional – a god, and who really is an odd fit in the Marvel Universe considering the other heroes that make up the super team The Avengers.
The movie provides a basic primer on the hero for non-comics fans: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is in fact the Norse god of thunder, who has been cast down, powerless and minus his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, to Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) while his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes a power play for the throne of Asgard. The film opens up the basic comic mythology with the introduction of a group of scientists (Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard) who have been studying aberrations in weather patterns which it turns out are caused by the gods traveling between realms. Oddly, Portman’s character Jane Foster has been retro-fitted for this scenario, and though she remains the love interest, she is not the nurse and employee of Thor’s comic book secret identity Dr. Donald Blake. The role was apparently updated to explain how she is in the desert and comes to meet Thor, but hey, it ends up working, so whatever. The scientists discover the downcast Thor in the desert, believe he is a crazy person, and the rest of the movie’s plot revolves around the pending war in Asgard with Loki and the Frost Giants, Thor’s convincing everyone he really is the god of thunder, and his quest to regain control of Mjolnir, which S.H.I.E.L.D. has locked down in the desert, and save Asgard.
Kenneth Branagh’s direction has been pointed out as a weakness by some, but I think it’s the film’s greatest strength, honestly. The actors all turn in entertaining performances (particularly Hiddleston, who I’m looking forward to as one of the main villains in The Avengers), but given the shift in tone between Asgard and Earth, with the latter containing many humorous fish-out-of-water moments and the former’s boom and bombast that comes with classical dialogue styled like Shakespeare read over a thunderstorm, Branagh proves to be the right choice for the job. Without a director who understands that style, and the need to shift tonality when coming down to the real world, the film could have been a complete mess. I also rather liked the visual aspect brought by his involvement. At times it’s overtly comic booky, all canted angles and piercing stares, and others it’s soft and charismatic. Hemsworth is a charmer for the camera, let me tell you.
If there’s one unremarkable aspect to the film, it’s the score, by Patrick Doyle, who has previously turned in strong work for films as varied as Carlito’s Way, Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Last Legion. He has also worked with Branagh before, notably on his 1996 version of Hamlet, where the score helps to put us in that ethereal state that pairs perfectly with Branagh’s lush, expansive visuals. Here the score merely limps along, sounding at points like it might pick itself up and do something, but ultimately leaving us dissatisfied, even longing for a poor man’s Danny Elfman, and feeling as characterless and lifeless as even Ramin Djawadi’s score for Iron Man, a low point in superhero movie scores if there ever was one.
Still, Thor is not a film that is made or broken by the musical choices of its makers, and it boasts a lot of things to admire. For one, the battle scenes are fairly magnificent, particularly the first squaring off with the Frost Giants and the monster they unleash on the Warriors Three and Thor is gigantic in scope, thrilling, majestic and infused with humor if not genuine peril. Sometimes, however, I do wish Branagh had just backed the camera up from the action just a tad. It’s terribly close sometimes. The use of the Destroyer, based on the amazing design of Jack Kirby which has survived intact to make it to film more than forty years after its creation, is also well done, battling Thor in a small desert town. While cynics may say the fight merely once again faces our hero with a variation on a metal suit, it’s really not the same at all. It’s more akin to the sci-fi terrors of the 1950s; giant robots from other planets or created by mad scientists coming to small town America and threatening human existence.
With strong acting, slightly odd-ball and bombastic direction, and strong action sequences, Thor is a good way to start the summer movie season in official fashion. It may be a rather light affair, and is certainly a different experience from the recent ultra-dark and ultra-violent superhero affairs like The Dark Knight, Super and Kick-Ass, but it proves that not every hero has to be dark and brooding for us to take them seriously. Like the best work of Marvel, Thor shows us that there is still room for good in the world, and that there still may be hope for humanity to do some of that good for itself. A stirring adventure film is sometimes all it takes to renew that small glimmer of hope that we too often lose sight of in this cynical world. And in any case it makes me want Captain America: The First Avenger and next summer’s Joss Whedon helmed The Avengers all the more.