[5 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We’ve been inundated with human superheroes for so long that it’s almost refreshing to see one not forged out of a laboratory or some rich man’s labor of vengeful love. Of course, the concern is that audiences, used to playing pretend within the everyday man with a hidden epic talent ideal, really can’t cotton to beings from other worlds (or dimensions) playing champion. Case in point, the continuing struggle to bring Superman to a suspicious post-modern movie audience. Apparently, radioactive spider bites and deep psychological wounds as bat obsession are more comforting. Well, current Man of Steel manager Zack Snyder can take a lesson or two from Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean expert who brings the same amount of seriousness to his take on the Marvel man-god Thor. Even though this is one of those origin stories that fans tend to dread, the man who made the Bard a commercial favorite has found a way to turn scope and circumstance into a kind of comic King Lear.
We begin in Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) kingdom of Asgard, where the benevolent Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been keeping an uneasy truce with the Nine Realms’ (including Earth) main enemy, the Frost Giants. When said villains show up on the day of his son’s coronation to the throne to steal back a prized artifact, the King commands patience. Thor, on the other hand, will not see his day ruined and egged on by his conniving brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), childhood friend Sif (Jaimie Alexander), and his Warriors Three—Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano)—he takes off to the Giants’ homeland. After a deadly battle, Odin steps in. For his insolence and arrogance, Thor is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth. There, he meets physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). There, he must discover his humility and humanity while countering a traitor within Asgard’s midst.
Thor is perhaps the most unusual superhero movie ever. It wallows in the pen and ink excesses of the genre and yet feels fully grounded and invested in its mythology. We never once doubt the stunning sets of Asgard, nor do we giggle when recognizable names (Stevenson, Idris Elba as grand Gatekeeper Heimdall) show up to play deity. Branagh, who was a question mark all throughout the pre and post production process, proves that he can handle just potentially hokey material. He invests it with a kind of knowing nobility, treating Odin’s court as he would any group of friendly (and eventually, feuding) royals. There is a classicism here, as well as a sensational sense of vision. When Thor and his warriors travel via wormhole to take on the Frost Giants, Branagh gives the sequence the kind of awe-inspiring energy the movie needs. When it’s required to be serious, it stays somber. When it has to explode across the screen, Thor soars.
Perhaps this is why the Earth-bound business feels a little bit… underwhelming. It’s not just that Asgard and the threat to it are so much more appealing. It’s that the narrative makes it pretty clear that our hero’s time on the third rock from the Sun in going to be limited at best. Sure, the metallic Destroyer shows up in New Mexico and starts to level Jane’s home town, and there is the whole business with S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Coulson, and Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir, but it’s just beats until we get back to the land of pomp and gold encased circumstance. While clearly done with CG, Branagh somehow finds a way to make this realm feel organic. It breathes better than any previous digital rendering of an intergalactic fantasyland, kind of like Avatar‘s Pandora mixed with a viable version of Valhalla.
So, of course, a barren Southwestern desert is going to be disappointing. More troubling, the relationship between Thor and Jane seems strained and for purposes of comic clarity only. While Portman is pert and pleasant enough, and her compassion for our hero is easy to understand, their sudden undying love is a tad forced. Also, if everyone sees that Thor adores this Earthling, why isn’t she used as the main ammunition against him. Odin’s Sleep follows the original tale, but there is an anticlimactic element to the resolution that fails to resonate.
When it is working, however, when Thor is equipped with Mjolnir and racing through the city to save the day, this movie makes you believe. Hemsworth is a decent icon, though one does have to wonder how his clever cheek will play against Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark, or Chris Evan’s Captain America. Fans of the first incarnation of the character might miss the whole handicapped Dr. Donald Blake and his walking cane conceit, but this take on the material does a nice job of incorporating all newsstand mandated changes. Similarly, purists might balk at how Loki looks, or how members of the Warriors act, but this is film, not an exact facsimile of your favorite issue. Branagh contemporizes things while continuously realizing the need to stay firmly seated within a sense of amazement.
In the end, Marvel only has one more worry this Summer before springing The Avengers on us in 2012, and that tentpole has Joe Johnston on board to potentially mess things up. Still, the same (and more) was said about Branagh and, unlikely as it seems, he has elevated his status as a crafter of wonderfully evocative and visually powerful popcorn fun. He takes one of the most unlikely characters in all of comics and turns him into the first must-see movie hero of the season. Sure, some will view this as nothing more than an advert for future film projects and there is a bit of distance here between an actual franchise and the mere first volley in an upcoming major event, but that doesn’t detract from Thor‘s majesty. If you’re not rooting for our heroes to defeat their enemies by the end of the last reel, you’ve forgotten the joys of the genre. Iron Man had it. So did Spidey. Now a certain Norse novelty has it as well.