I'm Starting to Root for This Guy: Branagh's 'Thor' As Rachmaninov's Second

Just Can't Wait to Be King: Rather than the robust certainty portrayed in definite action, Branagh's Thor gets to the heart of the character that has, much like Hamlet, always been awash in meditative forestalling of action.

Kenneth Branagh's Thor really is Hamlet. Larger than life, but withdrawn and meditative. It's Joseph Conrad to the kind of immersive action hero trope that has spawned thousands of Chuck Norris jokes.


Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, Colm Feore
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-05-06 (General release)
UK date: 2011-04-21 (General release)

It's never been called this before, but it ought to be. Rachmaninov's Second is biological. Not in the sense that there's a rhythm in the music that takes us right back to our past of torchlights and drumbeats, but rather in the sense that there are two equally powerful pieces simultaneously vying for dominance, for attention. A DNA of music. Each serpentining its way to an almost inescapable conclusion. Each borrowing from the next, sense and antisense simultaneously.

Rach's No. 2 is a formidable challenge to any pianist. It's the Hamlet of classical piano, and it's years of work, of training, of practice. And it's everything. It's something larger than the performer, something demanding. And the rewards of being able to play it are profound and ineffable. "A bridge into power," notorious faker Carlos Castaneda might have called it, or "we happy few, we band of brothers", Shakespeare might have said of those who mastered Rach's No. 2.

Two voices, raised in one song.

This is an age-old problem. Rembrandt struggled with similar notions in the history of painting. The evocation of the spiritual dilemma inherent to human life is an essay in the same struggle in his famous "Night Watch". Scipio Africanus arguably confronted the same dynamic of conflicting forces when his military victory at Zama over the infamous Hannibal was eclipsed by his own political prowess that saw Hannibal stripped of the rank of General.

Perhaps the clearest chronicler of this strange complex, surprisingly, is neither Crick nor Watson, the discoverers of DNA, but 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. It was Descartes who, while studying famous battles, first described the Cartesian plane. A grid system to articulate the mathematics of local geography still in use today. But it was also Descartes who gave the world the cogito, the famous "I think therefore I am" and with it the idea of dualism.

It's Descartes' dualism, this time-and-again wrestling with two simultaneous, ostensibly-opposing forces, that presents at almost every level of the recent theatrical release of Thor. Just skimming the surface of it, Thor is slow and plodding when the story is not in Asgard, and almost too rarefied when in Asgard to actually produce the kind of traction necessary for emotional involvement.

As a popcornucopia then, and despite the otherworldly, magisterial grandeur of the Asgard CGI, Thor might rank as the weakest of this summer's superhero blockbusters. Already there are murmurings. The First Avenger will have scenes of Captain America at war. At War! The fight is ideological, and against a clear tyrant. Green Lantern, as Geoff Johns' essays in the back pages of DC books last year attest, we expect will be about crafting the emotional core of various characters, heroes and villains, from Hal Jordan's past and present. And in the offing there's Spielberg's phenomenal Tintin, that dominates the cultural landscape like a colossus.

Dualistically, Thor is a Hamlet or an Othello. That character that exists on the horizon, that character that is a kind of a hoop through which creators must jump. If you don't see it at first in the recent movie, Thor being larger than life, arguably you've been caught in the throes of the incredible and sublimely subtle dualism that Branagh brings to his movie depiction of the character.

On the surface, Thor is about large ideas. The barbarian god of Vikings, Thor would always have been the story of unbridled strength and a valor forever tested in battle. So Thor's personal story is the story of The Lion King, the story of a boy (though grown older) who just can't wait to be king. The foil to this character arc, but also to this sub-genre is Loki, the God of Mischief. Cerebral to Thor's physicality, Loki is both Thor's brother and his ideological opposition. If Thor's victory is ensured by the exchange of physical violence, Loki's resolution is no less violent. Simply effected through the conniving of political manipulation, rather than physical expression. In fact, Loki is arguably even more violent than Thor, as his propensity for treachery is ever-apparent.

What Branagh brings to Thor however is wondrous. An entirely new evolution of the classic characters first introduced by the dream team of Lee and Kirby. Stan Lee really knew what he was doing when he introduced Thor in a book called Journey Into Mystery. Branagh's contribution to evolving this mythos spirals outwards like the Fibonacci sequence; unparalleled beauty described in mathematical certainty. And it's a beauty fraught with dualism.

Branagh's Thor is the tale of a son who would be king yet to reconcile with the legacy of his father whose time has not yet passed. The story of brother against brother, their two kinds of might (physical and cerebral) forever testing each other. It's the story of scientist Jane Foster scouring the heavens for her love. "She searches for you." Heimdall's line is simply the most perfect signature to a moment that is simultaneously coming heartbreak and the birth of religion.

At the root of it all, Branagh's vision of Loki is magical. Far and away the most definitive, most credible realization of the character to date. He God of Mischief, the Prince of Lies, Branagh's Loki is able to lie even to himself. Machination upon machination sees Loki's motives no clearer, not even to himself. Did he truly feel betrayed by Odin? If so, why save Odin's life? Or if he truly sided with Odin all along, why make a bid to destroy Asgard itself?

Branagh's Loki is painstakingly beautiful. A character so steeped in deception that his own motivations are hidden to even himself; he is the logical counterpart to Thor's visible might. For all its bluster, Thor has always been about the inability to take action. It's the oversimplified mechanic of a Spaghetti Western, with the hero unambiguously mowing down the villains. Thor has always been a lesson in just how murky valor can be, and how difficult it truly is to take action, and to manage the unforeseen and the unforeseeable consequences.

Branagh's Thor really is Hamlet. Larger than life, but withdrawn and meditative. It's Joseph Conrad to the kind of immersive action hero trope that has spawned thousands of Chuck Norris jokes. And what first appear as weaknesses, on just the scarcest moments of deeper consideration, quickly come to be understood as innate strengths. Of course, Thor on earth is the story of big, simple ideas. Of course, we cannot connect emotionally with an Asgard poisoned by Loki.

And what might first have appeared as the most simplistic of the summer superhero blockbusters, might easily play out as the deepest of character dramas.

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