Initially, I was rather dubious about this film. Marvel’s successful track record tends to waver as they move away from their A-list heroes (X-Men, Spiderman, etc.) to their second tier characters. Take The Hulk for example; a hero who has twice failed to connect with audiences despite admirable efforts by both Eric Bana and Edward Norton. Witness also the complete waste of celluloid that was Ghost Rider.
However, Marvel seems to have finally perfected their formula. Iron Man has risen in popularity into sequel-land from the ranks of second tier of Marvel characters thanks to the solid direction of Jon Favreau and the inspired performance of Robert Downey Jr. And with Thor, Marvel have wisely relied on those two same strengths; the right cast and a strong director with a clear vision.
Just before leaving for the theatre, I happened to catch an interview with director Kenneth Brannagh on ABC’s At The Movies. It was greatly reassuring knowing that such a strong cinematic veteran had been put at the helm. Apparently Marvel warned him at the outset that Thor was “the property most subject to the dangers of mishandling”, and rightly so. After all, rooting for the spider-bitten hero as he rises from anonymity to the responsibilities and challenges of his new power is one thing, but having to emotionally identify with gods who fly around mythic worlds with magic weapons is a bit further of a stretch.
I was interested to see how Brannagh would get past the ‘camp factor’ of gods & monsters and avoid falling into a by-the-numbers ‘swords and sorcery’ film. His approach was to try to have as much ‘intelligent fun’ with it as possible, and it works marvellously. The audience’s intelligence is never insulted or taken for granted; the one-liners aren’t throw-away apologies for the cheesiness of the source material but genuinely endearing.
You can tell the actors are really enjoying themselves, as is Brannagh as puppet master behind the scenes, and it makes it remarkably easy for the audience to join in the fun. I think his many years of experience dwelling in the matchless heights and depths of Shakespearean emotion have made him precisely the man to bring the realms of the gods to the masses.
Brannagh’s choice to base half the film in modern day Earth (as opposed to a Viking past) as a way of garnering audience buy-in was wise. The dusty New Mexico town provides a counterpoint to the sumptuous visual feast that are the scenes set in Asgard, at which I could have stared for hours. Being half blind in my left eye, I’m far from the most qualified person to review 3D, but if even I could feel the ‘pop’ added in big sequences (without becoming gimmicky or distracting) and could tell it was restrained at times that it would have been inappropriate, then I think it was handled correctly. The only criticism I could offer is that Brannagh’s wildly angled shots start out interesting but somewhere along the line they become overused and consequently rather distracting.
The plot is a somewhat predictable morality tale about how if you’re a jerk, your dad will kick you out and take your magic hammer away, but if you learn to not be a jerk you might just get said hammer back in time to thrash all the bad guys. I left the theatre wondering how much Brannagh had to twist Norse legend to make it fit his needs, but after a little research discovered that he has done a commendable job of being true to the historical mythology as well as the comic books. However, it’s the actors who make the film more than the sum of its parts.
Anthony Hopkins is good as King Odin but Tom Hiddleston as the evil Loki is better; a villain whose pain you can truly identify with. Natalie Portman is as lovely as ever, intelligent and no mere damsel in distress. But its’ Australia’s Chris Hemsworth who bears the weight of the film on his broad, well muscled shoulders, and he doesn’t disappoint. For a man whose only real appearance in blockbuster cinema so far is crashing a starship in the opening sequence of 2009’s Star Trek (picture Kirk senior with 100 pounds more muscle, long hair and a beard…) he does a marvellous job of believably transforming from a self-centered and spoiled god to a self-sacrificing hero.
In my opinion, Thor now joins Iron Man among the more polished Marvel franchises. Your move, Captain America.