I didn’t know it until I saw it, but I have been waiting for a summer movie like Thor for a long time. It is fun, far more fun than any comic adaptation I have seen in years. Admittedly, I say that as someone who does not read a lot of comics and is not familiar with the source material. And to me, that is the beauty of this film. This movie knows its material is not as invested in a legion of fans such as follow Batman or Superman, and its British director brings to it a distantiation that allows for investment in the fun of it all: the outrageous narration, exaggerated and impossible action sequences, and actors who can just let go and enjoy the ride without any pressure while still maintaining their integrity and talent. This, my friends, is what a summer movie should be: exciting, clever, comedic, and a joyride.
Kenneth Branagh has been much maligned in the press in recent years, to my mind unfairly. Yes, he has had some duds (Frankenstein comes immediately to mind), but his good films (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Dead Again, Sleuth) far outweigh the bad, And even with their faults, Branagh is willing to take risks where very few other (i.e. Hollywood) directors are not; sometimes it doesn’t work, but more often than not it does. At first he might have seemed like an odd choice for this film, but actually he is perfect. Thor is not Batman; he does not have the following or the pressure. So it takes a director from outside the genre to make this kind of film, who can look at the source material with a less interested eye and find the key, transferable elements.
Thor is the son of Odin, King of Asgard, central of the nine worlds (of which Earth is one.) Odin has managed to maintain peace with the Frost Giants after a great battle many years ago, but Thor feels the kingdom is threatened. In a fit of youthful egoism, he and his band of followers, including his brother Loki, go to the Frost Giant’s kingdom and almost start a war. As punishment, Odin casts Thor down to earth until he can prove he is worthy of being King. And as write this, it sounds laugh-out-loud absurd, but you have to get into the rhythm of the film.
There are two worlds the film inhabits: Earth and Asgard. Asgard is gorgeously rendered in golds and reds, exactly what one would expect of such a kingdom in the sky, where everything is taller, brighter, and more formal. Earth (in the setting of New Mexico) is dirty, dusty, and laid-back. In the opening scenes of the film, the two worlds and their characters are separated. The collision that takes place once Thor falls to earth is nothing short of brilliant; classic fish-out-of-water comedy that borders slightly on predictability and yet is just clever enough to elicit great laughter. The action sequences, through both real acting and CGI, are exciting and not drawn out as too many film try to do these days.
Branagh’s directorial strengths lie in two areas: text and actors. The man knows words. And it is through the dialogue that Asgard and Earth are differentiated. Asgard is the Shakespearean side: everyone speaks in rather lofty tones, which a first seems a little strange, but again, just get into the rhythm and it seems perfectly natural. Earth is, well, Earth, and colloquial. The trailer gives away some of the jokes in Thor’s first encounters with earthly communication, and yet this did not stop me from laughing when I saw the film. The Asgardian characters never seem untrue in their dialogue, nor do they waver in its delivery. I have a feeling that this dialogue, in script form, might be a little less than impressive, but the actors pull it off. They know this is not actual Shakespeare, nor is it meant to be delivered as such; but they do understand how to say the words without making them seem trivial or incomprehensible or silly.
Of course, if you’re going to have a king of Asgard, you’d do no better than Anthony Hopkins. I was also surprised to discover that Canadian actor Colm Feore was the King of the Frost Giants (though his performance is vocal, as it is a computer generated character; not that that is a problem with Feore.) The film needs strong older actors such as these, as well as Stellan Skarsgård as an Earth scientist, to helm the film for the younger actors. Chris Hemsworth is perfect as Thor (and he certainly isn’t hard on the eyes either.) I never once failed to take him seriously or believe anything coming out of his mouth. His transformation from arrogant boy to wise adult doesn’t happen in one fell swoop, it happens with every smashed cup and every kick of a bodyguard. Tom Hiddleston is the perfect foil as Loki, and it is a credit to him that, although one knows that in Norse mythology he is the trickster, I was still surprised by each further trick he pulled. And will someone please give Kat Dennings more films roles! She is horribly underused in this one, providing most of the earthly comic relief, and I wonder why she wasn’t cast as the lead female, Jane Foster. I continue to be baffled by the popularity of Natalie Portman. I’m sorry to be harsh, but she is as dull as dishwater, and I could see no reason why Thor would have any interest in Jane. And for those very few racists out there who insisted that a black man shouldn’t play Heimdall, all I can say is just watch the damn movie. Idris Elba is a force of gravity, and in his scenes he draws everyone into him.
In other hands, this film would have been terrible. With Branagh at the helm, I have no doubt it’s going to be one of my top films this summer, and likely the year. He picked the right actors (well, mostly), he directed them well, and he paced the movie perfectly, weaving together its strange and frenetic generic, geographical, and linguistic distinctions seamlessly. My only regret is that due to the few locations where 2D viewing was available, I had to watch it in 3D. It is not necessary, and in fact I would have enjoyed it more in 2D. It looks glorious, it sounds glorious, and I haven’t had so much fun at a film in a long, long time. Bravo, Branagh.