Review by Ryan Wilson
The summer movie season officially began with the release of
Thor, and, by his hammer, let it begin. It’s been a long cold winter full of boxing and
ballet dramas, so by May going to see a comic book movie is about as welcome as
Thor might seem a strange movie to begin this silly season, mostly because
the film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, best known for filming solid adaptations
of Shakespeare’s plays. By handing the project to Branagh, it feels as if Marvel
Studios is asking for more Norse Myth and less superhero. I still haven’t forgiven
Branagh for butchering Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so I was apprehensive yet
optimistic walking into Thor.
Thor has always been the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Universe. With
one foot in mythology and another in the contemporary, he’s sort of bipolar when it
comes to where he belongs. Thor always struck me as a lonely hero simply because
he’s so powerful that few understand him. I mean, can you get any more forlorn
than being a nomadic god whom no one believes in anymore?
Branagh and his screenwriters go another direction. They make Thor act as if
he’s a teenager on steroids demanding Dad for the keys to the car. Only for Thor that
car is the mythical kingdom of Asgard and Dad is Odin. After some family
squabbling, Odin banishes Thor to Earth, where he goes full-tilt grunge-rock,
complete with his beard and a flannel shirt. He learns some humility. He also makes
the girls swoon, especially scientist Jane Foster, who’s a bit slow to realize what
she’s grazed with her monster SUV.
Looking like an Eddie Vedder version of the hero, Chris Hemsworth is pretty
solid. Like a good lead singer, he can get angry and petulant, but he can also exude
sensitivity when, say, he’s called on to sing a ballad. He even has groupies, both on
Earth and in Asgard, willing to follow him on tour. Natalie Portman is less successful
as his astrophysicist crush. Instead of playing Thor’s Courtney Love, she comes
across as just another mousy girl in the back row with a lighter. Their chemistry
together is lukewarm.
I enjoyed the family politics of Asgard the most, and this is where Branagh
feels most comfortable. He makes the most of Odin, played by the always scene-chewing Anthony Hopkins, and of Thor’s brother Loki, played with subtlety by Tom
Hiddleston. With Odin we see shades of Hamlet, as Thor at times feels haunted and
in the shadow of his father’s greatness. Too bad that’s not explored more before he’s
banished. With Loki, we see shades of Iago, whom Branagh played well in the 1995
film version of Othello. Like Iago, Loki is a manipulative liar, and like Iago, Loki gives
us complicated motives for deceiving everyone in Asgard. I would have enjoyed a bit
more trickster in Loki, a bit more playfulness, but, as with Thor, Branagh prefers to
give Loki daddy issues with Odin.
The rainbow bridge of legend is simply breathtaking the first time we see it,
reminding us that we’re in an epic place. And when the Norse warriors invade the
realm of the Frost Giants, we forget all about this being a comic book and instead
revel in the mythic action. I greatly missed the Frost Giants when they leave the
script. Thor can never battle enough Frost Giants.
But for all of Branagh’s specific flourishes, Thor is still a comic book film. All
of the action climaxes at the usual predictable overly inflated final battle.
Like last year’s Iron Man 2, Thor feels like it really wants to be an Avengers
movie. Fan-boys will no doubt recognize and exalt in a cameo by one future Avenger
who’ll be in next summer’s anticipated Joss Whedon film. Before that, however, we’ll
see Captain America later this summer, as well as another X-Men prequel.
Aside from the promised action, each Marvel film is another opportunity to
find Stan Lee making yet another funny cameo. Hitchcock used to do this in his films,
but Stan Lee is so over-the-top on screen that it’s the cinematic equivalent of
solving “Where’s Waldo.”
Thor doesn’t quite strike us like a lightning bolt, but the parts that work
outweigh what doesn’t. Branagh even salvages the love story by simply pulling away
from it at the end, proving that even in comics less can be more.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.
© Ryan Wilson, 2011.