After some rather less-than-mediocre offerings from the Marvel stable (last year’s Iron Man 2 being a recent low point), I was delighted to find that Thor, directed by Shakespeare god Kenneth Branagh, is not just a step in the right direction but an absolute feast of entertainment.
Some expressed surprise when Branagh’s attachment to the project was announced, but after seeing the film his involvement is understandable. This is a story of fractured relationships between fathers and sons, sibling rivalry between brothers, battles for power and blossoming romance. Saying it was a tad Shakespearean would be an understatement.
Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth makes a big, likable and wonderfully watchable leading man and secures the God of Thunder’s candidacy as both sex object and believable protagonist. In this tale he is banished to Earth (New Mexico, to be exact) and stripped of his powers after his father accuses him of war-mongering. He is discovered by space-scientist Natalie Portman, and her partners in research Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings. They give him a home and some clothes, but it is clear this guy isn’t well-versed in 21st Century American-English, or how one should behave in restaurants (“This drink. I like it! More!” he shouts before smashing the mug on the floor). He has another big problem though; his iconic hammer, the instrument he uses to fight and defend himself with, has landed in the desert, stuck in a rock and impossible to remove. Shifty looking official government guys surround the thing, and violently arrest our Norse God when he attempts to take the hammer (although he does floor many trained soldiers and security men before being restrained). Thankfully Portman and Skarsgard manage to convince the officials he is just an over-enthusiastic delusional scientist and take him back under their wing.
But that’s only half of the story. A lot of the important family politics is going on in space, or rather Asgard, the land Thor has been banished from just before he was to be crowned King. His Dad Anthony Hopkins, King of the Kingdom, has held a long-standing truce with a violent race of scary-looking creatures, the Frost Giants. But it was this relationship his son nearly wrecked, earning himself banishment to Earth. But there is another son, Tom Hiddleston (last seen in the very different movie Archipelago), who welcomes the absence of his brother and sees the crown as his own. Hopkins has fallen into a state of unconsciousness (something which is never coherently explained), so Hiddleston starts to enforce his idea of how the Kingdom should be run. He isn’t very nice to his brother’s friends who want to go and rescue him from Earth (to be fair, they do look like they’d be better off at a fancy-dress school disco), and he upsets the wise gatekeeper to Asgard, Idris Elba.
To start with, the switching back and forth between Asgard and Earth jars noticeably. Although beautifully realised, the CGI landscapes don’t hold up as well when being repeatedly compared to gritty, realistic, dusty New Mexico. But as the film continues, somehow this initial nag falls away as we get swept up into this enthralling drama of passion and power.
Natalie Portman is a lovely actress, and here she proves that the main female in a big-budget fantasy blockbuster doesn’t always have to be whorishly draped over a motorbike or wear miniskirts the size of band-aids. Her performance is subtle, honest and at times heartbreaking. The most strong criticism that could be levelled at the film is that we don’t see enough of her (performance-wise, that is), as she is kept relatively at arm’s-length for extended periods.
Although there are some big action-set pieces, especially when brother Hiddleston turns his wrath towards Earth, there is no excess in terms of building explosions or screaming civilians. Other blockbusters smash up cities with a repulsive sense of casual post-9/11 destruction-porn, but here there is a healthy balance between big bangs and big emotion. People are not forgotten in this arguably CGI-heavy popcorn flick, and when leaving the cinema you feel as if you’ve seen a film about characters, not mindless city-smashing.
Thor has its faults, but they don’t cause it to fail. It is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure and one of the first good special-effects blockbusters of 2011. It may be ridiculous and a bit OTT at times, but it doesn’t forget to charm its audience with character, wit and style. Branagh and the rest of the production team (including music composer Patrick Doyle who contributes a fantastic score to the film) should be thoroughly proud of their achievement.
Good: Fun, without losing its emotional core. Emotional without losing its sense of fun. This is a winner all round.
Bad: The big fantasy sequences in Asgard do sometimes feel a little silly. Some may yearn for a bit of dark-brooding-Nolan instead of fun-loving-Branagh.