– Summary –
Director : Kenneth Branagh
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Rene Russo, Clark Gregg.
Approx Running Time : 114 Minutes
Synopsis: Thor, son of Odin, after arrogantly presuming to know better than his father, is banished to Earth, where he meets (and falls for) an astrophysicist named Jane (of course), before returning to Asgard to defeat his manipulative brother Loki, who’s quest for power and the throne leads him to undo the peace between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants; the looming shadow of war beckons.
What we think : Big budget action/adventure yarn, told with gusto from director Kenneth Branagh, sees local Aussie boy Chris Hemsworth give the title character the effortless power he needs to battle the forces of Loki. Terrifically entertaining, Thor sets of the blockbuster season with a bang, a delightful, deliriously action-packed surprise package of a bang.
Sorry about the massive title for the logo above, but this film deserves the biggest text possible. Thor is a big film: big in concept, big in execution, big in entertainment. It’s the kind of film you could easily use the word “epic” to describe and not feel a case of conforming to overstatement. It’s the kind of film the trailer voice-over needs to be a deep-throated growl, something Don LaFontaine might have delivered had he been alive today. I can almost imagine it: “in a world beyond your imagination, the son of a god must learn to love, to fight for the world he loves, for the father he loves… too….” okay, so I’m no Don LaFontaine, but he would have delivered. Marvel’s Norse God comes to the big screen with all the grand spectacle a Hollywood studio can muster. Thor, a member of the team of heroes known as The Avengers (in the Marvel publications) has been around since 1962, with his first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #83, quickly becoming one of the most powerful figures in the Marvel-verse. Thor, however, marks the first time an attempt has been made to bring his story to the screen. And what a story it is, filled with epic, mythological action and a heartfelt, palpable emotion, directed with astonishing panache by Shakespearean-conduit Kenneth Branagh. As the countdown nears the imminent release of The Avengers in a year or so, Marvel is gradually getting audiences accustomed to the heroes involved, with good folks like Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye (who appears in Thor -thanks to an extended cameo – in the guise of Jeremy Renner) all being revealed in big-budget film adaptations. The Incredible Hulk was excellent, Iron Man equally so (although its immediate sequel perhaps not so much) and the highly anticipated (at the time of writing) Captain America looks set to get the red, white and blue flags waving across the USA. Thor, with a more celestial background than the others, struck me as perhaps being a potentially difficult proposition to bring to a screen, to even begin to connect with a modern audience, yet Kenneth Branagh has managed to do exactly what the film needed to achieve – make Thor likeable and believable.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), son of Asgardian King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) seeks vengeance on a raid on the city by their sworn enemies, the Frost Giants. He traverses the cosmos to the Giants’ planet via a massive space “bridge”, a kind of wormhole if you will, and confronts Laufey (Colm Feore, in an unrecognizable makeup job), betraying the explicit orders of his father. Odin, forced to act on this betrayal, banishes Thor to Earth, along with his warhammer Mjolnir, although in doing so casts a spell on the hammer making anyone unworthy unable to wield it. On Earth, Thor meets astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman), her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and mentor Dr Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Thor seeks out Mjolnir in order to return to Asgard, but find himself unable to wield it – he’s unworthy, apparently, until he sacrifices his life in protection of Jane and the Earth. Back on Asgard, Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) finds the truth about his ancestry too much to bear, and his mental sanity starts to unravel – Odin decides to have a fit of narcolepsy (known by the Asgardians as “Odinsleep”, which seems less like a problem and more like a rainy day’s lazing about), essentially leaving Loki as the defacto King in his stead. This, of course, leads him into direct confrontation with Thor, who eventually returns to Asgard to lay the smackdown on Asgard’s enemies – foreign and within.
I never studied Norse mythology at school, you know. The in’s-and-out’s of the world of Viking mythological beliefs didn’t really make fascinating reading for me, since I guess I was more hung up on Doctor Who and Knight Rider (I was a product of the 80’s, so sue me!) and the knowledge I did pickup was thanks primarily to material like Coscinny & Uderzo’s Asterix comic books. I’ve read enough to know who Thor and Odin and that lot are – they’re the ancient Viking equivalent of Zeus, Hercules and the gang from the Greek variants of the same kind of deity’s. I read comics as a kid, too, although I didn’t touch much Marvel material (one caveat – I did have an issue of ROM: Space Knight and one of The Power Kids, both of which I read and re-read when the mood struck me) since my main entertainment was Superman and Batman. I was familiar with the existence of the Marvel-ized Thor, of course, because you cannot be a fan of comics and not develop an understanding of both DC’s and Marve’s unique worlds and not pick things up along the way, but I would be the last person you’d describe as an actual fan. Everyone knows Spider-Man, of course, because he’s the classic Everyman hero character. Yet, ask the average person in the street who Thor is, and nobody outside of comic book geeks and classical studies majors would know what you’re on about. Which means it’s a good thing Thor’s up and about on the big screen these days. If nothing else, Thor will teach people about an alternative to Clash Of The Titans.
I think Thor’s main positive aspect is that, while initially he’s a little arrogant and self-obsessed, his eventual “moral lesson” learned brings him back onto a level playing field with the rest of us – he’s flawed, yes, but he’s a pretty powerful flawed dude. And his hammer is awesome. Chris Hemsworth plays the title role, which, for anybody reading this who’s ever seen an episode of Home & Away will attest, is quite the transitional leap. Hemsworth did Australia proud after scooping the role of James T Kirk’s father in the recent JJ Abrams version of Star Trek, and while he was only in the film in the opening 15 minutes or so, it was a pretty pivotal 15 minutes. He’s since bulked up – a lot – to play Thor, a massive, hulking figure carved out of God-like legend and writ large on the big screen for us to all appreciate… although I suspect the many female viewers will find his physical attributes more to their liking than mine. Ahem. Hemsworth does a superb job of giving Thor the required arrogance and petulance his character contains, while at the same time softening somewhat when Jane arrives in his life, and he find something approximating love. He’s a powerful presence in the film, and if I may be so bold as to equate him with a fellow Aussie, I think this role will be to him what Gladiator was to Russell Crowe – a breakthrough performance. Sure, Thor won’t win anybody an Oscar (except in the effects or sound department), but the exposure this film will give him ensures he’s going to go places soon. Hemsworth’s co-star, Natalie Portman, does a great job with the thinly written Jane, who’s described as an “astrophysicist” but doesn’t really display the qualities of one: it’s hardly a problem, however, thanks to the story not revolving entirely around her, but Portman delivers a performance equal to Hemsworth’s, and they have a great on-screen chemistry together.
Anthony Hopkins does yet another top job in a film as Odin, the king of Asgard (Asgard being the Norse equivalent of Heaven, I think; at least, it’s the place the Gods would reside…), although he spends a fair chunk of the film on his back in bed, virtually comatose. His relationship with Thor is one of love and a desire for Thor to succeed him as King, even though his young son often fails to display the required restraint and wisdom in that role. Odin’s adopted son (and that’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming… you’ll know it when you see it, unless you’re a comic fan and know Thor’s backstory anyway) Loki – Loki being the God of Mischief in the classical stories – is played by Tom Hiddleston, a hitherto unknown actor from England whose main claim to fame thus far is a series of appearances in locally produced television series. Hiddleston is the perfect opposite of Hemsworth, as far as performances go. He’s thin(ner), wily and uses guile instead of brute force – much like Lex Luthor to Superman – and his plans are devious. Mind you, his plans aren’t evil, not outright anyway. Loki merely wants to get in the good books with Odin, thanks to the shock discovery of his true heritage (hint, he’s not a true Asgardian!) and his actions, while certainly antagonistic, aren’t entirely without justification. Which is a point I want to highlight about Thor – Loki, as the central antagonist in all of this, and unlike other Hollywood Bad Guys, actually has a story arc that feels organic and developed. We can understand Loki’s action, if not entirely agree with them. It’s a massive wrap on screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne that they managed to get a genuinely moving arc in for the guy who does the bad stuff. Hiddleston, thankfully, doesn’t traverse the same eye-rolling route as Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey in their respective Lex Luthor portrayals, however. Hiddleston gets the understated part of this character, and brings a humanity to the role which elevates it beyond simple “I’m a bad guy and I’m gonna wreck everything” clone. He does overplay a few key moments late in the piece, undoing some (but not all) of his good work prior, but on the whole, he stands tall alongside Hemsworth as one of the films best performances.
Which isn’t to say the rest of the characters in the film are poorly written, not in the slightest. Perhaps the shortest thrift is saved for Rene Russo, who has about two lines and a couple of moments to fight, in an otherwise wasted portrayal of Odin’s wife, Frigga. Idris Elba portrays the Guardian of the Bridge in Asgard, Heimdall, and delivers some of the film’s funniest moments, while Jaimie Alexander portrays a female warrior of Asgard, Sif, alongside a trio of boys known as The Warriors Three – portrayed by Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano and Joshua Dallas. These roles are essentially bit-parts, but Branagh’s direction (and the canny scripting) gives us plenty of info on them all, and even though they deliver their lines with somewhat overt import, it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. Kat Dennings, as Jane’s assistant Darcy, has a few moments to shine, but her role is there only to bounce questions off and deliver a lot of exposition. Long-time screen actor Stellan Skarsgård, who has a Swedish background and actually ties the whole Norse mythology up quite nicely, does a serviceable job as Jane’s mentor-of-sorts, although the info online suggests he’s a colleague of Janes.
The film doesn’t waste any time with a lot of exposition, mind you, since it bounces around between Earth, Asgard and Jotunheim (the world of the Frost Giants) a fair bit, and gleefully exhibits a definite lack of hubris at its own importance. While the story seems like it should be fairly heavy with End Of The World apocalyptic lamentations, there’s a sense of fun and enjoyment to be had with this film, something I wasn’t expecting. Thor is, indeed, a fun film to watch. There’s action, there’s touches of humor, there’s even a bit of – gasp – emotional content, and director Kenneth Branagh straddles the fine line between awesomely entertaining and bafflingly obscure with ease. Mind you, for a man more accustomed to delivering some of Shakespeare’s best works as films, he would never have been my first choice for a big budget special effects extravaganza. I’m here to tell you, I stand corrected, and am happy to be so. Branagh delivers the excitement in this film in a big way. He understands the humanity of the script, and can direct characters (actors) alongside the best of them; but the biggest surprise is his eye for action. Thor simply rocks the screen at all times, whether its the Mjolnir flinging coolness of Thor taking on a hundred Frost Giants himself, or breaking into a S.H.I.E.L.D. compound to reclaim his hammer after falling to Earth; Branagh delivers both the jaw-dropping money shots and the excitement of the action with the surety of a director long in the game. Mr Branagh, I am impressed. By far this films most exciting achievement, in amongst the many, many portrayed by the digital CGI, is the Destroyer, a powerful creature sent to Earth by Loki to, as he puts it, “destroy everything”. Branagh handles this pivotal scene perfectly – a scene with seems vaguely reminiscent of the Metropolis street battle in Superman II, complete with Portman’s Jane (Lois Lane?) standing by watching as Thor defends Earth against an unstoppable monster. The Destroyer is such a cool concept, and the execution of it on-screen is truly frightening in its realism. The only thing that woulda made this better would be if Branagh had managed to slip a couple of Shakespearean “forsooth” and “thusly” and “out damned spot” lines into the mix…. you know, as a nod to the fans… right?
While many will see Thor as just another lead-in blockbuster intro for the eventual Avengers film, this movie stands on its own without any pretensions of what’s to come. Although hints at The Avenegers are scattered throughout the film (and in particular, through yet another post-credits Samuel L Jackson cameo), for anybody watching this as a stand-alone piece, it works just fine. The balance of the “origin film” and the “precursor to something bigger” film is just perfect. I’d also like to mention the work of Patrick Doyle, if I might, as the composer of one of the most stirringly heroic scores to come along in ages. It’s no John Williams’ Superman theme, but the soaring brass motifs and the semi-Hans Zimmer evocativeness hits just the right balance between old-world epic and modern blockbuster, and suits Thor to the ground. The CGI and effects are superb, with crisp, clean green-screen work bringing Asgard to life in a way that’s both awesome and majestic. Branagh handles the effects work like a pro, and the effects look as polished as you might expect from a big budget flick like this.
Thor makes no bones about what it is – a rousing, pants-wettingly awesome action adventure flick, dazzling effects and superb comic-book storytelling. Branagh directs the shit out of this film, and delivers a top notch, pitch perfect effort from all quarters. You can’t help but be entertained by it, and while it may baffle the most casual viewers with its depiction of Asgard and the flotsam of Norse mythology with such unexplained candor, Thor is the freshest and most entertaining Marvel film to come along since the original Iron Man. In a word – Thoresome!