Banished by the gods... Chris Hemsworth and Anthony Hopkins in Thor (2011)
In 1989 Kenneth Branagh made his directorial debut with Henry V, one of the finest Shakespeare adaptations of all time. 22 years later and he's indirectly made another one, except that the thundering familial conflict of Thor has come from the pages of Marvel, rather than those of the Bard. I've said it once and I'll say it again: this is Shakespeare with hammers, and it's wonderful. Thor has zero pretensions of grandeur but plenty of grand spectacle - from the stunning shots of swirling galaxies to the epic action set-pieces that ravage its planets, this is a picture of cosmic scope and surprising richness. Which isn't to say there aren't flaws; with centuries of Norse mythology and decades of Marvel background to condense into 110 minutes, as well as crowbarring the character into the upcoming Avengers (Whedon, 2012), there was concern that the film would both collapse under the weight of exposition and leave no room for its own story. Obviously some character development suffers, especially the Earth-bound relationships, but frankly Branagh and co. have done a tremendous job...
A brief pre-credits sequence in the New Mexico desert introduces us to three scientists - Jane (Natalie Portman), Erik (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy (Kat Dennings). They chase a storm carrying Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and for the next thirty minutes we're transported to Asgard to find out how he got there. We find out that the people of Asgard (one of the nine realms) have previously been engaged in war with a race of Frost Giants, and after a ceremonial debacle Thor upsets the peaceful balance, unleashing war once again. King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes him to Earth, where he leaves behind his friends and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). And from there it gets more complex and spoiler laden...
One of Branagh's most remarkable achievements with Thor is the balancing of tone. Asgard is a towering, almost celestial utopia; the rainbow runways and golden interiors lending it a sense of wealth, majesty and power that dwarfs Earth and makes it look timid and bland in comparison. But Earth also has its own merits - here Branagh moves away from the operatic musings of his beloved Bard and formulates something a little more generic, but no less engaging. Here he balances action, romance and humour with a deftness of touch that we haven't seen in a superhero movie since Spider-Man 2 (Raimi, 2004). An early scene sees Thor in hospital about to be administered with painkillers. In typical fish-out-of-water fashion he misinterprets the situation and bellows "You dare attack the son of Odin?" It's a funny line but really Hemsworth's delivery gets the laugh. The Australian actor has surprising comic chops and is far from the log-headed hunk I'd suspected him of being. He convinces in the action scenes too, hammering through swathes of enemies as if they were nothing. There's a lot of (top quality) CGI in the film but what impresses most is his physicality - not just his 6'3" presence in the frame but in the way he holds himself over the other actors, radiating pride and strength. He's not the best actor in the world but you certainly buy him as Thor, and I was surprised by his genuinely sweet chemistry with Portman.
The shifts Branagh makes between godly conflict, broad comedy and all-out action is the winning aspect of the film but his direction and visualization of Asgard is also impressive. Epic tracking shots of the landscape are awe-inspiring and the scenes where Thor travels between planets provide a stunning light show recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). This is fantasy of the most striking order and certainly the most ambitious film Marvel have put out since taking control of their own studio. I'm somewhat annoyed at having seen the film in 3D, which reduced the brightness and size of the image. The glasses are a real pain and I still feel the hole in my pocket caused by this ridiculous fad. I can only imagine what the film looks like in 2D and I'll be sure to see it again that way - it'll look even better, I suspect, and I'll fully appreciate the artistry that Branagh has brought to the tale.
The action sequences are frequent and varied. They're all essentially god-on-god fights but there's something different at stake every time - the brawls move between planets and each has an emotional anchor that involves the viewer at a deeper level than just ogling supernatural smash-em-ups. At first Thor fights with arrogance but by the finale he is fighting for love, and the final showdown with Loki is truly thrilling. I certainly can't think of another superhero flick with so much diversity in the action, and it's all scored by regular Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle, who has composed some great music for the film.
All in all I was impressed by Thor, a film I wasn't particularly looking forward to or expecting anything from. It's a visually spectacular work, and one with ripe, over-chewed dialogue delivered by some excellent actors (Hopkins eats the scenery for all he's worth). I was entertained from beginning to end and on a technical level at the very least this is the blockbuster to beat at the cinema this summer. But what really surprised me was the fact that Thor has three-dimensional characters I could care for (Loki is a surprisingly layered and tragic villain, and Hiddleston gives him depth) and an actual plot that was involving. It's actually a superhero movie I'd like to see a sequel for, but not before I see this one again... in 2D this time.