Review: Thor (2011)

Thor is an achievement when we consider how poorly the comic books could have translated to film.  Handled incorrectly, these adventures about a Norse god superhero, a buff guy dressed like a Viking who wields a giant hammer named Mjolnir and speaks in archaic English, could have easily looked silly or been plain idiotic in a live-action movie. The film’s success chiefly owes to what was initially considered by many an odd or risky choice: having the great Shakespearean actor/filmmaker Kenneth Branagh direct.  Branagh’s first big foray into mainstream entertainment, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) starring Robert De Niro, was not well received.  Branagh’s particular talent has always been his ability to make Shakespeare’s plays not just accessible but captivating for modern audiences.  For example, his Henry V (1989) was a visceral and compelling war film, his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was actually funny, and his Hamlet (1996) was a lavish and magnificent epic.  After seeing Branagh’s Thor, we recognize he was the right man for the job, for Thor is not your average superhero.  Most superhero stories are science fiction; the adventures of Thor, the thunder god, are drenched in fantasy.  What’s more, the film’s plot involves no crime fighting.  Instead, the film relates the banishment of our hero from his home in Asgard because of his hubris, his subsequent trials and repentance on Earth, and his eventual reascension.  Throw in some dynastic struggle and the mischievous plotting of Thor’s brother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston), and we have the stuff of sagas and Shakespeare more than comic books.  With the aid of the charming Chris Hemsworth as the brawny hero-god, Branagh makes both the outlandish and classical aspects of Thor accessible, entertaining, and compelling.

Branagh gives the fantastical elements of Thor majesty and grandeur.  Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods, is a shining citadel floating in the heavens, distant nebulas and galaxies visible in the glorious skies above.  Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that allows the Asgardians to travel throughout the Nine Realms (including Earth), takes the form of a powerful cosmic cannon, and not some goofy leprechaun’s rainbow.  Branagh supplies the film with many astonishing images, such as when Odin (Anthony Hopkins) appears on horseback in a flash of lightening, or the frozen ruins of Jotunheim.

The epic quality of Thor reminds us, however, that all epic fantasies now exist in the shadow of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  For example, the Anthony Hopkins-narrated introduction to Asgard and the Norse gods, which depicts battle lines of Asgardians and Frost Giants facing off, certainly resembles the prologue in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Despite the film’s many accomplishments, the balance of the film is thrown off by the lightness of the story line set on Earth.  Thor must traverse two worlds, Asgard and Earth, one fantastical and the other ordinary, but in the film our interest primarily lies with the former.  At first, Thor’s banishment to Earth is played as a sort of fish-out-of-water comedy, the jaunty tone resembling that of Iron Man.  When the earthbound story line turns to the romance between Thor and scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), then it begins to falter.  We can certainly understand Jane’s attraction to the muscular body and charming chivalry of Thor, but we do not feel the deeper love between the two that the film asserts.  Thor’s adventure on Earth never achieves the majesty, excitement, or dramatic weight of the events in Asgard.

While I have enjoyed each new installment in the ever-expanding Marvel film universe, and I do look forward to The Avengers next summer, I am anxious about how all of these different characters and narrative threads will come together in that film.

Note: I first saw Thor in one of Cineplex’s Ultra AVX theatres.  The theatre’s digital sound and giant screen were impressive, but what really made the extra few dollars for a ticket justifiable was the reserved seating.  On opening night, I only went to the theatre half an hour early, and I probably could have shown up only five minutes beforehand.  Forget 3D, reserved seating is an add-on I actually appreciate.

7 out of 10

Thor (USA, 2011)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins.