There’s an argument often made that the comic book superhero is the modern equivalent of the mythical hero, the ultimate man or woman who, either through circumstance or lineage, comes to be a champion, a saviour, or just really good at hitting things. Movie heroes, too, are cut from more mythic cloth than ordinary life; they are taller, prettier, wittier and wiser, if not to begin with then definitely by the end of ninety minutes or so. It seems odd, then, that so far in the by-now decades-long lineage of superhero movies, we have not had a lot of properly mythic entries. Sure, Superman is super, but even he’s more often treated as messianic than magical (a refrain often heard from comic book fans is, “I just want a Superman movie where he punches weird stuff.”), and nobody, it would seem, wants to touch Wonder Woman unless she’s firmly rooted in ordinary city life with a boyfriend and an addiction to lattes. Our movie superheroes are angsty teenagers and brooding vigilantes, or spoofs thereof.
So, it comes as a very welcome change to this comic book, superhero, movie and mythology fan, that Thor is here in all its mythic, movie, superhero, and comic book glory.
As the movie begins, things are going well for young Thor (Chris Hemsworth). He’s quite literally a god, an unparalleled warrior, goes adventuring with his friends in all The Nine Realms, and is about to inherit the throne of Asgard from his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But Odin is conflicted. In his son he sees greatness, but knows also that Thor is brash and reckless, and for the young man’s role in reigniting an age-old conflict with the Frost Giants, Odin banishes him to the realm of Earth. Landing in the New Mexico desert, stripped of his godly powers, Thor runs — well, crashes — into astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team who are studying the strange phenomena that have brought him there. Until he can be worthy of lifting the fabled hammer Mjolnir again, Thor is stuck on Earth — and he doesn’t even know what coffee is. Meanwhile, back in Asgard, Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has plans of his own…
It’s a strange juxtaposition, myth and modern, ancient and cosmic, and gets even more strange when you realise that all of this takes place in the very same world as Iron Man. Agent Coulson of SHIELD (Clark Gregg) shows up to investigate, and mention is made of Tony Stark & Bruce Banner. It may all seem like bricklaying for the big Avengers movie that teams all the heroes up, but it also helps to convey the grandness of this superhero universe (and also gives the film some of its funnier lines).
Not that there isn’t grandness enough in the Thor mythos. The world of Asgard is beautiful to behold, introduced with a proper epic sweep from out in space to its inner reaches. In both the computer-generated vistas and the large sets, it looks very much like a 21st century imagining of Jack Kirby drawings. I was afraid, as the trailers dwelt more on the Earth segments, that Asgard would be a little sideshow trimmed down for lack of budget, but the reverse is true.
Initially, it was considered odd — potentially disastrous, even — that Kenneth Branagh would be directing Thor. It turns out that veteran Shakespeare director & actor Branagh is the perfect man to deliver this mix of high drama, titanic action, and very human characters. It’s a story full of strong fundamentals that Branagh works off, grand & yes — Shakespearean — in the familial politics of its Asgard sequences, while not ignoring its ties to the Marvel universe. This is still Marvel’s Thor, with all the in-jokes, nods & winks and cameos (more than even I could spot on my first viewing), and fans of the character will be glad to see him and other Asgardians wearing fabulously stylised costumes (by Alexandra Byrne) reminiscent of the comics. It’s a terrific visual treat on many levels — the vistas are epic, the action is epic, and even the kisses are epic! — but Branagh & co. never lets the dazzle overwhelm the human factor.
For all the sweeping shots and dutch angles cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos employs, the camera spends more time in very close up shots of the cast, and it is in these intimate, simple scenes — Thor & Jane sharing a chat on a gas station rooftop, or him and Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) bonding over a drink — that Thor grips you. That these are fine actors helps, of course. Though the cast goes to well over a dozen before we get into minor roles, it rarely feels crowded — if anything, it’s a welcome change to see a movie with so many characters. The Scooby gang of Foster, Selvig and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), Thor’s band of warriors (including Tadanobu Asano, whose formidable body of work you should check out right now), the Asgardians, SHIELD — each faction have little but deftly executed scenes that add to the whole. Most of this is delivered in the form of comic relief — Thor is a borderline superhero comedy, but a wry one — which alleviates much of the heaviness such subject matter is usually delivered with.
In the middle of all this is Thor himself. Hemsworth starts off broad and boisterous, an almost Arnoldesque Asgardian (tip of the hat to Raja Sen for this turn of phrase), but by the time he’s resigned to his Earthly fate there emerges a more subtle performance. Though the movie skips over his character’s growth a bit (A director’s cut is promised), you still end up believing in this god turned man turned champion — you want him to succeed, and this is in no small part due to Hemsworth’s charms.
But the find of the film — shining bright in an already stellar cast — is Tom Hiddleston. Thor is as much about Loki as it is the titular thunder god, and while Hiddleston doesn’t plays him as a mischievous, malevolent trickster as in the comics, his performance has great depth. There’s real soul in Hiddleston’s work, no mere villain is he, and I’m very glad to know that we won’t be seeing the last of him.
If I have one criticism of Thor, then it is that the score (by Patrick Doyle) is unmemorable. This has been true of most Marvel movies — only Elfman’s work on Spider-Man, and Ottman’s X2 spring to mind as exceptions — but in a movie as epic as Thor this becomes even more apparent. Come on, Marvel, you’re doing everything else right!
Otherwise, it’s hard to fault a film like Thor, which takes on the ambitious goal of making a superhero-mythology-action-adventure-comedy-drama and actually succeeds. If you’re heart is unmoved by romps such as these then there’s really no curing you, and please look elsewhere to more serious movies that come with awards dangling from their belts.
Not so long ago, when blockbuster movies involved sweaty men with guns liberating buildings or trains or cruise ships from terrorists, comic book superheroes existed mostly in, well, comic books. There would be the odd rumour of a major director showing an interest in adapting these colourful superheroes for the big screen, but for the most part they remained on the page. If ever they did make the transition, their big screen equivalent was so far removed from their origins as to be nearly unrecognisable. Even the most optimistic comic book fan would think it a preposterous dream to believe there would come a time when fairly faithful comic book movies would be lighting up the box office. Sure, maybe the grittier, more realistic ones like The Punisher — still basically a sweaty man with a gun liberating things — but not the outrageous fantasies of Jack Kirby, of Asgard.
With Thor, it would seem we live in such dream times.