Thor Review

I wrote another review for M+, but I don't think it's going to be published, in which case it might as well go here as well. Again, a more 'professional' version of the rambling over here. Should say that this film is shaping up to be my favourite of this year...

Inspired by the success of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios have become more confident about giving unknown superheroes to quirky filmmakers: Thor is brought to us by none other than Shakespearian thespian of renown Kenneth Branagh. Another inspired choice. Branagh delivers the operatic pathos / bathos required for a film about space-gods, but more importantly, he could use his name to attract the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård and Idris Elba to the ensuing silliness. Most importantly, he brought with him the magnificent Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who walks away with this film in his pocket. Comparisons with Ledger’s Joker will and should be made.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is set to inherit the Asgardian throne from his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins in typical scenery-chewing form), but he is proud, over-confident, and more than a little stupid. The diplomatic fiasco he wreaks convinces Odin that his son is unfit for rule. Thor is cast down, like Lucifer, from heaven, like Christ, to earth. His hammer, like Excalibur, is jammed in a piece of rock to be prized free when Thor proves his worth. Meanwhile, Thor’s mischievous, manipulative and inscrutable brother Loki becomes king.

To say more would be spoiling it, since Loki’s motives remain unpredictable up until the very end. In itself an impressive dramatic achievement, and one that is enhanced as the complexity of the character comes into view. But you can find intelligence everywhere in this film. The religious and mythological tropes pointed out above suggest multiple readings and resonances. Thor’s sojourn on Earth does not just teach him humility. This is a world without gods, without certainties, filled with people trying to create them for themselves. Thor becomes involved in assisting the life-project of one such mortal: Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster is an astrophysicist investigating wormholes, the rainbow bridges Asgardians control. Chris Hemsworth’s charisma (and fittingly divine abs) obviously have a part to play in their inevitable romance, but it is as benevolent emissary of a more magical world that he wins Jane over. But not just that. Thor is a barbarian in New Mexico, and the film extracts superb comedy from his neanderthal qualities. This is the story of hunkishness civilized, the acceptance of self-sacrifice. In the process of proving himself to his father, Thor proves himself to Jane.

The film’s focus on Thor and Loki’s duel, while rewarding, doesn’t leave much room for the other characters. Natalie Portman is typically charming and funny, but she has precious little time to establish her growing attraction to Thor, hence the final triumphant kiss feels rather sudden. Skarsgård and Elba have even less material to work with, so it is impressive that Branagh gives them just enough space to hint at depths left unexplored. Even Jane’s intern, Darcy Lewis, who exists solely to provide comic relief, is given a subtle one-liner pay-off. I got the impression that Branagh (understandably, given his background) cares about his actors and wanted to push their creative buttons. This attentiveness to details of character is welcome in a genre that usually encourages attentiveness to details of spectacle.

Indeed, there are problems, perhaps not entirely soluble, to do with pacing and visuals. Representing heaven is an ancient quandary in the field of imaginative endeavour (just ask Milton), so perhaps we should not be too judgmental if Asgard’s glossiness leaves us rather unimpressed. However, the ruined world of Jotunheim is similarly drab on the design front, and the battle which it stages will leave you hankering for your LOTR DVDs. More significant is the awkward way the film has to jam together plot and origin story, Earth and Asgard. The bracketing device at the beginning tries and does not quite succeed in creating a sense of urgency to the first act, although once Thor is exiled the energy levels pick up substantially. Nevertheless, these flaws are not extensive enough to spoil this film, which otherwise offers emotional and intellectual delights few superhero films have delivered. It’s going to be a big year for Marvel Studios, with Captain America and X-Men: First Class both coming out soon. Thor has them launching into it with their best foot forward.

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