When I originally heard that Kenneth Branagh had been selected as the director of a Marvel Superhero film, I thought it was a very odd choice indeed. Still best known for his Shakespearian productions (both on stage and on celluloid), Branagh is hardly the person you would expect to be doing a big-budget all-action summer Hollywood blockbuster.
Having finally seen the end result this weekend, all I can say is that he still seems a very odd choice for it. But ‘odd’ is by no means necessarily a bad thing, and there are certain aspects to Thor that play impressively well to Branagh’s strengths and which few other filmmakers could have pulled off nearly as successfully as he does; but at the same time there are other parts of the film where his apparent lack of interest in empty bombast and action for its own sake really does tell, leaving some oddly hollow sections.
First the good stuff: the film’s version of Asgard, the legendary home of the Norse Gods, is truly spectacular. Beautifully and imaginatively designed and exceptionally well captured by Branagh, his director of photography and the SFX team, this was one of the most convincing and jaw-dropping creations I’ve seen on screen for many a year. The architecture is epic but moreover cohesive, and it has a real sense of grandeur to it while also looking like a true work of art.
Against this backdrop you need a particular type of grand performance from a certain type of actor with huge stage presence, and it’s here that Branagh’s Shakespeare background pays off as he knows exactly the right people to cast to get what’s required. Tom Hiddleston steals the show as Loki, the Machiavellian god of mischief and subterfuge, but when it comes to casting Odin – the supreme deity in the realm – than Anthony Hopkins is the man to go to for a peerless performance. Colm Feore makes for a suitably formidable frosty nemesis for him, while also impressive is Idris Elba as the enigmatic Heimdall – hard to visually recognise under the helmet but with an instantly distinctive voice. Sadly Rene Russo gets little to work with as Odin’s wife Frigga, and I didn’t find the four members of Thor’s gang of friends particularly memorable (Ray Stevenson’s Volstagg in particular seeming as though he had stepped right off the set of The Hobbit.)
On the whole the scenes set in Asgard and also the ice realm of Jotunheim are a triumph. As well as the big, epic Shakespearian feel to it (Loki providing a touch of Iago, Odin suffering from a case of the King Lears) there’s the sort of genuinely awesome spectacle that I hadn’t been expecting and which was really quite intoxicating. Perhaps wisely Branagh knows that less is more, and he soon moves the action to a rather more down-to-earth setting in New Mexico where a now-powerless Thor is exiled to learn that he has to get over his haughty princely arrogance when forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive.
Naturally he falls in love with the first person to knock him down (repeatedly) in a moving vehicle, but when that person is Natalie Portman then it’s entirely understandable. Portman is one of those actresses who can make even playing the unlikely role of brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster somehow believable, which explains why she’s been able to get through so many dodgy films (Star Wars prequels among them) with her artistic credibility intact or indeed enhanced.
Thor’s re-orientation to the mortal world makes for some of the best humour in the film, which comes close to but never quite tips too far over into silly farce thanks to Chris Hemsworth’s self-deprecating light touch. There’s good support from the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s scientific mentor, but the ‘comedy sidekick’ role of Darcey (Kat Dennings) never really comes alive and also provides little amusement. Making a far bigger impact is Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson, a part reprised from Iron Man 2 which I really must get around to watching one of these days; but even without that context, I found Coulson to be instantly memorable and effective in a role requiring careful playing as it moved between being a faceless government ‘heavy’ and a quick, intelligent ally.
The film is at its best when it’s working with the Marvel Universe mythology – even if I’d seen it at the time rather than post-Avengers Assemble I’d still have been keenly aware of a sense of overarching plans at work and a rare commitment to building a fully coherent world in which mentions of Stark Industries can be thrown in without feeling forced, and unexpected (and unbilled) cameos from big star names succeed in building the links between the various Marvel franchises to an impressive degree. There are also some nice in-joke touches, including the regular on-screen cameo from Stan Lee.
Having done all this good work, we then reach the big climax; and it’s here that the odd choice of Branagh as director perhaps really does tell. It all comes too quickly and feels oddly truncated as Thor’s powers are abruptly returned to him and his time on Earth is at an end. There are two big climactic battle scenes – one on Earth in which Thor and his four musketeers battle a menace dispatched from Asgard by Loki, and then a second back in Asgard itself. Unfortunately the earthbound battle is rather tepid and brief (Michael Bay could have made a 50 minute sequence out of this alone – and that’s not a recommendation, I hasten to add!) while the final sequence is handicapped by the non-physical nature of Loki’s threat which denies Thor a full-on slugfest and instead requires a downbeat end in which he has to give up all the very things he has come to love in order to save the universe. Neither sequence is a match for the much more satisfying early battle in Jotunheim.
Not, then, the triumphant or epic ending that the film seemed to promise. Part of that might be Branagh’s possible disinterest in the big action scenes (although Jotunheim suggests he’s up to the mark when he wants to be) but there’s also a sequel imperative in the script which requires that the film ends awkwardly in order to set things up for the next instalment, which is rather a shame.
Overall then, a bit of a touch of the curate’s egg. When it’s good, it’s truly outstanding – the depiction of Asgard and Jotunheim; Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki’s sly cunning; Hopkins and Skarsgård; S.H.I.E.L.D; and Chris Hemsworth bringing off the humour of Thor’s earthbound chastening. But at the same time there’s also too many aspects that feel underdeveloped and lacking or even outright missing to make this an entirely successful standalone superhero outing in its own right.
Thor is available on DVD and Blu-ray.