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Thor Review

Marvel fans like to joke about how absurd it is that Thor of the comics speaks Shakespeare’s Middle English (“If thou wilt permit me to charge yon frothy drink?”), given that the mythological Norse Thunder God he’s supposed to be predates both the bard and the language. The idea, as Stan Lee conceived it, was to simply make him sound olden. When Marvel Studios tapped Kenneth Branagh to direct the movie version, it rings a perfect fit: Branagh has previously directed five film versions of Shakespeare’s work, including universally acclaimed adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in Branagh’s take ultimately doesn’t speak Hamlet’s tongue, but he does come from a similar family.

Forget for a moment that this is about Thor being banished to Earth, falling in love with storm-chasing astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and eventually joining a superhero team alongside Iron Man and Captain America next summer. The first act of the film helps in doing just that, as it takes place entirely in Asgard, kingdom of the Norse Gods, and tells tales of immortals. Thor is the brash prince who defies his father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) wish for peace by urging his Trickster God brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his warrior friends (Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Joshua Dallas) to join him in invading Jotunheim, land of the Frost Giants, as a disproportionate response to a small attack that bruised Thor’s ego, thus restarting an old war that had previously lain dormant. There’s an obvious contemporary political sentiment there, but the film doesn’t really pick up on it, which is welcome. It allows Thor’s change of heart to be one of moral strength, rather than a lesson in policy.

Much of what transpires then fittingly resemble a Shakespearean costume drama, especially with Loki’s arc, whose entire descent into supervillainy is motivated by a humanized ache for daddy’s love and jealousy of his brawn-over-brains brother. That’s nothing new, of course. We’ve all seen villains crying and screaming “You’ve always loved him more than me!” before, but the characters in Thor, even the mortal ones, are all broad archetypes, and these relationships are the types that transcend time, especially within the context of gods and monsters. If mythological characters can and have been replayed over and over, then here is another interpretation of the trickster earning his keep. The success, as most Shakespeare productions go, is dependent on the actors; and Hiddleston’s Loki is one that has to be seen to appreciate.

The cast is absolutely terrific, perhaps the best ever assembled for a superhero movie yet. It’s one that puts glove-snug casting above star power. Hopkins, Portman, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard and others are very skilled actors who do their part well, but stay within their margins, allowing the lesser known Hemsworth and Hiddleston to stand out as the film’s dueling sons.

The shoehorning of an Avengers set-up was what turned Iron Man 2 into a colossal imbroglio, and here the film skirts around the same issue. The presence of SHIELD Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and a brief drop-in by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) exist solely to, yet again, set up The Avengers. I understand the need to make it a shared universe, but offhand comments like a SHIELD agent wondering “Is that one of Stark’s?” or Skarsgard mentioning a colleague who specializes in Gamma radiation are far more effective than Renner showing up with a bow-and-arrow just to point it, mug the camera, and do nothing. What the SHIELD stuff does is take screen time that could’ve been used to make Thor and Jane Foster’s romance (which is the super-important plot point that teaches Thor the humility he needs) more convincing and celestial than “I’m a scientist living in a trailer in New Mexico and haven’t gotten laid in forever even though I look like Natalie Portman, and you are a tall pretty man with a ridiculously yummy body who winks and smiles and kisses my hand. Let’s fall in love.”

I was afraid that the film would mirror the first Iron Man’s flaws, where the excellent character work with Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow renders the action-heavy final act less exciting in comparison. What Branagh does to allay this is to keep the action very brief and uses them to convey one particular emotion rather than about winners and losers or spectacle. This battle is about Thor's arrogance, this battle is about humility, etc. This is necessary for there to be any tension at all, because Thor is such an invulnerably powerful figure that he dwarfs any opponent, including Loki’s more mind-based abilities. That contrast is precisely what makes their battle far more interesting to watch than the showdowns between Iron Man and Iron Monger, or The Hulk with Abomination, both of which had the visual splendor of two rocks clacking against each other. With Thor and Loki, there's actually a relatable conflict being played, even if it's a cliched one.

Branagh is unapologetic in his approach, refusing to make concessions to so-called realism. Both Asgard and the costumes of its inhabitants are gaudy—like, Zhang Yimou gaudy. If ever one looked at a Jack Kirby drawing and say, “This can’t possibly work live action,” Branagh said, “Fuck thee, it can.” There are baroque stairs, pedestals and balconies everywhere in Asgard, and the actors would perform these grandiose scenes as they walk up and down steps. It's very theatrical in that regard, keeping those scenes engaging even when they are just visual noise made up of cheap-looking CGI and bad green screen work, which they often are. Maybe that’s problematic for a mainstream superhero picture, but Thor makes them seem so insignificant.

This is certainly one of the more interesting superhero movies to have been attempted, and the best one from Marvel Studios to date. Let’s see if Joe Johnston can take it down a peg with Captain America, which the after-credits sequence with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) links Thor into.

"Thor" opens May 6, 2011 and is rated PG13. Comic Book, Fantasy. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich (story), Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne (screenplay). Starring Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Idris Elba, Joshua Dallas, Kat Dennings, Natalie Portman, Ray Stevenson, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Tadanobu Asano, Tom Hiddleston, Jaimie Alexander.

May
05
2011
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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