Like a lot of people, I knew who Thor was going into the film but knew little outside of that he was a God who carried a magic hammer. It wasn’t until reading Walt Simonson’s run that I gained an admiration for the character was well as the fantastical world he inhabited. I actually read a good chunk of his run just before I saw the film. Thor is not a traditional superhero: he’s a super being who exists in a world of superheroes. His character is one who seeks a balance between being a super being and finding inner humanity much like Superman.
In the same way that Thor is not a traditional superhero, Kenneth Branagh was not a traditional choice to direct the film. He had never directed a big budget blockbuster prior to Thor, but his Shakespearean roots certainly played into his favor. Thor’s prose and dialogue is very old-fashioned and Branagh effectively translates it to the screen in a dignified manner. Having said that, Thor is very reminiscent of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film. It’s a solid introduction to both the character and world, but the story doesn’t feel fleshed out enough to warrant the epic scale of the sets and production design.
Thor mixes the standard superhero origin story with a family drama. In the opening prologue, we see Asgardian King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) defeat the race of Frost Giants and create peace amongst the various realms. Following the peace, he promises his sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that one of them will one day take his place. Thor grows up to be brash and full of himself, but is chosen to replace Odin. When the Frost Giants return, Thor acts against the peace and sets out on a warpath. As punishment, Thor is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth in order to learn humility. He comes into contact with Erik Selvig (Stellen Skarsgard) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a pair of scientists who soon become intertwined in Thor’s “fish out of water” journey.
The fact that Thor is not a failure can be best attributed to Branagh’s ability as a director. The family dynamics of the film play out much like a Shakespeare play. Given Branagh’s background, it appears that he was really able to work with his actors to convey the proper emotions and turmoil. Anthony Hopkins definitely evokes the necessary gravitas, but it’s the performances of the two relatively unknown leads that carry this film. Aside from a very minor role in the 2009 Star Trek, I had never seen Chris Hemsworth before. Despite being very arrogant early on, Thor is immensely likeable and charismatic. Hemsworth sells the brash side well, but it’s his reactions to Earth customs that stand out most. Seeing him smash a coffee mug in a diner as a means of requesting more coffee is certainly strange, but the humor lies in the abnormalities of what he does.
Loki’s characterization is very much in line with Shakespearean tragedies. Given his role in the comics and the old TV series, it would have been all too easy to portray him as a stereotypical villain. Hiddleston and Branagh make Loki the most complex villain we’ve seen in the entire MCU before and since Thor. His motivations are not born out of maliciousness, but of confusion and conflict. Not only was he passed over for the throne, but also his heritage is different than what he originally believed. Loki has a cerebral and deceptive manner about him following Thor’s banishment, but that’s what makes him so fascinating. It’s rather ambiguous as to what he truly desires or feels. The same can’t be said for Laufey and the Frost Giants; they’re as generic as can be. Compared to what we see from Loki in The Avengers, I don’t view him as the villain in Thor. Due to this, I wanted to see more out of The Frost Giants aside from acting as a force of evil or pawns in a larger scheme.
Both Thor and Loki are fascinating duel protagonists as well as interesting parallels to one another. The film is at its best when it focuses on the two of them together. Most of the other side characters range from humorously enjoyable to annoying. The rest of the characters on Asgard are archetypes and window dressing for the action scenes. With that said, Selvig and Thor get some good scenes together and maybe the biggest laugh from the film after a night of heavy drinking. Jane Foster feels like a character who was forced into the film solely to fulfill the love interest quota. She’s the romantic foil to Thor, but that’s really all she contributes to the film. She does share banter with her assistant Darsey (Kat Dennings), but that character feels entirely superfluous and a cheap means of comic relief. Jane and Thor’s relationship feels artificial in a way. It’s a big pill to swallow that they would fall in love over the span of one weekend.
The events of the film following the prologue play out to the course of a weekend. Thor’s speedy transition from being a narcissistic God to learning humility is a bit of a stretch. There’s a piece of his arc missing in regards to his feelings towards the Frost Giants. I attribute this to the need to have him ready for The Avengers, but what’s presented doesn’t feel satisfactory given the scope of Asgard. Everything that occurs on Asgard looks brilliant. The production design and costumes look like Jack Kirby stills brought to life. The glimpses we see of the various realms feel distinct from one another, which makes it disappointing given what we seen on Earth. While Thor is banished, everything feels contained and small. The fight Thor has with The Destroyer takes place on a block or two in New Mexico. The action scenes as a whole are not Branagh’s strong suit. Most of them suffer from quick cuts, awkward angles, and some disjointed pacing.
As someone who initially scoffed at the idea of Thor, I have to say it exceeded my expectations. Branagh and company were able to convincingly adapt the comics in a way that audiences could take it seriously. It’s an intriguing take on the standard superhero film by showing the hero’s journey through an effective mix of humor and Shakespearean dilemmas. The leads are excellent and the film feels necessary as a building block towards The Avengers, but it stumbles with creating a story that matches the scope and epic scale of the world presented.
Marvel March Madness #4 – ‘Thor’ (2011)