REVIEW: Thor Rules With Humor, Grace and Comic-Book Grandeur
It's a good thing Kenneth Branagh shows no inclination -- yet -- of becoming a politician. If Thor, his magnificent thunderclap of a movie, is any indication, he'd surely be gunning for world domination: The picture is grand in the Wagnerian sense, an opus orchestrated by a wild man wielding a movie camera instead of a baton. Even so, Branagh manages to maintain a sense of humor about himself, and about this material. In the Branagh world, gods and men mingle freely -- the human element counts as much as the spectacle does. This is the only instance I can think of in which a director's large-scale version of Hamlet ended up being the perfect training ground for making a great comic-book movie.
It all begins sometime after 965 A.D., in Asgard. The arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a good-looking lug possessed of a distinctly princely swagger, is about to be crowned king of the mystical realm by his soon-to-retire dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But before the deed can be done, a previously blocked portal suddenly bursts open, allowing the Frost Giants -- demonlike creatures with instafreeze capabilities -- to swarm into the kingdom and wreak havoc. Thor, his coronation ceremony aborted, rounds up his cronies -- Hogun (played by Japanese star Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and the comely Sif (Jaimie Alexander) -- as well as his possibly bad-news brother, Loki (a sexy-menacing Tom Hiddleston) to storm the Frost Giants' kingdom and kick the ass of its king, Laufey (Colm Feore). Things don't go as planned, and Odin wearily steps in to clear the matter up. Disappointed in the son upon whom he's clearly pinned all his dreams, Odin kicks Thor down to 21st-century Planet Earth, sending his hammer (the very thing that gives Thor his immortal power) clattering after him, well out of his immediate reach.
Serendipitously, just as Thor comes hurtling down somewhere in New Mexico, a team of scientists investigating meteorological phenomena hit him with their truck. He's OK -- it's just a scratch, really -- but Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) cluster around him, having no clue what to make of his stiff, formal speech patterns. Eventually, he becomes a part of their little crew -- they take him to a local diner near their headquarters, where he holds an earthenware coffee mug aloft, bellowing, "This drink -- I like it! Another!" before dashing the cup to the floor.
Several mighty battles ensue, including one in which Thor and his pals fight a chrome gargantuan, his body slatted like a Venetian blind, who fries entire buildings with his sightless eyes. And there are a few low-key, unsquishy love scenes too, between no-nonsense Jane and the Nordic heartthrob who has set her eyelashes, and everything else, aflutter. Branagh -- working from a script by a team of writers who, in turn, adapted the story from the Marvel world created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby -- adds witty flourishes here and there: When the locals discover the spot where Thor's hammer has fallen to earth, they host a contest, which encompasses impromptu barbecues and lots of beer-guzzling, to see who can wrest this mighty tool from the rock in which it's embedded. (The song on the soundtrack is Billy Swan's sauntering anthem of braggadocio, "I Can Help.")
I never would have believed it, but Branagh gets the balance between pageantry and silliness just right. Thor has the crazy inventiveness of Branagh's loopy-wonderful version of The Magic Flute (never released Stateside, but available on DVD, provided you've got an all-code player). And as Branagh proved years ago with his Hamlet and Henry V, he knows how to stage massive crowd scenes and complicated battles -- even amidst all the CGI of Thor, the clarity of his thinking comes through. (Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography keeps the visuals surprisingly clean.)
Best of all, this is an inclusive picture, like Jon Favreau's Iron Man or Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy movies -- you don't have to have a lifetime's worth of comic-book minutia under your belt to enjoy it. (Though in the case of Marvel adaptations like this one, it's always good to go in knowing what Stan Lee looks like, so you won't miss his usual cameo.) And Thor has style to burn. With its opulent art-deco look and easygoing, semi-comic tone, it bears some resemblance to Mike Hodges' 1980 glam sci-fi jewel Flash Gordon. That's not to say Thor isn't wildly ambitious: The movie's production design alone (under the guidance of Bo Welch) reaches wild heights -- it's as if both the Chrysler Building and Tutankhamen's tomb had been disassembled, rejiggered and rebuilt by highly imaginative Norse gods. When Hopkins' King Odin takes sick, it's in a great big movie-star bed fronted by a Rockwell Kent gargoyle-bird hybrid, the kind of thing Gloria Swanson might have draped herself across in Sunset Boulevard.
Branagh was meant to work on this scale. And even if ambition doesn't always equal vision, with Thor Branagh brings the two pretty closely in line. He never loses sight of the story at the expense of spectacle, as grand as that spectacle may be. And he never lets the grandness of his vision dwarf his actors: Portman is lighter, sunnier, more alive than she's been in most of her recent roles. (The performance has none of the actressy excess of her turn in Black Swan.) And Hemsworth is a low-key charmer, a big galoot whose muscles seem almost modest, compared to the wattage thrown off by his shy, slow-burning smile. He looks a little funny when he finally gets the chance to wield that hammer -- it's a dinky thing, way too small for his mighty frame. Luckily, it's missing for most of the movie, which forces Thor to rely solely on his admittedly superhuman-looking humanity. And behind it all is an invisible yet maniacally obvious Kenneth Branagh, who may as well be chortling, "Behold, my creation!" It sure is something to look at.
RELATED: Read Movieline's interview with Thor director Kenneth Branagh here.