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Film Review: Thor

Thor (2011; Directed by Kenneth Branagh)

Thor answers a question that no one had ever asked nor had even thought to ask: what the heck would a Marvel Comics movie directed by Kenneth Branagh look like? The answer: pretty much like any other Marvel movie or any other Kenneth Branagh movie, only perhaps more so. It’s an aggressively competent potboiler, an extremely silly film that accepts and even embraces that inherent silliness and often thrives due to that key choice. Thor is pure pulp and knows it, and it’s therefore hard to begrudge the predictability of the entire enterprise.

The enterprise kick off in the New Mexico desert at night (you know you’re in a comic-book movie if the opening shot features a subtitle identifying the remote setting), where a team of atmospheric science researchers track a storm of odd and alarming characteristics. Careening their science-mystery van at unsafe speeds in pursuit of the disturbance, they run smack into the form of a man. Who is this man? No man at all, some lengthy flashback exposition tells us, but a god: the resident badass of the Norse mythological pantheon, in fact.

We are gods, and thus our attire is impractical!

‘Tis Thor (played by blond Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth), and he comes not from the land of ice and snow, but from the impossible sci-fi enormity of Asgard. We are soon shown this expansive place, rendered by the CGI designers as a glinting landscape of sheer-faced monuments and pulsating Nintendo lighting. Every scene on the rainbow bridge to the Bifrost portal out of the realm (and there are a few) leaves one expecting a Mario Kart to squeal by at any moment, hurling turtle shells and/or banana peels at the self-serious beings carrying out contentious conversations out on the multicoloured tiles.

Thor, you see, is not quite self-serious enough for the king of Asgard, wise, one-eyed Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who slums it with such benign gravity). The All-Father is Thor’s specific pater as well, and postpones and then entirely suspends his son’s anticipated ascension to the throne. This is in response to the young hammer-wielding hothead’s guerilla assault on Jotunheim, the perpetually dim land of the dire Frost Giants, with whom Odin has forged an uneasy truce that seems much more advantageous to the Asgardians than it is for the dour and nasty giants (who are admittedly not all that gigantic). Thor is banished for his hubris and stripped of his all-smashing hammer Mjolnir, leaving the computer-generated stage to his scheming younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who finagles his way into a semi-permanent regency when Odin falls into one his apparently frequent deep sleeps (Asgard evidently has no clear constitutional guidelines to govern such contingencies) while plotting to eliminate his anointed brother once and for all.

This brings us back to New Mexico, where there are fewer imposing Space Vikings bandying about medieval-romance pronouncements but more plucky scientists chasing atmospheric anomalies. Lead plucky scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who slums it with less benign gravity), aided by her mentor (Stellan Skarsgård) and her intern (Kat Dennings), trundles the unconscious Thor off to the hospital, leading to a few amusing fish-out-of-water moments that tend to be related to smashing (coffee cups, hospital rooms, you get the picture), as well as to how freakin’ hot the ladies think he is.

At the same time, Mjolnir lands elsewhere in the desert, leading first to a redneck tailgate-party version of The Sword in the Stone and then to the descent of the shadowy government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and the cordoning off of the perimeter around the mythical hammer. Thor catches wind of the arrival of his trusty phallic extension and lays out some agency muscle-men on his way to reclaim it, but of course, his redemption will not be quite so easy. It will involve learning the virtues of not only violence, but of wisdom, self-sacrifice, and, of course, love.

What, a brother can’t be a Norse god?

Thor repeats the thematic mainstays of most Marvel silver-screen adventures, but don’t fret; it repeats the elaborately destructive fight sequences and the irritating attempts at topical humour of those previous products as well (just as Iron Man tossed off a MySpace reference a year after MySpace ceased to be cool, Thor drops some iPod and laptop jokes as if they were both just invented). There’s also several instances of manipulatively saccharine score cues (by Patrick Doyle, who is capable of better) trying to coax audience emotional identification from incongruous moments. Am I really about to get choked up because Thor can’t lift his hammer, or because he’s facing his sure-to-be-temporary doom at the hands of a fire-spewing guardian robot, just because the sympathetic strings say so? Additionally, the combination of outlandish, impressive design and stiff epic solemnity produces Asgard as a setting of simultaneous overwrought baroqueness and stilted boredom. The visual ludicrousness undercuts the performances, too, as actors like Hiddleston and Idris Elba (as Heimdall, the guardian of the world-bridge) strain to be taken semi-seriously beneath towering horned helmets of deranged Gigerian grandeur.

Yet Thor is not an unenjoyable popcorn flick despite its faults, and indeed quite likely because Branagh embraces the inborn corniness of the material with such vim, vigour, and uncomplicated enthusiasm. As brought to semi-life by the stalwart but affable Hemsworth, the Thor we are presented with is a crib-notes version of the self-involved anointed icons that Branagh himself played in the film adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet for which he is likely to always be remembered (to say nothing of his sublime self-mockery as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film).

Thor, like Henry, must learn to cool his hot spurs, to consider war and then to wage it if need be, to court womankind with earnest words if that is what is required of him. Thor, to be sure, is not Shakespeare, but Branagh (unlike, say, Christopher Nolan) is not under the impression that comic books offer any such deep insight into the human character. They are the frothy quotidian myths of a thin gruel of a post-modern culture, and their relation to the myths of the past is nowhere more evident than in Thor, with its adaptations of Norse mythology. You’ll dig it well enough for a couple of hours, and then mostly forget it a couple of hours later. And now and then, that’s okay.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

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