Apparently, according to professional troll and tired-shtick-purveyor Joe Queenan and mysteriously grouchy former colleague Stephen Evans, British acting-giant Kenneth Branagh is suffering from terrible career-doldrums, and has seemingly consigned himself to the dumpster. They have a point. Once on track to becoming a national institution a la Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, Branagh has gone from making a few energetic but clumsy Shakespeare adaptations (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing), to the craziest reincarnation-murder-mystery imaginable (Dead Again).
From there he made what is unarguably the most deliriously awful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), to a supporting role in a derided Nazi-riffic thriller with a pre-spoiled finale (Valkyrie), to what is surely, if his critics are to be believed, absolutely the worst thing that could happen to anyone; directing a massive-budget tentpole release at the start of summer, a huge logistical project which stands a good chance of making a shedload of money and is arguably the best thing he has made by a country mile, kicking off the blockbuster season with such a burst of surprisingly confident film-making, crowd-pleasing fun and franchise-ensuring success that he can basically write his own ticket for years to come. Won’t you join me in laughing at the dreadful hubristic failure of that poor loser Branagh?
Of course, there is a chance that it won’t actually make that much money; it has already opened in Australia where it was beaten at the box office by The Fast Five and The Furious Five. Audiences probably won’t recognise the character Thor, and many of them don’t know who Chris Hemsworth is unless they have a special ability to see through the obfuscatory lens flares in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. However, the reviews are rightly positive and this could end up with great word-of-mouth. I await its US opening figures like a child waiting to see how high White Lines by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel will appear in the UK top 40 on a Sunday afternoon in 1983 (true story).
N.B. I would wait to see what the UK figures are like but the damn thing is opening in the same week as some wedding or other; I think Jordan’s marrying Andrew Marr or something. Means it might be worth my while to go see it again on Friday, hopefully in a cinema that is only sparsely attended and where my enjoyment won’t be interrupted by numerous incontinent men, wailing vomity babies, and important people checking for the arrival of important emails on their super-bright phones; three hypothetical irritants that in no way pissed me off this morning, no not at all.
So why is Thor a success, above and beyond any financial concerns? Mostly because it continues Marvel Studios’ streak of good-to-great superhero adaptations, and yes, in that list I do indeed place Iron Man 2 despite the considerable backlash against it for not being explodey enough or whatever the hell crime it committed against humanity. As I said in my end of year poll last year, that loose structure and air of genial knowingness was something that I considered a plus, and having Hott Sam Rockwell along for the ride was even better news.
The complaints about it being nothing more than a set-up for the wider Marvel Film Universe (MFU) concern me not a jot, as that’s something that I want to see, and get actively excited about. I didn’t find it annoying in the slightest, and the same goes for Thor, even though the major Avengers set-up in the middle of the movie – featuring a damp Jeremy Renner on a crane getting cramp in his fingers – looks like it was filmed last week and spliced in during the drive to the big factory where they replicate all of the prints (I don’t know how these things work; I assume it’s done using a big hard-drive and a shitload of memory sticks).
Thor isn’t as smart-arse as Iron Man 2, but then it doesn’t feature Robert Downey Jr., and I doubt Branagh has a sarcastic bone in his body. He’s hyper-sincere, which turns out to be exactly the kind of thing Thor needs. The previous Marvel movies featured a couple of big set-pieces but were mostly conversation-and-character-based; being a bit more of an universe-spanning epic about “gods”, Thor’s big chats take place in gargantuan golden rooms, vast crumbling ice cities, and in a town built (especially for the movie) on the side of a hill looking down at a desert. It has something the other movies lacked; a sense of grandeur.
That’s helped by the use of 3D – a smarter choice than expected, as there are hardly ever more than two planes in the movie; the foreground where everyone is talking, and something else about a mile away. It’s a nifty post-production conversion, and does add a bit to the sense of scale, though the majority of the heavy lifting is done by the amazing FX guys at Buf Compagnie and Digital Domain, and eye-massaging work from ace production designer Bo Welch (who also directed The Cat in the Hat, but let’s just forget about that for today).
Which is not to say Thor isn’t funny. One of the best things about the Marvel Film Universe is that fun is not a dirty word. I’m quite happy to watch a “gritty” superhero tale if the tone fits the character and the movie is good, but too many filmmakers are not willing to expend an effort in making the characters likeable, or their adventures appealing. Iron Man was a perfect opening act for the Marvel Film Universe for a lot of reasons, but most importantly for making sure the audience is having a good time, which has thankfully become the template for the other movies.
I suspect that was originally the plan with The Incredible Hulk but sadly Edward Norton is a weirdly alienating actor at the best of times and much of the light stuff happened between him and Liv Tyler, who was wearing her customary “Did the director just say action?” look of incomprehension. Those jokes landed with an uncomfortable thud. Thor features a number of big laugh-out-loud moments, happily puncturing the pomposity of the genre / the epic scope of the tweaked Norse mythology without mocking it. When you hear critics or film buffs lamenting the passing of the adventure movies that cropped up at the beginning of the summer blockbuster era, the Marvel Studios movies are the kind of movies they’re talking about. Bit of romance (but not too much, and must be untragically unrequited), bit of swagger (but with eventual humility), plenty of derring-do, and a smattering of hearty jokes based around character.
They’re not quite as good yet, but I honestly think of the Marvel Studios movies as being the spiritual descendants of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future. The studio has become the 21st Century Amblin. In fact, I’ll go even further, and I expect this will make people think I’ve taken a leap into the crazy abyss: Marvel Studios is the only large, big-budget film-making production company currently making movies with a similar level of consistency and care as Pixar. Now, that’s not to say I think any of the Marvel Studios movies released so far are as satisfying, finely-wrought, or intellectually satisfying as Pixar’s big successes, and I doubt they could ever make a superhero movie as perfect as The Incredibles (or any of their non-superhero movies). However, I honestly believe they’re as safe a pair of hands as we’ve seen in a long time.
Even The Incredible Hulk, which was an entertaining movie but certainly not a great one, was made with care and attention and didn’t feel half-arsed in any way. Iron Man 2 is harder to argue for in that respect, but that supposed demerit – the hints and set-ups for The Avengers – show that it was conceptualised and made as part of a much greater whole. This wasn’t like the G.I. Joe movie, where so many choices seemed to be the easiest options, or the various adaptations of popular YA novels, which are often hamstrung by weak source material (e.g. Twilight). People sweated over those decisions in Iron Man 2, whether the audience liked them or not, and these choices were okayed by the creative collective at the heart of the studio – people who love and understand the Marvel Universe better than anyone, and are making an effort to create an enormous, consistent world filled with thrilling detail.
Who else is stepping up to the plate in an attempt to make a bigger impact on the popular consciousness than a quick first-weekend burst of goodwill? Bruckheimer Productions? Much as I love my boy Jerry, right now he’s in danger of becoming The Guy Who Produces the Pirate Movies, after last year’s failed franchise attempts. Bad Robot? I liked them, but Morning Glory was such a lazy and apocalyptically awful failure that they’ve lost all of my good will in one fell swoop. Di Bonaventura Pictures? Any production company that has made a movie with a first draft script written in a couple of weeks does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Pixar, no matter how many times Michael Bay says he knows that was a bad idea.
This admittedly crazy comparison came to me about twenty minutes into Thor, as our hero (at this point basically a bit of a dick) ignores his father’s advice and zips off from Asgard to Jotenheim alongside his companions – Sif, Hogun, Fandral and fan-favourite Volstagg – via the Bifrost, also known as the Rainbow Bridge. I have no idea what that looked like on the page, but here it is a propulsive and emotionally satisfying thread from Thor’s arrogant dismissal of Odin (perfectly set up in the previous scenes showing him as a brash child) to the manipulation of his friends, and then to an incredible FX blow-out; a sequence of crazed imagination and exquisitely detailed visualisation culminating in an enormous ruck.
For a while there – and at other points throughout the movie – Thor operates for maximum efficiency and effect on every level, adapting the original source material with as much respect and imagination as Peter Jackson brought to Lord of the Rings. If a movie is going to be a big-screen success aimed at a large crowd of people, it needs to wow, and Thor does just that. The clever casting, the narrative confidence, the appealing dynamics between the characters, and the conceptual boldness of the frankly beautiful Bifrost (like a huge golden railgun creating Einstein-Rosen Bridges that propel Asgardians through the cosmos at a terrifying velocity); it was more than I could have hoped for. I was, at that moment, Thor‘s bitch.
Much of the praise for Thor‘s success goes to every writer who has ever tried to bring this larger-than-life character to the screen, a list that includes J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich and credited screenwriters Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz (from Fringe), and Don Payne (er, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer). While many superhero adaptations have featured characters that I’m familiar with, Thor is a bit of an unknown quantity to me, mostly because his world often has so little to do with anything else going on in the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU). Much as Green Lantern has his own thing going on in the DC Universe, Thor has the Nine Realms (from the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology) to explore, and that, along with the large cast of characters, made jumping in seem like a fool’s errand.
My most notable exposure to him came during Kurt Busiek and George Perez’ run on the Avengers (arguably the definitive run), with special mention to his Nuff Said issue in the middle of the Kang Dynasty epic (issue #49, volume three, fact fans!), where Thor screams in horror and pain as his efforts to save Washington fail. Powerful stuff. Bearing my ignorance in mind, the various writers have done a magnificent job in getting the audience up to speed quickly, with information about Thor’s world cleverly parcelled out during the movie’s running time (the mention of Yggdrasill late in the movie, and its depiction in terms of science, is very pleasing).
Even better, any fears that Thor will sit apart from the “realistic” movies in the rest of the MFU are quickly removed; though the comics are filled with magic and castles and suchlike, the Asgard of Thor is a technologically advanced world populated by what is likely an alien civilisation that resembles humanity living in an inter-dimensional city with floating buildings, vast waterfalls, and lots and lots and lots of gold. It’s not said outright that this alien origin is the case, but there is more than enough wiggle-room for any possible interpretation. The result is a surprisingly consistent vision across the MFU, in which we can have a “Norse God” hanging out in a small town and getting pestered by the same vaguely-sinister SHIELD agents that keep bugging Tony Stark and not have this seem like a contradiction or a leap of logic. A small miracle in itself.
Thor‘s most successful stroke of genius might be in the casting; another example of Marvel Studios really taking care to make sure every aspect of their universe works. Just about every character is cast right, with special praise to Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Thor and Loki. Their disintegrating relationship is the heart of the movie, even more than that of Thor and Odin, and Hiddleston does incredibly effective work as the “betrayed” son who lets his sense of pride ruin his life. He is scarily good in every scene, and promises to be one of the best things about all of the forthcoming stories told in the MFU from this point on.
Also great are Ray Stephenson, here escaping the terrible dark pull of that last, execrable Punisher movie by embodying the burly and voracious Volstagg, and Jaime Alexander as brave Sif – a fearsome warrior who doesn’t need a schoolgirl’s outfit when she fights, cough Zack Snyder cough cough. As for DJ Big Driis, aka Idris Elba, in the role of Heimdall, all I can say is I forgive you for Loofah OMG you are a fucking badass to the max OMG you need a spin-off movie stat holy shit that golden armour and massive sword really look good on you. Sadly, the much-missed Rene Russo gets little to do, but at least she swings a sword at one point. I guess. ::sadface:: Anthony Hopkins makes up for that; he does his traditional Hopkins thing, but for some of us (i.e. me) that’s more than enough. Especially as Asgard doesn’t have as many objects for him to do his trademark lean on, so he has to improve his posture for once.
The human characters are also well-cast, with Kat Dennings being more charming than usual as Comedy Relief Girl (she has a name, but she’s pretty much just Designated Clown Who Mentions Facebook And Abs; luckily she does it well), and Stellan Skarsgård thankfully eradicating the memory of Mamma Mia by being generally funny (and, it seems, playing a more important character in the MFU than I thought; he’s in The Avengers too). Natalie Portman is less noticeable, but then Jane Foster is not the most interesting of characters anyway. Sadly that flatness is a big problem for the final act; some of the choices Thor makes don’t have the impact they should, as it’s hard to really care for his relationship with this earthwoman after just an hour in their presence.
The filmmakers and actors attempt to make the relationship work by taking a few shortcuts, meaning they kind of leap into each other’s arms by the middle of the third act, but the unfortunate side-effect of this is that, as some tetchy Tweeters have already complained, Foster suddenly seems to go all “HE’S SUCH A DREAMBOAT!”, thus eliminating her as a recognisable human being. I’d argue that this weird post-post-post-post-feminist “He’s such a hunk!” swooning is necessary in terms of plot, and is kinda played for laughs anyway (“Look! This guy is just so impossibly hot and heroic that the strong woman lost her cool!”), but yeah, it seemed like a bit of a stretch.
There are other flaws here too. The finale is really hectic, with lots of “Let me explain what the terrible outcome of this action will be if you do that thing!” exposition delivered while various characters hurtle through walls. Loki’s motivation is explained in a single exhale just seconds before everything kicks off, which robs the final showdown of its power. Many of the characters are underused, but that’s inevitable, and just makes me want many sequels so we can see Sif and the Warriors Three at full power. Some of the action sequences are garbled and confusingly edited, which is nothing new, sadly. Many of the scenes on the Rainbow Bridge sadly look like what they are; a bunch of folks arguing in front of a green screen. Things pick up considerably when those incredible sets are used.
Much has been made of Thor’s jump from brat to hero, which does seem to skip a few steps, but it struck me that his initial petulance upon turning up on Earth had more to do with him not really understanding how serious Odin is. His “WHYYYYYYYYY??!!??” of horror wasn’t just Branagh over-egging the drama; it’s the moment Thor realises his pops really did just cast him out of the family home. His immediate reaction is to finally doubt himself, and the subsequent scene is what pushes him over the edge. It’s speedy, but it’s not inconsistent.
Worst of all is Branagh being his own worst enemy, as usual. Though he thankfully allows much of Thor to play out relatively calmly, dialling down the Branaghnian shouting and running until the relevant dramatic scene, he still can’t resist using the most obnoxious Dutch tilts ever committed to film. Much of the movie appears to take place on a severe incline; audiences will more likely suffer neck pains than headaches from the 3D conversion. Still, I’ll take that over his usual style; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first movie ever made where all of the actors were required to sprint around the set while screaming at each other. Less is more, Kenny.
Flaws aside, this is an immensely entertaining movie, made with love and ready to give the audience the good time for its very very many pounds / dollars / shekels. This is something that is done so rarely nowadays that it’s easy to forget how much fun it can be to sit in a cinema watching a couple of hundred million dollars get squandered just to make you believe a big hollow robot can shoot fire out of its retractable face like Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still (except this time he’s ribbed for our pleasure). The naysayers and haters can back off for now; 2011 summer blowout has arrived with a big, colourful splash. Thank you to Branagh, Hemsworth, and the rest of the cast and crew on this good-time epic because, against all of the odds, it has made a believer out of me, and turned me into a fan of the God of Thunder. HAVE AT THEE!
P.S. Advice for those who have yet to see it; keep an eye out for what I think might be the Eye of Agamotto in one scene, and do stay for the post-credits scene. Instead of just being a tiny hint about the next MFU installment, this actually seems to be a key plot-point for The Avengers. I doubt it’s crucial, but it does give an idea of what is in store.