Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Anthony Hopkins as Odin
Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig
Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis
Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson
Idris Elba as Heimdall
Colm Feore as King Laufey
Ray Stevenson as Volstagg
Tadanobu Asano as Hogun
Josh Dallas as Fandral
Jaimie Alexander as Sif
Rene Russo as Frigga
Adriana Barraza as Isabel Alvarez
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
One of the problems with being a critic is watching the same stories over and over and over again, and however well told they might be, the lack of freshness can’t help but be a strike against them. This is especially true of light summer entertainment where the budgets are so high the studios will do whatever they need to to ensure a good turnout. This takes the form of stories tailored for the expected young male audience, usually focusing on someone getting pushed into being a hero and choosing to take up that mantle as a metaphor for self-belief combined with growing up. Which is why it’s so refreshing when something different like “Thor” comes along.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t need any convincing to choose the path of the hero, he already is one, and he knows it. He really, really knows it. It’s a wonder his head can fit inside its winged helmet. He’s also brave and gallant and true, so his friends and family put up with his worst habits, or they did, until his arrogance and brashness brings his people to the brink of war with their oldest enemies. To pay for his actions, Thor’s father (Anthony Hopkins) sentences him to live on earth as a mortal.
Taking classic Norse mythology and slapping a cape and secret identity onto it is the kind of strangeness that no comic reader would have batted an eye at in the 1960s but it makes for an odd duck in the world of “Iron Man” and “Spider-Man” films, potentially filled with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and extended lessons about the intricacies of the Prose Edda and how to pronounce Mjolnir (think fjord). It would be tempting to just cut the mythological portion out and bring it all down to Earth. But would that really be “Thor?”
Director Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V”) doesn’t think so. He’s decided to try and make the disparate parts the “Thor” mythos–the human being scurrying around on Earth and the Asgardian Gods in the heavens–meet each other halfway. He succeeds by abandoning stylistic conventions focusing instead on his characters and their often complex relationships. Branagh has cast aside the typical adventure film cliché of plot driving character, instead using his characters to drive his plot and the result is beyond satisfying.
It’s not a character study by any stretch of the imagination, but the extremely complicated relationship between Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) drives everything around it. Rather than just a simple case of revenge or nihilism, Loki is consumed with questions about his parentage, about the nature of his relationship to his brother and his father. There’s nothing arbitrary or artificial making him behave the way he does; it is all completely understandable and full of pathos without verging into angst. Loki is probably the most three-dimensional antagonist Marvel has ever put on screen and Hiddleston’s performance is the reason to see “Thor.”
Hemsworth isn’t quite as up to the challenge as Hiddleston is but in many ways he has a bigger row to hoe, as his version of Thor swings from loud-mouthed braggart to humbled, self-effacing man. Branagh and his screenwriters (all five of them) have taken “Thor” as an opportunity to delve into what it means to actually be heroic. They’ve posited the controversial theory that it doesn’t have anything to do with being able to beat someone up (though that part helps) so much as just being a good person.
Thor the jerk is extremely over-the-top, not a curtain in sight remains unchewed when he’s around. It’s even more obvious when he reaches Earth and his godly mode of speech begins to clash badly with the team of astrophysicists (led by Natalie Portman) who find him. It’s not so much archaic as extremely stagey. Intentionally so, but it’s still a bit jarring.
Branagh’s theater roots hold him in good stead and get him through that rough patch and onto the good stuff as the action cuts back and forth between Loki’s conniving to take Thor’s place for himself, and Thor’s quest to reclaim his hammer (and with it, his power) from the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents guarding it. Branagh keeps the two bound together by theme–particularly once Thor’s friends begin looking for him–keeping the film feeling like a whole, which is a real feat given how disparate it is.
Asgard is a fantastically like-designed world, over the top and resplendent, following along the idea that the Norse gods are more like an extremely advanced civilization from another planet than they are actual deities. Everything there is Shakespearean and bold, filled with larger than life characters like Idris Elba’s gatekeeper Heimdall and the Warriors Three.
New Mexico is New Mexico, and that’s where Thor finds himself surrounded by curious humans as they try to adjust to one another – physicist Portman, her teacher (Stellan Skarsgård) and her comic relief assistant (Kat Dennings). Despite itself, the New Mexico sequences aren’t ever quite up to the level of the rest of the film, partially because they’re used more for exposition than anything else. Hemsworth and Portman’s romance never quite gets off the ground either; it’s unfortunately one of the few relationships in the film that doesn’t quite work.
Nor do some of the New Mexico based action sequences. While the opening assault on the Frost Giants is fantastic, in fact almost everything on Asgard is fantastic, the various Earth-based action beats are far spottier. Branagh is a better actor’s director than he is an action director and strangely for this type of film there are several points where you want them to stop wasting their time with bad fighting and get back to talking.
It’s during the New Mexico portions where Hemsworth finally comes into his own once Thor stops being such a pain and becomes an actual human being, though always staying acutely himself. His face-to-face with Loki when he begs to come back to Asgard, and his acceptance of his fate, have everything that the loudmouthed Thor lacked both in conception and execution.
Branagh’s reimagining of “Thor” the comic keeps everything about the spirit of the character and dumps the rest, taking it from Jack Kirby’s fascination with mythology and gods and turning it into something human and relatable. Though occasionally wry it’s not as out and out fun as some of the best comic films, but “Thor” rises to the challenge on the back of solid storytelling and a focus on character more action films could do with.
(And make sure to sit all the way through the end credits to get a look at what the “Avengers” film is going to be about.)