Have so many tent pole comic book adaptations been released in the space of one summer before? If anyone is unsure of the answer, this year there are no less than four different titles hitting the screen. Three of them not only bear the distinction of not being sequels but are also characters new to movie audiences. Whittling it down further, two of these films are unique in being released not only by the same studio but also in that they exist in the same cinematic universe and will be meeting each other next year in the same movie.
If you don’t know by now then rest assured that next year you will know all about Marvel’s ultimate superhero team up movie, The Avengers. And before that wonderful possibility is unleashed upon an unsuspecting general audience, we get to meet each of said super team one at a time. By now everyone’s grandparents know who Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk are. Soon Captain America will be unleashed upon the Nazi menace. But first it’s time to for an introduction to the next member. No technological armoured suits or super soldier serum here. This guy happens to be the God of Thunder.
Thor, as a film adaptation, seemed a big risk and the potential to get this embarrassingly wrong was huge. Dealing with Viking mythology and terminology and turning it into what is technically science fiction, the filmmakers (in this case, one Kenneth Branagh) have had to walk a very fine line without straying into territory in which a certain Mr Schumacher found himself in 1997. Many have worried about how the world and characters of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s Asgard would translate on the big screen and some recent clips released for advance publicity did little to quell those worries. In fact, some fires of negativity were stoked somewhat, including those of this reviewer.
Thor shouldn’t work onscreen. It really shouldn’t. But it does. Gloriously so. And thousands of Marvel fans can breath a sigh of relief as Thor stands up perfectly well as its own movie and the road to The Avengers continues on relatively smoothly. Not only do Branagh, Kevin Fiege and company do this successfully, they do it damn well, fitting classic dramatic themes in there and not just for good measure either. This is a tale of family betrayal, the arrogance of childhood, a battle for a throne and the simple boyhood desire to prove oneself to your father; the kind of themes that resonate deeply within audiences, giving what could be brainless tosh that little bit of depth. Oh, and a hammer. A big damn hammer that smashes everything in its path. And I mean everything. Thor has moments of exuberance and simple joy playing alongside the Asgardian drama, striking that all important balance on which the film depends.
One of the biggest worries expressed by some fans has been that the legendary realm of Asgard would not be seen too much onscreen and that Thor would concentrate most of its time on modern day Earth, depriving us of the character’s cosmic background. Worry not, mortals. A brief prologue sets up the contemporary setting and characters, blasts a strange man out of the sky into their path and then winds back over 1,000 years to Asgard to tell the tale of two brothers, Thor and Loki, sons of Odin Allfather, king of the realm of Asgard.
Young Thor is next in line to the throne and behaves as one who takes for granted such entitlement. He is arrogant and cocky while his younger brother is quieter and shows no such bravado. As Thor is about to be confirmed as the next king, a raid by their old enemies, the Frost Giants, stops the ceremony. The attack thwarted, Thor demands revenge and sets off with Loki, the Warriors Three and the female warrior, Sif, to the realm of Jotunheim. This does not go well and Odin is forced to save them. Furious with the actions of his eldest son, he deprives him of his power and his hammer, Mjolnir, casting him out of Asgard to Earth, where he must learn some humility and new values if he is to ever return be king at all.
And so Thor inevitably meets our human characters and sets out to retrieve Mjolnir and his power, albeit through rather Arthurian means. But along the way lies resistance from S.H.E.I.L.D. (featuring Marvel regular Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson) and also deception and treachery from those he does not suspect. However, the film itself does not keep this from the audience for too long. The motivations of the villain are pretty clear but not as black and white as some may think, giving a certain villain a little more depth than the usual super maniac.
The film does indeed deal with the fish out of water theme regarding Thor’s new circumstances on Earth and the potential for bad comedy is most definitely there, however the laughs are genuine. The presence of Chris Hemsworth, last seen as George Kirk in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, is one of the great binding elements in the film. Another risk taken by Marvel as Hemsworth is pretty much unknown, they’ve chosen wisely; Hemsworth is immensely likeable in the role and has little trouble in bringing to life this super powered being stuck in the wrong place. He ably follows Thor’s journey from angry young god to responsible and honourable superhero, an important task where story and character tend to take a more prominent role than one might have thought. And he knows how to make us laugh as well, without gurning or over-egging the proceedings (And it has what I think is the funniest Stan Lee cameo yet).
Speaking of over-egging, Sir Anthony Hopkins has been known to chew the scenery in the past and this would have been another opportunity, but he gives Odin a real quiet dignity to go with his rage. His sense of disappointment and hurt at certain events is palpable and Hopkins plays it well. However, the all important love story between Thor and scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is one of the few let downs of the film. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just a little flat and almost damp. One wonders if some may have been left on the cutting room floor.
The look of the film is stunning. Asgard is indeed an awesome place to see, painted in deep golden hues, but at possibly a little too much of a generic futuristic metropolis at times. However, inside its buildings is an example of grand design and practical set building. And that is another strength the film has. While the necessity for digital visual effects is clear, they do not completely take over. An obvious choice would be to render the Frost Giants completely digitally and yet Branagh resists this, using good old fashioned prosthetic make up for a fair bit and resorting to CG when the Frost Giants are in the background during battle scenes, resulting in them appearing more menacing than plain old CG might achieve.
This film makes changes where it ought to and remains faithful where we want it. There seems to be real affection for the source material on display here from Branagh and he has made no secret of the fact that he read the comic as a child. I found myself thinking of Jack Kirby’s art watching certain scenes. The passage across the Rainbow Bridge was one example and watching Thor fly, Mjolnir held out in front, was another. Is it a good idea to get a fan to make an adaptation of a comic? Well, it seems to be working for Marvel so far.
Marvel seem to be making good choices creatively, not only in their casting but also in their writers and directors. Nothing is perfect in any of their movies so far but the danger of falling into the realm of unintentional parody is clear and avoided. There is no tongue in cheek attitude on display and the technique laid out in Richard Donner’s Superman, concerning what he called “verisimilitude”, seems to be what helps make modern superhero movies work. Marvel are playing the long game here, if that’s possible in Hollywood, and seem to know that the little choices along the way affect the result in the long run. Thor succeeds not just as an introduction to one of the Avengers but, most importantly, as a movie in its own right. I advise catching Thor right now, because you’ll be seeing a lot more of him, not just next summer, but for some time after that.
Oh, and this being a Marvel film, you’ll be wanting to hang around until the end credits are over, not just for the expected extra scene but also for a little bit of information delivered in a rather Bondesque fashion.
Thor is on general release in both 2D and 3D from Wednesday 27th April