Hey, remember when superhero movies were fun?
Just plain old, unapologetic, un-self-conscious fun. Every now and then, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Louis Leterrier or Jon Favreau would remind us. But for every light-hearted “Iron Man”, there’d be a flood of dour Batmans, perpetually angst-ridden X-Men, and to top it off, a mopey Superman with relationship issues (I’m looking at you, Bryan Singer). Somewhere along the line, directors and film studios decided this genre needed to be dark, profound, or important. Or all of the above. Now, if the utility belt fits, by all means wear it.
Sometimes however, you don’t need to be so serious in order to be taken seriously. “Thor” is proof of this. By embracing its pulpy origins and going big, broad and loud, director Kenneth Branagh has given us perhaps the most truthful — and downright entertaining — comic-book adaptation in years. The irony is that Thor is the least comic-bookish property around. After all, it’s based on ancient Norse mythology rather than the gamma-irradiated freaks or billionaire vigilantes of our times. While its introduction in 1962 came with some pretty camp reimagining at the hands of Marvel pioneers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the essence of the God of Thunder and the rest of the pantheon of Nordic deities remained fairly intact.
Many critics have said that Thor would be the hardest to translate to the big screen because of its roots. Here’s the thing. Superhero stories are in fact the mythologies of the modern age. Our mythologies. The Greeks, Romans, and Vikings had their respective sagas of larger-than-life characters who would champion lost causes and triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity. They inspired the people living thousands of years ago to face the challenges of life with honour and compassion. That’s exactly what superheroes do for people living today. In that sense, Thor is the purest comic-book property of them all.
I also did not see a big problem with the other tricky aspect of adapting “Thor”: magic versus technology. Even before the filmmakers revealed their solution, I knew what it would be because it had been done before. Little-known 80s cartoon “Visionaries: Knights Of The Magical Light” (which was based on a Hasbro toy line) was set on an alien world where magic was simply super-advanced science. Marvel Studios conveniently “borrowed” this concept, and voilà! Instant dovetail fit with Tony Stark’s high-tech world.
And so we have the heavenly realm of Asgard re-envisioned as a planet in some distant part of the universe, with the Asgardians as long-lived extraterrestrials whose visits to Earth resulted in them being worshipped as gods. Shades of “Stargate” here as well (man, my geek credentials are just skyrocketing today). This interpretation has allowed Branagh to take liberties with the original myths. Asgard is now a multi-ethnic place, with Asians and Blacks mixing up what was once a strictly Aryan affair. The casting of Tadanobu Asano as Hogun and Idris Elba as Heimdall caused lots of controversy, but it’s really no big deal. Viewed in the context of Branagh’s vision of that world, it feels right.
Ah, and what a world he has created. Asgard is all gleaming, majestic vistas filled with impossible architectural configurations and a sense of dreamy timelessness. Under Branagh’s watch, production designer Bo Welch has managed the very difficult task of making the costumes and setting feel medieval yet futuristic. Everything could have so easily turned out looking ridiculous. Instead, they’re a treat for the eyes.
Providing far more than eye candy is Chris Hemsworth in the title role. What a superb choice he turned out to be. He is this year’s equivalent of Robert Downey Jr., right down to the character arc. When the story begins, Thor is stubborn, pompous and foolhardy, the ultimate alpha-male. His coronation as the new king of Asgard is interrupted by an attack by sworn enemies the Frost Giants. Knowing full well it would break a long-held truce, the young warrior still resorts to revenge. As punishment, his father Odin casts him down to Earth and removes all his powers until he learns humility.
What I like about all this is that we enter the story with Thor already Thor. This is not another superhero origin story. When we are introduced to him, he is at the height of his powers, if not the height of his true potential. He may have been born super, but he is no hero. Hemsworth conveys this moral journey in a believable manner, while maintaining an aura of cheeky, exuberant charm throughout. This also allows the film’s humour to work, in his numerous fish-out-of-water scenes on Earth. Yes, this film isn’t afraid to laugh at its protagonist… for good reason. Deflating Thor’s pomposity helps to quickly get the audience on his side. It’s a nice form of storytelling shorthand.
Good thing too that Hemworth shares an easy chemistry with Natalie Portman. The romance between them accounts for much of Thor’s gradual path to selflessness. Portman plays her human scientist Jane Foster as a smitten kitten, all stolen glances and giddy enthusiasm. It’s right out of the Kirby-era comic-books, and while contemporary feminists might frown, I found this throwback to the old-school Hollywood love interest kind of refreshing. Why can’t a woman in this day and age fall head over heels, and with a literal god, no less?
The most affecting parts of the film aren’t even the stuff you’d expect to find in a Marvel superhero flick. For all its surface appearances as a crowd-pleasing action blockbuster with laughs aplenty, “Thor” is as deceptive as its villain Loki. I can now see the real reason why the studio entrusted this project to Branagh. The British director, best known for his Shakespearean adaptations, found the perfect way to bring these somewhat strange and esoteric characters down to a level that audiences could connect with. By making this a family drama. A story about fathers and sons, and competing brothers. These are universal themes regardless of genre or time period. Anyone who’s ever felt a tinge of jealousy towards a more favoured sibling, or suffered the guilt of having disappointed a parent, will be able to relate.
The former in particular added a poignant dimension that caught me off-guard. As the youngest in the family, I understand exactly how Loki feels, living his whole life in the shadow of his big brother. When you’re immortal, that’s an even longer curse to live with. Loki is written (by Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz) and performed (by Tom Hiddleston) in such a sympathetic, nuanced manner that you’d actually be hard-pressed to label him a villain. His actions paint him as the antagonist, but his motivations are far less clear-cut. He may well be the best “bad guy” in all the Marvel films thus far.
Also striking an emotional chord are the scenes between Odin and his two sons. Anthony Hopkins isn’t called upon to really flex those considerable actorly muscles. Still, there are a few weighty dramatic moments that wouldn’t have been as powerful or touching if not for him. Even when the film starts to get draggy in the middle, there’s always this central relationship that keeps things from getting boring.
The rest of the supporting cast vary in quality. Idris Elba makes the most of a limited role, investing Heimdall with a mysterious, knowing air. Thor’s loyal companions The Warriors Three are a bit of a letdown though, as is goddess Sif (Jaimie Alexander). They’re saddled with a largely inconsequential part in the plot, and even in action, they barely register. Of the human roles, Kat Dennings is the most memorable as Jane’s assistant Darcy. She’s given some of the film’s cutest lines, including a running joke where she keeps mispronouncing the name of Thor’s hammer (note: it’s Mee-yol-near).
Speaking of the hammer, it’s officially my favourite superhero weapon! Mjolnir is totally badass, and Thor wields it just as he does in the comics. We’re introduced to a new fighting style, part-heavyweight boxing (Hemsworth patterned his movements after Mike Tyson), part-barroom brawling. Pity the fight scenes fall prey to the stereotypical rookie action-director approach: shooting too close and cutting too rapidly. Fortunately, the rest of the action sequences have more clarity. The Destroyer sequence in the New Mexico desert is a stand-out.
The inevitable lead-in to “The Avengers” takes on even more prominence here than it did in “Iron Man 2”, but at least this time SHIELD’s presence doesn’t feel like a tagged-on afterthought. I have to admit that after watching “Thor” I am much more impressed with Marvel Studios’ commitment in building a complete and connected universe across all their properties. This is a very ambitious plan, and on a business level, very risky. If the rest of the films can match the wonder, emotional impact and sheer entertainment value of Branagh’s film, then the future of the studio is set.
Thanks to “Thor”, I remember why I love superhero movies.
PS: Do stay til after the end credits. You’ll be rewarded with a pretty cool scene.