In this SPOILER-FILLED review, CC2K’s Tony Lazlo praises the nimble tone and light heart of Kenneth Branagh’s surprisingly good Thor.
SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is the best genre-bending romantic action-comedy since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home or Back to the Future, Part III, and I mean that as a grand-high compliment to the old Shakespeare pro’s goofy – and deeply entertaining – new movie.
And be warned: This is a goofy movie in the best way possible. I can’t think of a movie in recent memory that put so many goofy smiles on my face. I smiled at the near-literal translation of grandmaster Jack Kirby’s fantasta-visuals into cinematic psychedelia in the Asgard scenes. I smiled at the humorless presentation of the fearsome frost giants. I smiled as a perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins proclaimed his way through his performance as all-father Odin. (Hopkins also gets the best “and” in the credits since Laurence Olivier played Zeus in Clash of the Titans.)
But goofiness aside, Thor reminded me of what Marvel Studios did so well in Iron Man, and what I hope the studio continues to do well in its subsequent entries: They hire tone-appropriate directors and rely on good actors to add new dimensions and life to Marvel’s venerable pantheon of characters.
Here’s what I mean: Marvel already has unforgettable characters, and in the hands of the right talent, those characters can work shockingly well onscreen. Take Tony Stark. Let’s face it, the Stark character in the comics has a lot more in common with, say, a Tom Selleck-played lothario. He’s a semi-cheesy product of the 70s and 80s. And that’s OK. He’s still a grand creation.
But if you cast the right guy in that role, then you’ve got fucking gold. To wit:
See what I mean? See how silly, intimate, flirty, specific and well-acted that 40-second scene is? That small scene – where Tony flirts with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow, also excellent) – was the moment when I sensed that Iron Man might be something really special. And it is, because Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., et al, delivered such a surprisingly character-driven spectacle. I’m not the first person to say this, but I far, far prefer the middle act of Iron Man – which includes all of the great character scenes with Tony, Pepper, et al – to its special effects-laden final act.
In the same spirit, Branagh was the right guy for Thor not only because his extensive experience in Shakespeare lent itself to the pomp of the Asgard scenes, but also – and even moreso, if you ask me – because of his light touch with the characters, especially in the scenes on earth. (For the record, Iron Man remains the finest jewel in the Marvel Studios crown. The only other movies they have are the disappointing muddle of Iron Man 2 and the decent Incredible Hulk. Not that we need to rank everything, but I’d place Thor a distant second in quality in that lineup, with Iron Man 2 bringing up the rear. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Captain America later this summer.)
Chris Hemsworth has received a lot of advance praise for his performance as the thunder god, and it’s well deserved, though his performance falls short of the revelation that was Robert Downey Jr.’s. Hemsworth gamely plays the character as written in the comics, whereas Downey Jr. did all that and more. Downey Jr. brought his own spice, pizazz and personal experience to Stark. Hemsworth, by contrast, simply delivers a rousing, winning star turn. I know I’m holding Hemsworth to a high standard, but until Marvel Studios tops Iron Man, I have no choice.
It’s funny – as the release date for Thor approached, I read several advance reviews that sought to reassure geeks that most of the movie takes place in Asgard or in one of its neighboring astral realms (Jar-bong-heim or something – it’s the home of the frost giants). It seems that a great many geeks were discouraged by some of the advance footage, which showcased the scenes on earth (“Midgard,” in Asgardian parlance) and its markedly goofier tone.
But you know what? I preferred the goofy shit on earth. In fact, here’s a list of goofy shit I think you’ll like, too:
• The preternaturally curvy Kat Dennings as a ditzy hormone factory.
• A surprisingly spry Natalie Portman as a smitten astrophysicist. (Side note: Is rural New Mexico a hotbed for astrophysics research? Don’t you need a radio telescope for that stuff?)
• Stolid Scandinavian character actor Stellan Skarsgard as a fellow astrophysicist and native Norwegian who watches some of his boyhood fairy-tales come to life before his eyes. (Skarsgard is also pretty dang funny.)
• To prove he’s changed, Thor … serves eggs. (This is true. And you’ll like the moment.)
• Thor explains the makeup of the heavens to Natalie Portman, who we’re supposed to believe lives in a trailer, and during this campfire tale, Portman’s Jane Foster falls head-over-heels for the hunky psycho who claims to be a Norse god. (I sensed just a little bit of the Ultimates Thor here, too.)
• Thor charms the socks off of everyone in a five-mile radius by kissing Portman’s hand and generally being polite. (His gentlemanliness even prompts Dennings’ aforementioned hormone factory to rip off a curtsy.)
• Thor and Skarsgard’s grumpy old Norwegian guy bond over brewskis, and then get into a drinking contest.
Branagh makes the wise choice to invite us to laugh at Thor and his retinue when they’re on earth. In Asgard, it’s all honor and kings and filial betrayal – all of which unfolds against a succession of stunning visuals that rival the greatest flights of fancy seen in What Dreams May Come, and all of which is played with the right amount of square-jawed, Shakespearean majesty. Also, kudos to Idris Elba and the Thor team for finally helping me get the character of Heimdall. He’s Atlas! He’s a mighty god who’s been saddled with an incredibly important but somewhat dull celestial burden. (Memo to the Council of Conservative Citizens on behalf of comic-book geeks everywhere: Suck our fat ones, you cheap dime-store hoods.)
(The only real misstep in the “Shakespearean majesty” department is one moment when Odin silences Loki (a nicely reptilian Tom Hiddleston) by barking at him and … kind of pointing his fist at him. It drew some unintentional laughter.)
But as soon as Thor and the gang land on earth, they’re immediately played for laughs, and once again, I could sense Branagh’s classical training being brought to bear on these radical shifts in tone, because the structure of Thor echoes any number of Shakespeare plays that shift between a stately court (Asgard, Athens, Duke Frederick’s) and an untamed wilderness (Midgard, the forest of Arden, you get the idea). Thor also echoes the structure of Masters of the Universe, but let’s not talk about that.
I led off this review by invoking both Star Trek IV and Back to the Future III. I wasn’t kidding. All three movies splice together elements of science-fiction, science-fantasy (a term I use very loosely), romantic comedy and a lot of other goofball ideas into movies that vary wildly in tone and are generally way better than they have any business being.
“I love Italian. And so do you.” Ha!
If you like that kind of thing, then I think you just might enjoy Thor.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.