The mighty Marvel movie machine marches on with the one with the unveiling of Thor. Based on a comic book character that’s been around for just about as long as the Marvel imprint has, the film toggles back and forth between the legendary land of Asgard, where the Norse gods dwell, and the comparatively mundane terra firma of Earth, where a population of heroes with godlike powers continues to assemble. In Asgard, the hubris of the title character leads to him being stripped of his power and cast out, relegated to our planet, which is apparently the Australian prison colony of all-powerful beings. Thor encounters a lovely astrophysicist named Jane Foster and her tiny team of enterprising scientists and, through coming to understand their humanity, finds within himself the necessary humility and nobility to become a figure worthy of his great power.
The controls of this particular franchise–make no mistake: it’s a product first and a film second–were handed over to director Kenneth Branagh, a choice that would have been extremely exciting around twenty years ago, but comes with a hint of warning around it these days. Branagh acquits himself nicely with some of the natural pomposity of the project. It’s tempting to think of the characters with their ornate dictionary as figures lifted from the Shakespeare plays Branagh know so well. That’s not quite right, though. They’re more like characters cooked up by a highly distracted kid who kinda-sorta remembers the plays that were forced upon him in English Lit.
Branagh struggles more with the big action sequences, especially those set in more mystical realms. That could be more of a product of the incredibly murky CGI that his characters need to swim through in order to engage in their fierce fisticuffs. His most troubling choice as a director is actually one of his simplest. He employs canted camera angles with such constancy throughout the film that it begins to seem like someone up in the booth knocked the projector off its moorings. It’s a fussy and intrusive attempt by Branagh to inject interesting visuals into the quieter stretches, as if he feels inadequate being measured against the dynamism of the original comic book story, thereby overcompensating by twisting his camera around just because he can.
He fares better with his actors; there are nice performances all around. As Odin, Anthony Hopkins is admittedly engaged in work that’s obviously, even visibly easy for him, but that’s actually pretty well-suited to the All-Father. Natalie Portman brings a nice dose of sweet pragmatism to Jane Foster which strengthens the impact of her journey to wonderment in the face of this strapping myth before her. As that healthy hammer-hurler, Chris Hemsworth is very good, especially given the high propensity for embarrassment built right into the role. And I’m really beginning to enjoy the ongoing performance of Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, the S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who’s clearly been assigned superhero clean-up duty. Gregg plays most of his scenes with a coating of grumpy weariness. He operates like a guy whose grown tired of asking “Now what?” and he’s not interested in hiding his irritation any more. It strikes me as exactly the way a lifelong government agent would approach the fresh challenge of flying armored millionaires and enchanted relics plummeting to earth like meteorites.
Despite it’s clumsiness as a movie, I have to admit that Thor largely won me over by the end. This is partially due to its adherence to a classic, archetypal story progression that is used over and over again for good reason. It’s pretty stirring, almost no matter what’s done with it. I think it’s also because Thor at least fully commits to its concepts. This is not a film for hesitancy, and even if I think Asgard is a little overdesigned and the rainbow bridge that leads into the city looks like it was purchased at a cheap disco’s “Going Out of Business” sale, at least everyone involved is tapping into their imaginations and coupling the results with a little bit of welcome ambition. It doesn’t always strike hard or well, but it does always strike with purpose.