While many superhero movies spend the best part of an hour rooting their lead character in a recognisable human reality and steadily introducing the fantastical elements, ‘Thor’ spends little more than a few scene-setting minutes in contemporary America before delving right into a cosmic fantasy world of Norse mythology and sprawling Kirby-tech.
It’s a confident move, although Odin knows we’re ten years on from ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ and into at least the second generation of Marvel movies, so audiences should be trusted to be capable of accepting a big dose of the fantastical by now.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s take on the God of Thunder is a very distinctive one, a science fantasy mix of technology and magic distinguished by the bold, clean lines of Kirby’s designs and the equal clarity of Lee’s characters and dialogue.
It’s to the credit of Branagh and his production designer, Bo Welch, that this genre concoction, one designed and almost inseperable to the four-colour flat page and punchy dialogue balloons of a mid-twentieth century American comic book, is rendered so well as a live action, 3D-where-available blockbuster movie.
We only get to see three of the nine worlds mentioned in the movie, but Welch makes them distinctive yet compatible. Midgard is the Hollywood Earth we’ve come to recognise, like reality but sharper and prettier, a world of functional boxes and blunt edges. Jotunheim, the land of the ice giants, is a Tolkienesque nightmare, an organic fantasy wilderness of ice and darkness.
Asgard is… well, cosmic. Welch has preserved the clean lines of Kirby and his artistic successors, with the reality coming from texture and colour. The burnished metals and translucent bridges of Asgard look both tangible and unearthly. Quite a trick.
High production values and good design can’t do everything, of course. Spend a fortune on effects and sets for a film with stiff actors and lame dialogue and the audience will be left with a taste of phoniness regardless of the visual fidelity.
Fortunately Branagh has hit exactly the right tone for ‘Thor’, and his direction pulls script, cast and visuals in the right direction.
Branagh has joked that ‘Thor’ is the third part of a Scandinavian trilogy after his ‘Hamlet’ and his role in ‘Wallender’, and joking aside he does seem to have applied some tricks from those projects to this one. The Asgardian dialogue has the same clipped Scandinavian delivery that the dialogue in ‘Wallender’ does, giving the feel of a different language without using heavily accented English.
Thankfully cod Shakespereanisms (all those ‘thou arts’ and ‘verilys’) are avoided, but there is something of Branagh’s Shakespeare films (and, to be fair, most of the best modern Shakespeare productions) in most of the Asgardian performances, a core of arch theatricality supported by little naturalistic details.
Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, as Thor and Loki respectively, are particular standouts in an excellent cast, with the latter breaking out as a potentially massive star here. Both characters are subtly reinvented and deepened here, and it’ll be interesting to see if the comics follow the screen versions in the same way that Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine led to a more thoughtful Logan on the page.
In its incredibly bombastic blockbuster way, ‘Thor’ is a movie that surprises and subverts expectations. It shows that, yes, Kenneth Branagh can be an action director (though I note Vic Armstrong’s presence on the credits, no doubt handling a lot of that stuff) and deliver big budget entertainment. It threatens to turn little-known names like Hemsworth and Hiddleston into household names.
Best of all, it takes the oddness and archness of Marvel’s ‘Thor’ comic and turns it into a movie as fun and accessible as ‘Iron Man’. Go see.