"Hello. You are in possession of unauthorised weapons-technology. Identify yourself!”
I know there are probably legions of similar candidates, but this year has seen the arrival on the Big Screen of three of the most unlikely and most unwieldy of superheroes to get the live-action treatment. Whilst there are a gazillion devoted fans for Captain America, Green Lantern and our Asgardian bad-boy here, the mighty Thunder-god Thor, these three characters have always been considered pretty much unfilmable for reasons both cosmic and cosmetic. What looks good in a comic-book and in the colourful scheme of an animated show may not necessarily translate well to a real person in a costume rampaging across a giant IMAX screen. And in 3D, to boot. But, I'm happy to say that Cap came across quite fabulously, in my opinion, and although Green Lantern went the CG route and suffered for it, the character still looked better than I'd anticipated. The film stank, though. However, out of the three, Odin bless him, Thor is the one saddled with the biggest obstacle in this image-conscious regard.
With a physique as massive-hewn as a glacier and Nordic blonde locks crammed beneath a big-winged Viking helmet, a billowing red cape that looks as though even it has been pumping iron in Valhalla, and a bloody big hammer in one hand, Thor is not quite the standard-issue spandex-suited righter of wrongs. Plus, like Green Lantern, this is a guy whose exploits span the universe, with much shifting-about between dimensions and plentiful battling with demon-lords and vast and monstrous deities. Even with superhero movies coming out ten-a-penny these days – it seems that anyone in a costume can make it to the movies now - Thor was never going to be the easiest sell.
At first, just to compound this, it seemed as though there had been some sort of mistake when Kenneth Branagh’s name appeared as the director of Marvel’s next movie juggernaut. Hardly the most commercial man for the job. But, after the shock had died down, it became a lot clearer just how much this tale would appeal to the man behind royal dramas and father/son/sibling rivalries as witnessed in the likes of Henry V and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The tempestuous vibrancy of the Bard’s epitomising of youthful swagger and spirit is written large in the arrogance and uber-confidence of Asgard’s leading light and heir to the throne. Thor has the false pride of many a liege-in-waiting. In this light, it is not hard to see the classical conflict that the Hammered One has with his treacherous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as being precisely the sort of trigger-point that Branagh would seize upon. And the weight of disappointment, disillusionment and crushing regret that Odin feels at his own son’s fierce impetuousness is equal to the shameful dishonour and horror that Victor Frankenstein (played by Branagh in his adaptation) feels towards his own defiant creation. Of course, the icing on the cake could then be seen as Thor’s star-crossed love for the mortal Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), their fate-spun affair entwined with the aching threads of many a powerful and swooning example of brooding bygone literature. In this context, Branagh would seem to be the mos logical choice to helm the movie, wouldn't he?
"Run back to Asgard, little Princes.”
After it has been discovered that the Frost-Giants, a demonic race of age-old enemies to Asgard, have penetrated the citadel in an attempt to regain the source of their power, confiscated by the good King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) after their bitter defeat centuries before, Thor goes against his father's orders and leads a small retaliatory attack on their barren realm. The resulting fracas brings the two creeds to the brink of war all over again, and for his part in breaking the fragile truce, Thor is banished to Earth and stripped of his powers. In his exile, it becomes clear that his jealous half-brother Loki is not all that he appears to be, and Odin is compelled to confess a terrible truth about the warrior's personal history to him. The effect of this splinters the ruling of Asgard to its very core. And when Odin collapses into a mystical comatose state, Loki assumes full control over the kingdom … but his intentions are anything but honourable. Somehow, the lost Thor, reluctantly out-of-the-loop and blundering through New Mexico with a trio of astrophysicists in tow and agents from Nick Fury's S.H.E.I.L.D keen to find out just who he really is, must regain his power and fight his way back to Asgard to rescue his father's kingdom from deceit, tyranny and destruction at the ice-fists of the Frost-Giants from Jutenheim.
As “big” as the story is – what with Shakespearean family woes and the fate of worlds at stake – Branagh keeps the mood surprisingly light. The comedy is anchored on both sides of the fate-tilted sphere, with clichéd chuckles Earth-bound and daftly infectious camaraderie ignited in the incandescent beauty of Asgard. The “mortalised” Thor struts around town yelling “You dare attack the Son of Odin!” to bemused medical staff, and hurling cups to the floor of a diner with a surly “I like it! Give me another!” He storms into a pet-store to obtain a horse, and when informed that they only have cats and dogs, he simply demands “one large enough for me to ride!” Stellen Skarsgard does a great drunk-act, even if he is little more than an onlooker for much of the time. The action is chaotic and a nice mix of the immensely large-scale (the battle with the Frost Giants) and the painfully intimate (Thor levelling a score of highly trained S.H.E.I.L.D operatives), and the CG rendered visualisation of Asgard is absolutely breathtaking. Although this is the 2D version, you just can't deny how eye-poppingly beautiful the cosmic canopy is – all lustrous blues and purples and pinks – that stretches over the top of Odin's realm. The Rainbow Bridge, slightly over-used in the film, if I'm honest, is a scintillating image that you would just love to walk, ride or charge across. There is more sheer “energy” on visual display here than seen in the entire Star Wars series – laser-bolts and plasma-walls, great pulsing barriers of light and fire that rip through time and space to open-up kaleidoscopic trans-dimensional portals, shock-waves of coruscating colour. At times, the film borders upon trance-inducing, and it is a beautifully rare thing to really want to climb into the screen alongside the characters as much this sort of imagery urges you to. The spires of Odin's palace mimic the pipes of a great golden church organ, Peter Jackson-inspired flybys over painstakingly etched CG landscapes reveal the depth and breadth of this strangely anachronistic civilisation in the stars. But the most momentous image that the film pitches at us is the awesome waterfall that pours its stallion-headed waves down into the depths of a jewel-encrusted universe. This is the sort of splendour that Terry Pratchett conjured up in his Weaveworld novels, a landscape at once completely illogical and reality-defying, yet so achingly alluring that you just pray it exists somewhere out there.
After the not-inconsiderable leap from TV's Home and Away, Chris Hemsworth made a terrific impact in the thunderous and incredibly moving opening act of Jim Abrams' Star Trek reboot as baby Kirk's self-sacrificial daddy. His unmistakable charisma broke the heart and raised the emotional bar very high for the rest of the film. Now, finally awarded a starring role, he proves that he has more than enough depth, credibility and pure star appeal to carry off such a big production as this. An ex-surfer and Aussie-rules footballer, the Antipodean actor underwent a mammoth training regime to assume the mighty stature of the God of Thunder. I've seen his workout routine, trained by Michael Knight (no, not the Hoff!), and had been following it myself for a few weeks, and man I can testify to its exhausting but extremely rewarding effects, so it is not hard to see how he so completely transformed his body and bulked-up that he was forced to slim down and get ripped in order to fit back into the costume. (Since then, I've moved onto Chris Evans' routine for Captain America … variety is the spice of life!) But there is much more to creating the character of Thor than simply twirling massive weights above your head. Looking older than his mere 27 years, Hemsworth has the sort of rugged appeal of Kurt Russell combined with the pretty-boy looks of Brad Pitt. It is easy to imagine Hemsworth's Thor and Pitt's Achilles out wenching together in mythical taverns. Yet, he knows precisely, intuitively, when to break that heraldic swagger and expose the emotion within. His pitiful enquiry to Loki during one devious scene of “Can I come home now?” is truly from the heart, and, most importantly, as the story goes on you can see the character falling in love with Jane Foster right before your eyes. No contrivance, no cliché needed (well, not from Hemsworth, at any rate) … and you believe it. From the very first time that we see him as a grown man, after the scene-setting prologue that is, and he strides indomitably through a great hall filled to the gilded rafters with cheering warriors about to be crowned Allfather of Asgard, Hemsworth clearly nails the part. Hefting Mjolnir with vigorous pride and winking mischievously at his mother, we instantly know the character and get what Hemsworth is doing with his interpretation. Surprisingly, given the vanity of this mythical warrior-god, there is no ham-fisted self-consciousness about the performance … and this is what immediately grips you and makes you happy to go along with Hemsworth.
"You made my men – some of the most highly trained professionals in the world – look like a bunch of minimum wage mall-cops.”
It isn't a shock to find Anthony Hopkins playing Thor's one-eyed warrior father King Odin. Now getting on a bit, the renowned thesp has portrayed a few of these imperious clan leaders in recent years. Kicking off as the master-swordsman, Don Ramirez, in The Mask Of Zorro, and followed by regal turns in Alexander and Beowulf (another striking Nordic-style fantasy), and then as a savage, primal alpha-male patriarch in The Wolfman, he has almost certainly cornered the market for such haunted speech-spouting commanders with serious family issues. As such, this role is hardly a stretch for the sturdy little Welshman, although there is some genuine emotion at play in that one good eye when Odin is forced to do and say things that he really has no desire to. And speaking of emotion, the young Tom Hiddleston provides plenty of understandable rage and confusion when he learns of his true lineage from the man he called Father. I was reminded a lot of Luke Goss' similarly soul-blighted performances as supernaturally hurt sons in both Blade 2 and Hellboy 2, and this was not a bad thing. It is great to see Loki in his full regalia, with that helmet of dramatically curled horns he resembles some sort of oriental devil. His ability to throw his image, or his shade, around the gaff sets up some good little moments too, even if there are times when Hiddleston looks suspiciously like Brent Spiner, or even Alan Cumming … which isn't so impressive. Then again, he can even resemble a youthful Gabriel Byrne ... which is.
Idris Elba supplies a commanding presence as the all-seeing, all-hearing guardian of Asgard, Heimdall, standing tall and imposing at the end of the Rainbow Bridge, resplendent in great golden armour and capped-off with piercing, implacable golden eyes and a voice like a silk-smoothed subwoofer. Back on terra-firma, Portman does reasonably well as the love-interest who literally brings Thor down-to-Earth with a bump. She isn't all that convincing, but nor is she exactly slumming-it, either. She remains steadfastly likeable. And pretty. I would have liked to have seen more from Stellen Skarsgard, who Marvel probably felt they had to employ as a Viking good luck talisman, as Jane's professor associate, but what he does here, as perfunctory as it is, is enough. Colm Feore gets to growl in an impressively deep Liam Neeson manner as the Frost-Giant King Laufey. We don't necessarily suffer much empathy with the plight of him and his breed, but Feore brings depth to the character's shades of darkness and wrath, tempering his fury with credible motivation.
The Frost-Giants, themselves, are a great set of adversaries. They have that classical vogue of grim ancient carvings and statues. Their size and aggression is satisfyingly intimidating. It is true, however, that they resemble the terrifying Djinn of Wishmaster fame, what with their blazing red eyes, and that big square lantern-jaw, but they still inspire shudders. Branagh can't resist throwing in a massive Sammael-like beast (that tentacle-whiskered demon-hound from Hellboy, folks) that they can call upon, and this thing ushers-in the most obvious of the CG. But it still packs a wallop when charging after our heroes. There's a nice shot of the Giants running and leaping off a high cliff to join in the fray when Laufey calls for reinforcements. And the big Destroyer, seen heavily in the pre-release marketing, has a cool design of intricate armour-plates that can swivel, pivot and re-align to assist him/it in thwarting opponents who think they've got the upper-hand.
"Your ancestors called it magic … you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”
I like the way that Norse patterns are brought into play. They may only be utilised as something pretty to look at – the weird concentric circles left on the ground after an Asgardian delivery to Earth, say, or the overhead shot of the S.H.E.I.L.D compound that surrounds Mjolnir – but they do provide some sort of visually arresting enigma from time to time. The visual and thematic nods to legend and mystery don't just stop with the Norsemen, either. The jerks who all crowd around the landed Mjolnir and queue up to take a turn at trying to wrest it from the ground is a great spin on our own Sword in the Stone myth. Look out for Marvel-creator Stan Lee making his customary cameo appearance in this sequence. Isn't it strange how he has looked about ninety for the last forty odd years?
Patrick Doyle has been Branagh's go-to composer for a long time now. His score for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a strong personal favourite of mine, but the Englishman has also fashioned extremely memorable music for Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, for Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, the franchise's best score, and supplied the only worthwhile element of the otherwise lame fantasies, Eragon and Igor. Here, he totally embraces the immense and mythic elements of the tale and provides a truly majestic fully orchestral score that is definitely one of the best I have heard so far this year. I was a little surprised to hear a resemblance to Hans Zimmer's suspenseful tick-tock Batman Begins motif, but he skilfully blends this into his own wonderfully strong main theme to create a symphonic tour de force that feels suitably noble and stirring, and his softer, more heartfelt and sweeping love theme is both utterly gorgeous and sweetly lyrical. But for rousing glory, there is the fantastic moment for when Thor finally gets to his feet, power restored, Mjolnir in hand to defend his new friends from a towering aggressor (Track 20 on the score CD, folks – possibly a full review coming soon). Every once in a while, we need a piece of music that totally and unashamedly stirs the blood and makes us want to beat our chests and punch the air - and this theme is definitely one of those. Adding to this dynamic resurgence, his score for Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is another hugely exciting and richly composed work of modern fantasy and action.
"You ... what realm is this?”
For me, the failings of the film irk but do not aggravate. Thor’s loyal companions are, I feel, sadly squandered. The Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano and Josh Dallas, who looks a lot like Branagh) and the Lady Sif (the luscious Jaimie Alexander) are but token sidekicks who, individually, have little more than a purely visual identity with which to populate the screen, and, collectively, offer nothing of either characterly or narrative worth. Of all people, Stevenson gets the most disgustingly shortened edge of the stick as the decidedly superficial and ineffectual Volstagg. Purists can bemoan the fact that Thor’s mother, the unfortunately named Frigga (played by Renee Russo and, perhaps for good reason, hailed in the film only as Mother), is barely seen at all, but it is the cinematic shoehorning of these lapdog hangers-on that plays quite horribly to convention. Stevenson, looking like a taller version of LOTR’s Gimli, has neither the voice nor the action-allowance to carry off his ale-swilling, bison-devouring berserker to anywhere near the level that we would like to see. His big showboating tussle with the Destroyer is a huge damp-squib as, indeed, is the whole lacklustre sequence which struggles to set the pulse racing. The reminders of Superman facing-down Zod, Ursa and Non in a made-to-measure Middle American high-street are wrought with all the subtlety of a knock on the head from Mjolnir, itself. The desert-town setting also seems a little restrictive, but then to have placed Thor in the midst of the neon sprawl of New York, for example, would not have provided all that much of a contrast with the gleaming citadel of Asgard. And there is a certain amount of dumbing-down of the epic scale of the situation whenever we are on Earth, but I will concede that this element is perfectly understandable. Let's face it, the overarching scenario now posits a world and a society that know about the Incredible Hulk, the Abomination and, of course, Iron Man and, by extension, possibly Spidey … so there has already been a cultural precedent set by the time this new kid arrives on the superpowered block. And, just to fly in the face of some internet and fan backlash, I actually like and indeed applaud the inclusion of Hawkeye's cameo. Here played in his Clint Barton guise by the great Jeremy Renner – inspired casting, he'd already portrayed a highly skilled marksman in 28 Weeks Later – his ultra-cool put-downs and super-macho confidence come across well in a brief, but very effective vignette that introduces him to the forthcoming Avengers format and will even stick in the minds of those who don't know who the character really is. “Should I take him down now … or are you just going to send in some more guys for him to beat up?” Great stuff.
As far as I am concerned, the film lacks one or even two big action set-pieces. We get that tremendous Frost-Giant battle that dominates the first act. We get the mortal (but still supremely tough) Thor laying flat a gaggle of S.H.E.I.L.D goons as he heads for the captured Hammer. And we get the smackdown with the Venetian-plated Destroyer. All of which leads you to believe that we are headed for an all-out, in-yer-face tag-team leviathan skirmish in the spectrum-painted heavens come the grand finale. We don’t get this. Well, not quite. And, once the rainbow-drenched dust settles, you may well feel an almost justifiable sense of “is that it?” After all the luscious visuals, the terrific embodiment of the main character, and the wonderful evocation of a mythology that we know is purely preposterous – there is still something missing. Thor is a Marvel-lously entertaining film in its own – and that should really be enough, shouldn’t it? – but there is still that horrible feeling that this has all been merely a set-up for the studio's grander scheme. The fact that the film is actually much more enjoyable than that and can stand quite readily on its own two feet is down entirely to Chris Hemsworth and the passion of his director.
But, just for those people who hunger for the now-expected post-credits sequence, my advice is … don’t bother. Easily the worst of the teasing codas that the Marvel franchise has spawned so far, this is a rather too subtle tease for the forthcoming Avengers, but one that still ensures some sort of return for the dodgy half-brother of the big blonde feller. Considering that we should all be demanding more yarns of Thor, this seems acutely redundant and more than a little bit wasted.
Avengers preamble be-damned, Thor can certainly make it as a great new screen superhero franchise on his own. This first Hammer-flinging foray embraces the cosmic splendour and scope of Asgard and truly makes you want to see more. As any Thor-acolyte will testify, there are many tales that can be brought to the screen about this flaxen-haired, ale-quaffing warrior now that he has passed the ultimate test and proved his cinematic mettle against a very discerning audience. Chris Hemsworth is outstanding in the role, bringing reckless ferocity and headstrong arrogance in-tandem with a thoroughly winning charisma and a deft understanding of how to straddle the perilously thin line between camp and heroic.
Although I still think this could have been better again with a bit more action, I have seen Thor a good few times now and I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it to anyone. As a taster for the superhero deluge that followed in its wake this year, it stands tall as one of the best, and it certainly bodes well for the big hitters that are coming our way in 2012. Thor, Branagh-style, is a terrific opening gambit and, like the opening Spider-Man, X-Men and Batman outings, really leaves you hungry for more.