The one truly amazing accomplishment of Branagh’s Thor (3D) is that there are so many ways it could have ended up becoming agonizingly embarrassing, but it deftly avoids all of those pitfalls. It’s too bad that it also ends up being an unexciting and forgettable affair.
But let’s backtrack a bit because, damn it, I know all kinds of stuff about the Nordic myths and I need to make use of it somewhere.
Many of the tales surrounding the Norse gods are vague and often contradictory. No wonder, since tales were not written down but told (runes were a hassle), passed down and spread among generations. Much of what we know about the Viking myths today was recorded by monks on Iceland in the 13th century and compiled by the not entirely reliable Snorri Sturlusson in 1220, centuries after most Vikings had (officially, at least) converted to Christianity.
Since relatively little is known about the region before brave monks wandered in, we don’t know if any of the myths may have had real life origins. What we do know is that great parts of the Norse pantheon bear close resemblance to the Gothic and Roman gods, who in turn got theirs from the Greeks: Thor has much in common with Jupiter and Hercules, Odin with Mercury and the Goths’ Wodanaz, Tyr with Mars and the Goths’ Tiwaz, etc.
As a Scandinavian, considering their probable origins, perhaps one shouldn’t complain too loudly about how these gods have become reinterpreted for the Marvel comics, but it is at least amusing: no longer does Thor ride a goat-driven chariot, instead he wears a cape and his hammer makes him fly; gone is the beard and his flaming red hair, instead he has a long flowing mane of blond hair with a beardless lantern jaw; his foul disposition is replaced by a positively knightly attitude and ye olde English vernacular. Let’s not talk about the size of his hammer.
A lot of this “blond knight” interpretation can probably be blamed on Wagner’s opera “Ring of the Nibelungen” (which was freely inspired by the Nordic myths). This connection to the opera and the stage might in turn have been what attracted Kenneth Branagh to the material. The tale of Thor, Loki and Odin – step brothers fighting over the love of their father the king – is an epic one and it gives plenty of room for actors to grandstand on big stages. The feeling of this being a songless opera is so prevalent whenever they’re in Asgard, that there were moments in the film when I honestly expected Anthony Hopkins’ Odin to break into an aria.
Seeing Hopkins as the Allfather of Asgard feels like typecasting, but he does a good job with what he’s given and seems to be having fun with his big speeches in golden armor. In this interpretation Asgard is some sort of golden, sci-fi, space-cloud-city, that Odin has bound together with a bunch of other worlds, using an interplanetary rainbow bridge. Even if it all might sound like something dreamed up after one too many mugs of mead, at least most of it is an attempt to tie it into Viking mythology.
(Sidenote: I read Mark Protosevich’s draft of Thor years ago and while I understand why they didn’t run with that one, I would have paid good money to see the opening minutes, in which the Viking creation myth was run through in detail, but on a galactic scale. It would have blown peoples minds. Just seeing the part where Audhumbla, the world cow, licked forth the three great giants from salt, in 3D, on a big screen, would have been worth it.)
Anyway, Odin has two sons – Thor and Loki. Thor is the happy but arrogant golden boy, while Loki is the brooding one, envious of his older brother. Thor has apparently enjoyed great and unparalleled success in his life and adventures. But just when he is about to be crowned successor to Odin, spurned on by his more clever brother, Thor does something dumb and for his arrogance the Allfather casts him down into (oh, punishment of punishments) the Arizona desert. Where he meets Natalie Portman (and Stellan Skarsgård, there to provide exposition and much needed Scandinavian presence). And maybe, just maybe, he learns humility.
The main complaint I have against the film, it’s that it’s predictable. And don’t come with “it’s a superhero story, what did you expect?” I expected the story to excite and surprise me, and it didn’t. In this film, if you expect it to happen, it probably will. (Okay, maybe there was one thing toward the end, but that really wasn’t all that major.)
What did surprise me was that the story rarely felt awkward. (This is a film where people fight on a rainbow bridge, so that is an accomplishment.) It moves along at a steady pace. Branagh has cast the film really well and most of the actors give their characters proper traits and hints of depths. Only Rene Russo seems relegated to the sidelines.
Hemsworth is given a part that so easily could have been laughingly bad, but he gives Thor charm and makes his occasional arrogance a part of his charm. I think the film might have engaged me more if we had seen more of his adventures with his merry band before the events that cast him down. Could have given the film some much needed action sequences. This has to be the Marvel film with least action sequences, so far.
As is, the most exciting character, given the most depth and conflict, surprisingly turns out to be the bad guy, Loki. Played by Tom Hiddleston, this is an actual nuanced bad-guy performance in a superhero movie, much of it accomplished with his eyes, occasionally downcast, and the posture of his shoulders, which I’ve never noticed an actor using before.
I also found it fascinating to watch two good actors play quite charming and beautiful people, who had absolutely no chemistry together. Absolulety none. “It” was not between them. “Just friends” was invented for these two. I just marvelled at its lack.
Another thing I found lacking was the 3D. No point to it here. It just smudged out the picture.