Thor (2011)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne

Marvel #4

As far as Marvel characters go, Thor just might be my favorite. Certainly, that opinion has been colored by the Taika Waititi treatment, as his comedic flare and filmmaking abilities made Thor: Ragnarok one of the best of the series (we’ll see if that holds up when re-watching the entire series here). Chris Hemsworth seems perfectly cast as a bulky superhero with a great sense of humor. I think part of the attraction, however, is simply that he’s not human. Coming from an alien world, there is so much more world and myth building available to the character than others like Iron Man or Captain America. The character literally comes from Norse mythology, and exploring alien worlds also affords a completely different landscape in which the story can unfold. I am sure the casting of Hemsworth is a major reason why I gravitate to the character over others (I think the characterization of some of the others is likely stronger), but let’s see if the Thor of my memory can hold up.

Much of the earlier goings of this film cover the mythology of Asgard, home of Thor. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and on the precipice of ascending the throne of Asgard, but when longtime rivals the Frost Giants infiltrate Asgard, Thor and his friends, including brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) wage battle against them, prompting his father to exile him to Earth. On Earth, Thor encounters a scientist named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who is researching the very wormhole that allowed him to travel to Earth in the first place. But when news of Thor’s arrival spreads, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of SHIELD descends upon the site where Thor’s hammer Mjolnir has also crash landed. When it is learned that Loki has devised a plan to supersede Thor upon the throne, a battle is staged between the brothers with the fate of Asgard hanging in the balance.

This film is so rich with mythology that at times it’s hard to digest, but in the end, I think the detail of the elements of Thor and Asgard are far more rewarding than they are distracting. Especially so the idea of the Bifrost Bridge, and its keeper Heimdall, played by the incomparable Idris Elba in what feels very much like a luxury casting choice, but I’m here for it. Elba is a tremendous performer, and the character of Heimdall seems so small to the story, but casting Elba I think is just another indicator of the growing success of this franchise, as we move towards an Avengers film with an A-list cast pushing 20 names. But back the mythology stuff, it just really works for me, and I love that the filmmakers decide to frame it from the perspective of a children’s book that Jane’s associate Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) picks up. It’s a childish myth some to life, which helps frame the film and its place in the MCU so well.

But what really works is the comedy, as I mentioned before its my favorite element of Thor. The MCU is known for its witty comedy throughout, but the Thor series really capitalizes on that with the strengths of Hemsworth. Thor really is just a fish-out-of-water story, with him coming down from the heavens and having to adjust to life on Earth, which is a classic comedic framing device which allows for quite a bit of good comedy, delivered perfectly by Hemsworth. The rest of the cast is fairly good here too. I don’t know that I think much of Jane Foster as a character, just another love interest, but Portman plays her well. We also get a glimpse of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), again like Black Widow in Iron Man 2, without much explanation of who he is or why he is there. As we build towards The Avengers, sprinkling in secondary characters like this just adds an element of fun and mystery. I could see some viewers being frustrated by the lack of explanation, but when taken as part of a whole, their treatment is perfectly suited for the larger universe, which goes back to my previous observations that the MCU is a group of good movies that comes together to form something great when taken as a whole. Loki, meanwhile, will continually become one of the more fascinating character studies in the MCU, and Hiddleston’s layered performance is one of the major reasons why.

With director Kenneth Branagh, we’re treated to our first notable director of the franchise, though there are some interesting elements to that story. Originally Matthew Vaughn was slated to direct, at that time an up and comer with only a few films under his belt. This would have fit the bill of Favreau and Leterrier before him, but Vaughn dropped out and went on to be a notable action director with the likes of Kick-Ass, the X-Men franchise, and the Kingsman franchise. Branagh, of known Shakespearean fame, is a little more traditional in that sense, but his hand I thought it not very well felt in this film. The one flourish we do see repeatedly is the use of a canted camera angle, or Dutch angle, which turns the frame slightly to one side or another, and if often utilize to depict tension, suspense, or uneasiness. I found this overt use to be a little distracting and adding very little to the film, especially when used at such a frequency. I can’t really say yet that a film in this franchise has yet shown the voice of its director. Of course the MCU is famously very producer driven at the hands of Kevin Feige, but I would like to, at some point, see a fresh voice and approach to the genre as well. I know with later iterations such as with Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler, those voices come through a little more clearly, but for the time being, Branagh simply seems like a ceremonial choice at the helm of Thor.

Thor provides a great foundation for the character within the franchise, accomplishing the origin story perhaps better than either of the two films before it. Chris Hemsworth arrives as the star rivaling the charisma and screen presence of Robert Downey Jr., which begins to beg the question, what will it look like when all of these personalities, both characters and actors, assemble in a larger production? I think the challenge will certainly be to balance out their personalities and make them work together, otherwise there is great risk of overlapping and washing everybody out. Either sidelining certain characters to the background so a few can shine, or having it be a competition for attention which will likely ruin any cache built up over the individual films. And first and foremost, it will be important that the characters they’ve built shine through unaltered from their original state (except perhaps a casting change – Hulk). But in terms of early films, I think Thor largely succeeds with the implementation of both mythology and character into a visually appealing film (specifically when spending time on Asgard) with a grand imagination of what is possible within this universe. Even if the details of the narrative are somewhat middle of the road, the rest of it elevates it above that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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