Playing to the Back Row, by David Bax

For all that can be said about Marvel Studios’ newest film, Thor (which is a mostly good movie), I imagine the thing that will be commented on the most in the weeks after its release is just how different it is from other recent superhero movies.  Most of the entries in the category from the last decade have tried to focus on the humanity of their gifted protagonists (like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) or attempted to ground their outlandish premises in as much gritty, recognizable realism as possible (like Christopher Nolan’s Batman).  Thor, on the other hand, is unapologetically larger than life, with its ancient gods and giants and their relics and magic.  It’s often closer to a fantasy film than anything else.

I know very little about Norse mythology but I do know that, in other cultures, the stories of the gods are the essential foundation of drama.  The tales of power, greed, lust and violence attributed to these ageless figures informed most of the theatrical storytelling that was to follow throughout human history.  Thor is in line with that tradition, concerning the themes above (well, not so much lust) as well as the oldest, perhaps the only, source of conflict there is: good vs. evil.  This is not by any means subtle stuff but it worked in ampitheatres millennia ago and, when done right, it can still work today.

Who better to do it correctly than one of cinema’s greatest dramaturges, Kenneth Branagh?  Branagh has been at his most successful as a filmmaker when bringing the works of William Shakespeare to the screen (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) and there’s no shortage of Shakespeare on hand in this film.  There are elements of Henry V and King Lear and probably plenty of others that went over my head.  It’s in these scenes that Branagh is at his best, directing his actors and technicians alike to play to the back rows in all the emotional moments and holding it all together through sheer will, never breaking in his confidence.

Unfortunately for Branagh, and especially unfortunately for the audience, there are sections of the movie that must take place outside of these mythological realms.  That’s where the film stumbles.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth), exiled to Earth by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his foolhardy arrogance, befriends a trio of astrophysicists (or something) played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings.  These three never manage to develop as characters, apart from a lovely mid-film scene between Hemsworth and Skarsgard at a bar.  They exist to serve whatever function the film needs at the moment.  They are mostly comic relief, sometimes innocents in need of saving and at one point, in an uncomfortably rushed development, Portman is a sudden love interest.  Branagh is unable to make these characters’ reality stand upright on its own, much less manage the relationship between them and the world of Thor and his home realm, Asgard.

As luck would have it, much more of the film takes place on Asgard and other non-Earth locales than one would expect from a movie trying to be a four-quadrant blockbuster.  The reality and the history of this other world is filled in well for us with enjoyable and economical speed.  The main characters here – Thor, Odin, Odin’s wife Frigga and their other son Loki, as well as a sentry/oracle type character named Heimdall and an evil frost giant named King Laufey – are each compelling in their own way and have backstories that are complex enough to be interested but not too complex to be understandable.  Asgard itself is beautiful to look at, especially in a very competent post-conversion 3D, and the stakes naturally seem higher here simply because of the place’s proportional relation to Earth.

Also aiding the mythology-based sections of the film are a handful of fantastic performances.  Anthony Hopkins is grandstanding in the best possible way.  Idris Elba imbues Heimdall with great motivation and nuance using subtle vocal and physical clues that betray the complete lack of emotion in his face.  The underrated character actor Colm Feore is quietly terrifying as King Laufey and emotes very well through what must have been hours of make-up.  The biggest revelation for me was Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  A stage veteran, Hiddleston has shown up in a handful of movies and British television series that I hadn’t seen but I look forward to much more of him in the future.  There’s very little I can say about Loki’s story in Thor that wouldn’t be a spoiler but he has probably the most eventful arc in the movie.  Hiddleston maneuvers every change in Loki as more is revealed to him and to us with a precise surety.  Sometimes I was on his side and sometimes I wasn’t but when he was on screen, my eyes were rarely anywhere else.

As for the other actors, the earthbound ones, there is less to be said, mostly because there is less for them to work with.  Hemsworth gets points for playing up Thor’s intelligence and wit as much as his fervor and strength.  In addition to the three scientists mentioned earlier, the only other major human character is Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D., played by the always reliable Clark Gregg reprising his role from the Iron Man movies.  These scenes exist mostly as a tie-in to the rest of the Marvel universe and to next year’s supergroup superhero movie The Avengers, but Branagh is able to integrate them into Thor’s immediate story without many ripples.

What Kenneth Branagh has concocted with Thor, at least when it’s working, is an intelligent-but-not-too-intelligent crowd-pleaser.  It fulfills its duty as a big summer movie in that it’s a mostly enjoyable way to spend two hours in an air conditioned theater but it goes beyond that, too.  It uses the brightness and the loudness of the movie-going experience to envelop you and carry you along in its momentum, not to assault you into an unthinking coma.  Marvel chose, in Branagh, a filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to take this outlandish stuff seriously and while it’s far from perfect, it’s definitely good.  Which more of these movies would be if more directors took the same approach.

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