When Someone Asks If You’re a God…
I knew it! I knew Kenneth Branagh was a geek. Oh, sure, he got famous for all that snooty Shakespeare stuff, but deep down, he’s mad for comic books and superheroes and all that pulp-fiction stuff. He’s a dork. This is totally clear from Thor, the latest installment in Marvel’s attempt to dominate the summer with every kind of masked, caped, or just plain supernaturally talented goodie-two-shoes. Just you look at this movie and tell me that Branagh wouldn’t have wanted to direct The Lord of the Rings. On Coruscant. Or Discworld. Cuz that’s what he’s done here, with a topping of wormholes and a sweetly old-fashioned side dish of Richard Donner’s Superman. Branagh walks a fine line here between appeasing the strict fanboy contingent that doesn’t want to see its stuff messed with too much, and doing something fresh. If just a little fresh. Not too much fresh to scare anyone off.
So there’s that, then… It’s a measure of how much I respect Branagh’s previous work, including As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which he made Shakespeare fresh and modern and relevant, that I had hoped — anticipated, even — that he’d bring some of the Bard’s timeless mojo to comic books, sort of meld the two in a wonderfully transintellectual geekgasm of archetypal storytelling and highfalutin language just barely covering a pulp-fiction story of murder and betrayal and love-hate brother relationships and awesome babes who totally dig guys who pretend to deserve them and testostericearoni fests of manly men expressing their deep emotional anguish and secret neediness through violence. Hamlet in tights, on ice? Why not? I mean, seriously, who doesn’t want to go live and love and eat in the summer sun of Tuscany after Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing? No one, that’s who… and imagine a Thor that made you fall in love with Asgard and long to bask in the reflected glory of the mythic gods of old, just because it made you feel so damn good…
I didn’t fall in love with Asgard, or with Thor — though Aussie up-and-comer Chris Hemsworth (George Kirk, briefly, in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) is supernaturally delicious as the god of thunder. Thor the movie isn’t much more than whole lotta uncomplicated fun — hey! look! Stan Lee cameo! — that doesn’t insult your geek brain and does engage in more than a few moments that don’t look like anything you’ve seen in superhero summer blockbusters before. Seriously: the way Branagh (and his FX team, of course) depict Asgard makes me want a movie Right Now of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, because it would look great — gravity just works differently on a flat plane floating in the infinite void, okay? — and tickle your visual cortex with its novelty. Did I mention the wormholes? Hardly a new concept in science fiction, but there’s something grand and, well, heavenly about them here, a sort of suggestion that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from divinity. Science? Religion? No need to reconcile them here — they’re one and the same.
These gods kick ass. Not always in a nice way. Odin (Anthony Hopkins [You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, The Wolfman], because who else?) has to boot out his son, Thor, for being a “vain greedy cruel boy” — I’ll also add arrogant and stupid, if hot — for launching an ill-advised attack against one of the other universal realms (the one that makes me think Branagh is jealous of Peter Jackson). So Thor ends up on Earth, aka Midgard, and de-divined in the process, where he’s intended to get some lessons in humility and the like, and mostly ends up getting tased by nervous ladies who think he’s weird — if hot — and having other amusing you’re-not-a-god-anymore stuff perpetrated upon him. Much of this involves sedatives and Pop-Tarts, and represents an unexpectedly gentle and human sense of humor on the film’s part. I’m not sure which of the five credited screenwriters (that’s not counting those whose comic-book work this is based on) is responsible for the funny stuff. I’m pretty sure it’s because there are five credited screenwriters — Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski, and Mark Protosevich — that too much of the rest of the film feels calculated and self-consciously constructed as a setup for future Marvel movies rather than working as a standalone story in its own right. Maybe that means that Thor’s brother Loki (the movie-stealing Tom Hiddleston) will actually get to go to town in the next movie with the complicated, is-he-or-isn’t-he-evil? thing he’s got going here that keeps getting shoved aside in favor of some ass-kicking action when what it really needs is a Loki soliloquy and then maybe some sneaky skulking around the halls of Asgard. It may be par for the comic book course that the putative villain is so much more intriguing than the putative hero that you wish the whole movie was actually about him, but again: I expected more from Branagh.
Still: Jeremy Renner cameo! Natalie Portman as an astrophysicist who studies wormholes and falls in love with Thor and Kat Denning as her assistant (only for the wormholes part). That makes two — count ’em! — two lady characters! hoorah! who talk about things other than men! like astrophysics! hoorah! And Clark Gregg wisecracking his way through a mostly thankless role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson — he gets to spearhead an Iron Man reference.
It’s all better than Clash of the Titans, by a whole bunch. And that’s good enough.