Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and John Payne
In a strange twist of fate, Branagh brings a Shakespearean edge to Thor, perhaps the silliest and consequently, the most difficult of all the Avengers superheroes to bring to the screen. Though he does not entirely overcome the silliness of a Norse God whose sworn enemy is a bunch of ice people facing the tribulations of the modern world, the film is light in just the right places, alleviating pressure from the audience’s urge to laugh inappropriately by winking and nudging with them.
What is truly impressive about Thor is the realization of the realm of the Gods. It’s no coincidence that few filmmakers over the course of history have attempted to tackle the lives of the Gods. Most attempts fail, some fall short in conveying the immortality and power of their God figures, while others create figures so distant that they are too far from human and are nothing more than empty vessels. Perhaps tapping into his knowledge of Shakespeare who successfully brings to life the follies and tribulations of the Gods in plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Branagh focuses particularly on the vanity and pride of Thor as a means of both creating conflict and revealing him as an excessive example of human weakness and strength.
Shakespearean touches are also infused in the depiction of Asgard, the home of Thor. The staging and blocking of these scenes mirrors stage productions and performance is also appropriately exaggerated. Though naturalism is not a priority in this section, the deliberate movements, vocal intonations and spatial relationships that are put into play create an air of a heightened spiritual state. Though the characters are flawed, they seem to have advanced to a state beyond nuance and gestural subtext creating a vision of proto humans. This exaggerated performance and mise-en-scene further negates the potential silliness of the plot, suggesting a highly mannered and foreign environment.
The way Asgard contrasts with the world on Earth only strengthens the film. Whereas calculated movements and blocking characterize the land of the Gods, the mortal world is organic. Though not particularly exaggerated, the naturalism of the mortal figures differs greatly from that of the Gods’. Curvature and imperfections are highlighted, movements are fresh and spontaneous. They don’t command the strength of Thor, but in their delicacy, they suggest something worth protecting. Not necessarily helpless, ingenuity and intelligence are continually at the forefront. It is especially refreshing to see a female romantic interest that is not fetishized. Though there is no denying that Portman is beautiful and in many respects, her character represents an all-American ideal, but there is little doubt that Thor respects her and treats her very much as an equal, and that any affections he forms for her are based on her intellectual and emotional strength.
That being said, star Chris Hemsworth becomes very much the object of desire. Though perhaps praising the film for its empowering portrayal of femininity and also reveling in its adoration of the male form seems a bit hypocritical, it’s all too rare that a man as beautiful as Hemsworth is presented physically so unapologetically.
The action set-pieces are mostly adequate, but the design of the ice people is somewhat lacking, making a few sequences difficult to come to terms with. In many ways, it also feels incomplete. The narrative feels like a precursor leading up to The Avengers movie, a flaw that is also very much apparent in Iron Man 2. Though certainly a stand-alone, it sometimes feels like an extended trailer for things to come, diluting the potential to develop this particular story and its characters. It does have a pretty spectacular after-credits sequence though, and it’s well worth the wait.
Thor is a successful attempt at the superhero genre, and one with the unique privilege of having the clear stamp of an auteur. Though one similarly feels the pulls and pressures of studio intervention, it is Branagh’s vision that yields most of the film’s strengths. Let’s hope that this is only a precursor to the potential greatness of Captain America, which is out in July.