I’m sticking by my prediction that Marvel’s upcoming Captain America film will suck as much as its uninspired trailer suggests it will, but I will admit to being very wrong in my preconceptions about Thor, a brash and loud and utterly entertaining addition to Marvel’s superhero filmography. What it lacks in nuance and subtlety, director Kenneth Brannagh’s film makes up for in charisma, polish, and the kind of brute sincerity one finds in these Hollywood summer megaflicks when they’re done right.
Thor isn’t the best known hero is Marvel’s oeuvre (I came in with almost no prior knowledge of the storyline), and the film is wise in assuming so. The script introduces the audience to the outlandish backdrop of Norse gods and alien planets and interstellar conflict with a surprisingly assured hand, and by the half-hour mark the expansive worlds and galaxy-sized scenario feel well-defined, a necessity in order for any grand fantasy story to take shape. And it certainly helps that its a very engaging scenario, rooted in age-old but effective warrior tales and palace soap operas but given a unique visual style and an honest presentation. Such an array of settings and stagings and color pallettes could have easily overwhelmed a less seasoned filmmaker, and though the esteemed Shakespearian Kenneth Brannagh has never before handled something of this scope, he knows how to handle story elements and how to frame a shot, fundamental skills that other tent-pole helmers like Brett Ratner and Michael Bay handle with considerably less pinache.
And being an actor himself, Brannagh clearly knows that the success of a film relies on the characters, and his film is best served by the performances of a diverse and talented cast dedicated to the material, fantastical and broad as it can sometimes be. Of course no one is playing for Oscars, but no one seems as though they’re phoning it in either, and quality supporting work is turned by Natalie Portman (juggling intellectual earnestness and school-girl giggliness like no one else can), Stellan Skarsgard, and Anthony Hopkins.
But the experienced cast and mammoth storyline are never too much for newcomer Chris Hemsworth, who plays the title role with charisma and muscular braggodocio the likes of which we haven’t seen much of since the 1980s. Huge biceps, a six-pack, and long flowing locks were surely high on the casting criteria, but Hemsworth can hold a screen. The film’s best humor derives from his character’s rather immediate acceptance of his new surroundings. He’s exiled from his kingdom, abandoned on Earth, but as soon as he wakes he pretty much goes about his heroic business, only occasionally stopping to consider the differences between this place and his own. In that sense, it’s a simple-minded but refreshing take on what heroes are supposed to do, at least in the movies. Learn compassion and gain wisdom, sure, but also crack your knuckles and get down to the task at hand. It’s a fitting thematic centerpiece for the film as a whole, which presents its world with confidence and gets to the heroics as swiftly and efficiently as possible.