Norse gods. Men in shiny looking armor. A super hero that flies through the air, powered by his magic hammer. Anthony Hopkins with a golden eyepatch. Kenneth Branagh, a man with no previous experience with anything like this, directing?!? It was going to be awful.
The trailers didn’t do much to change that opinion. The first few looked bad. The later ones didn’t look as bad, but they didn’t exactly look good. And yet, as the theatrical release got closer, I started to get quite excited. Probably not because I thought it was going to be any good. More likely because it marks the start of the summer blockbusters, and the return of Marvel Heroes to our screens.
I could not have been more wrong. Thor isn’t just good, it’s Marvel’s best cinematic offering so far. It’s so incredibly well conceived, judged, and executed that all my previous fears seem rather silly in retrospect. What’s more, I was pretty confident of that fact after roughly twenty five minutes of film, only a quarter of the way in. And it only gets better.
There are so many things to heap praise on, and so few things to criticise. The performances are, for the most part, excellent. Chris Hemsworth makes a great Thor, able to nail the transition from arrogant tosser to a hero you actually care about with skill. He has comic timing, looks the part, and shares great chemistry with co-star Natalie Portman. After Black Swan, Portman is chilling out a little here, having some fun, and makes an excellent Jane Foster. You can accept her character’s intelligence, and she’s genuinely attractive but not distractingly so.
Tom Hiddleston is also impressive as Thor’s brother Loki. He looks for all the world like a young Fassbender, and throws himself into the part with a real passion. Hiddleston probably has the most complicated role to play, and is totally convincing throughout. The rest of the supporting cast play their parts well, Ray Stevenson looks pretty goofy under all that hair but just about pulls it off, Stellan Skarsgård has some good moments but doesn’t get a lot of screen time, Clark Gregg is back as the essential Agent Coulson. But of all the supporting case, it’s Anthony Hopkins that surprises the most. Hopkins has a tendency to snack on the scenery when he’s allowed to. His “hilarious” turn in The Wolfman was just the most recent piece of mounting evidence in support of my theory that he was going to be dreadful as Odin. I’m pleased to report that I was wrong. Perhaps it’s Branagh’s direction (more on him later) but Hopkins is formidable as Odin. He’s commanding. He’s believable. He portrays absolute emotion with regard to his sons, and doesn’t chew a single piece of the scenery. It’s the best performance he’s turned in for years.
The one fly in an otherwise remarkable ointment, would be Jaimie Alexander as Sif. If I had to pick a weak link, it’d be her. I found her to be pretty wooden, unremarkable, and lacking any real character. Pretty much everyone else had their moments and managed to put their own stamp on the character. Alexander doesn’t achieve that. It may be down to the excellence of everyone else, as opposed to a real failing on her part though.
And so to Branagh. Who, for me, is the biggest surprise of the film. His direction is flawless. Big action set pieces are handled with confidence. Asgardian politics are elevated beyond silliness in costumes, and take on genuine dramatic weight. There are some absolutely lovely camera moves and shots. It’s all the work of a man with absolute vision, who knows exactly what he’s doing. Branagh was clearly born to direct Thor. I don’t know if he has a deep love of the source material, whether the excellent script helped, or whether he’s backed up by a great team, but I attribute a good portion of the success of the project to him. It would be remiss not to mention Patrick Doyle’s glorious musical score too, which unquestionably responsible for some of the film’s success.
Speaking of the team, the visual effects in Thor are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not so much for their imagination and ambition (although they don’t really lack for either) but rather for their seamlessness. The Frost Giants, the film’s main antagonists, are executed brilliantly. Colm Feore (look him up, you’ll recognise him) channels Tim Curry’s Darkness for his part as the Frost Giant King Laufey. Asgard looks stunning. The costumes are all perfect and lack a single trace of silliness on the big screen. I spotted no irritatingly limp or bendy CGI actors, everything has a realism and weight that totally convinces. Even Thor in flight looks like he belongs.
There are pleasing classic Thor references, some nice potential setups for The Avengers, well judged comedy, the requisite Stan Lee cameo, and more besides. There’s real emotion here, a depth that the material’s origin might lead you to believe would be lacking. If you’re a fan of super hero movies, you need to see Thor. If you’re a fan of movies in general, you need to see Thor. Basically, in case you hadn’t yet got the idea, you need to see Thor.
Now, dearest Marvel executive types, please give Branagh the keys to the sequel. I wonder if I’ll be saying the same about Joe Jonhston after I’ve seen Captain America in a few weeks…