Thor’s Kenneth Branagh faces the challenge of synthesizing two seemingly incompatible worlds: Asgard — glittery, CG home of Viking deities, icy giants (including a nigh-Pentagon-sized cousin of the dogs from Ghostbusters), and a Rainbow Bridge — and modern-day alt-New Mexico, where people know Tony Stark as Iron Man, and Natalie Portman is an astrophysicist.
Early on, things are bumpy. The opening scene, wherein a research team (Portman, Skarsgård, Dennings) encounters our mountainous, golden-dressed hero, is conventional and somewhat indelicately expository in places; we then shift via flashback to the events that led to said hero’s banishment from the sky — a segment which contains pivotal moments, but drags. We then cut back to the “present,” and the first signs of the movie’s surprising, Encino Man-ish charm pop up, as a mini romantic comedy blossoms amid what then begins slowly to build itself into a genuinely thrilling action-quest-adventure. By the end, you’re cheering.
It has been observed, rightfully and understandably, that Branagh (he of the lengthy and multidisciplinary Shakespearean resume) is an unexpected directorial choice for a comic-book film. It has also been observed, just as rightfully and understandably, that Thor, with its mythological setting and outsized themes of treachery and tragedy among royals, makes perhaps the best comic-book match for the RSC-trained actor/director (who, apparently, has been a sizeable fan of The Hammer since boyhood). Indeed, Branagh’s Thor is awash in legend, gravitas, and Bard-y intrigue: Watched with some intention, the unfolding events yield subtle-to-striking echoes of Othello, Hamlet, Arthurian myth, and even, if one stretches, varied responses to 9/11.
All that aside, Thor, ultimately, is big, bold, shiny fun with a heart. Hemsworth, intensely memorable as Kirk’s father from the opening moments of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, is powerful, brash, charismatic, and sincere: everything, in other words, that the titular role demands. Portman seems miscast early on, but fights tenaciously through it, emerging as authentic and winsome. Dennings filches naturalistic laughs with nearly every somewhat-sporadic line. Skarsgård is a delight to watch in almost anything. Hopkins is Hopkins. Hiddleston is cool and cerebral, yet sympathetic as a distinctly Iago-ish Loki (yep — the dude from The Mask ... sorta). Gregg continues to knock any lingering association with S.H.I.E.L.D’s Agent Coulson out of the park. Perhaps the most unexpected (only because I didn’t know he was in it) highlight, though, is Elba’s fascinatingly still, deceptively funny, uncannily deft turn as titanic gatekeeper Heimdall. Elba’s talent is versatile and tremendous; more films for him immediately, please.
And: Bring on The Avengers.
Dir. Kenneth Branagh; writ. Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby; feat. Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba. (PG-13)