Sometimes we worry the most about our Gods.
It's understandable, really. In an increasingly overcrowded superhero landscape, one where detached cynicism and ice-cold noir roots are the order of the day, it was always going to be tough to introduce embittered audiences to a mythological morality saga so old-school it would be spelt olde-school.
The call then is for a Bard who deals in timelessness -- or, failing which, a man tremendously besotted by his work. Kenneth Branagh, English cinema's most ardent Shakespeare-wallah, steps up to direct Marvel Comics' most challenging movie adaptation and proves himself more than worthy to raise the hammer of Mjolnir.
Thor starts off feeling heavy, as if weighed down by the massive shields and breastplates of its substantially-sized protagonists: mighty Norse warriors who live in Asgard, far past our clouds, existing in an uneasy peace with fatally frigid foes. We learn of our protagonist and the recklessness that causes his exile to Earth, and, just when the film seems like it may bend in on itself, overpowered by its own potentially ponderous heft, it snaps into today and all is saved.
In New Mexico, Thor is divine no more, just an exquisitely built blonde persistently bumped into by the truck of a fascinated young astrophysicist. Up close, the hunky Norse God appropriately reduces this keen scientist to a wobbly-kneed pile of schoolgirl grins-and-giggles, amplified by his pledge to help her. And so the story unravels, the tale of Thor versus Marvel's field agents, SHIELD, while back in his world there is more Machiavellian skullduggery afoot.
Branagh strikes a skillful balance between the unfolding palace intrigue in Asgard and Thor's more casual adventures on Earth,
and much credit must be given to the film's nuanced use of dialogue. The Asgardians speak with formal majesty while using mostly conversational English, albeit more archaically than we do. In a particularly well-crafted line, for example, an antagonist capable of kingdom-scuttling deceit is said to have always been "one for mischief." On Earth, on the other hand, a wide-eyed Natalie Portman just says "Oh my God."
As well she might. Chris Hemsworth is a rousingly solid choice for Thor, one who can wear the exhausting cloak of earnestness and nobility around his shoulders and make it seem simple. Not just does he have the right look for the part, but seems comfortable being as theatrically square as the Thor Stan Lee made us love.
The film is very well cast, particularly with the ever-reliable Anthony Hopkins as Thor's father Odin, and the magnificent Idris Elba as Heimdall. Stellan Skarsgard is great, and Tom Hiddleston slowly but surely grows on us. Not to mention the pleasant surprise of seeing Rene Russo as Queen Frigga with -- in a cameo to thrill Marvel-fans around the world -- The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. (He isn't purple, I agree, but still seems a perfect choice.)The film's strengths are the cleverly constructed conversations and the focus on Thor's personal relationships: between him and his father, his brother Loki and, of course, Portman's Jane Foster. And yet it starts off slow, is occasionally too basic.
The action scenes seem a tad longer than they should be and sometimes incoherent, except when the Thunder-weilding hero uses that versatile legendary hammer to good, videogame-friendly effect. Yet Thor, both as a film and as a protagonist, surprises you, and that's when you realise that the mighty Asgardian is also a mighty-ass guardian. Excelsior.
And sometimes we should just sit back and watch our Gods take things in their own hands.