The superhero genre has been a touch on the dormant side lately, with only sporadic, inconsistent brilliance peppering an otherwise fairly lacklustre release schedule. Watchmen was a touch over-wrought, Iron Man 2 all showy flash and little to no substance, and the Green Hornet? Well that was just plain disappointing.
Thank Valhalla, then, for Kenneth Branagh, and Thor, which enters the fray practically from nowhere, and in a flurry of intense set pieces, beautiful visuals and fantastic performances, breathes new life into a genre that seemed to be losing its way somewhat.
The story goes that Norse mythology is more or less real – Asgard is an actual place, home to incredibly advanced beings who wield technology that, in a bizarre reversal, is almost indistinguishable from Magic. After accidentally triggering a war between his people and the rather large, blue and scary frost giants from the planet Jotunheim, the mighty Thor is banished to Earth by his father Odin, and told to stay there until he can prove himself worthy. When he arrives, he’s found by a group of scientists, and more importantly, by SHIELD.
It’s a decent enough story, and it’s competently written, but the true star of the show is the direction. Balancing beautifully on the line between out-and-out camp and down-and-dirty seriousness, Branagh oversees a marvellous dichotomy between the two settings of the film. When on Earth, there’s a tongue very distinctly housed within a cheek during Thor’s interactions with the team of scientists who find him, whilst the scenes on Asgard and Jotunheim are played almost as a Shakespearean tragedy, with betrayal, subterfuge and...well, and Anthony Hopkins.
Ordinarily, a film featuring such distinct tones would feel disjointed, but Chris Hemswoth consolidates them rather elegantly, imbuing Thor with a fantastic sense of overblown grandiose that seems appropriate in Asgard, and yet deliciously silly on Earth. He also gets to shoot off some wonderfully amusing lines – though I won’t spoil them for obvious reasons.
The supporting cast are fantastic too – with Stellan Skarsgard being the highlight as the sceptical scientist who is brought round by Thor’s infectious enthusiasm. Natalie Portman is more than passable as the sassy but brilliant Jane Foster, who is probably the most believable supporting heroine that any Marvel movie has had to date. Also keep your eyes peeled for a rather brief cameo from one of the players from the upcoming Avengers movie – it’s not really blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but he’s in there without fanfare.
Then there's the set-pieces, and oh, what set pieces they are. From a frost-encrusted battle with giant blue meanies on the frozen planet Jotunheim, to a showdown with some of Asgard's most feared tech right in the middle of small town America, each is directed with a steady hand and a keen eye for fairly awesome action. Coupled with the magnificent costume, set and sound design, each one is an exciting romp through a key locale. That they are each unique in tone and structure is all the more impressive.
If there is a problem with the film, it’s the fact that the action that takes place on Earth seems quite close to unnecessary, and this makes all the Earth-bound characters feel a little bit peripheral. But it’s clear why this choice was made, and thus it’s hard to truly hold this against the film. There are also a couple of moments of rather thudding exposition that perhaps could’ve been a bit more delicate, but this is mostly down to the writing and doesn’t really detract from the experience.
But at the end of it, there’s more than enough great moments, and an infinitely more fleshed out story than Marvel Studios’ previous efforts – that’s right, I’m still looking at you, Iron Man – which makes for a far more satisfactory experience. It also bodes incredibly well for the Avengers movie – I’d even go so far as to say it feels almost like a dry run. So! Let’s hope that this is indeed the second comic-book movie renaissance, and that this time, it’ll stick.