Kenneth Branagh seems like an odd choice to direct a summer blockbuster superhero film. Branagh was almost singlehandedly responsible (with a nod to Baz Luhrman) for the Shakespeare revival we saw in the ’90s; he brought 5 excellent, commercially successful adapations of the Bard to the screen in a space of ten years, before seeing the audience’s appetite for couplets and corsets wane in the 2000s. Even when he’s not directing Shakespeare, his tastes run more classical; recently he turned in a film adaptation of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” and the Harold Pinter script of the Tony award-winning play “Sleuth.” The Marvel Universe seems like the last place Branagh would feel comfortable.
On the other had, Thor isn’t quite like all the other superheroes who populate the Marvel universe, where most characters received their superpowers through some kind of accident involving radiation (like Spider-man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four) or through genetic mutation (X-Men) or technological genius (Iron Man.) Actually, the Marvel universe is huge and there are as almost as many origin stories as there are characters, but the dominating theme is this: once they were all normal people, and then something happened to them, and they became superheroes. This is how Thor is different. He’s a Norse god. Not many of those around.
The point being that Thor was born into greatness, it wasn’t thrust upon him. He is the son of All Father, heir to the throne of Asgard, doer of great deeds, wielder of Mjolnir, and the mighty hammer that levels mountains. He is neither a wisecracker or a tortured soul; he is a prince, and carries himself as such. Honor and dignity, regality and responsibility have been trained into him since he was just a cute little godling. Greatness is expected of him, and nobody expects it more from him than Thor himself.
“Thor” opens at a time of uneasy peace between the Asgardians and their enemies, the Frost Giants; Thor’s father, Odin (played with great wisdom and weariness by Anthony Hopkins) has fought hard and lost many in wars against the Frost Giants, so the peace is precious to him. But Thor wants to prove himself, and sees a failed sneak attack by a few Frost Giants on the vaults of Asgard as his opportunity; he gathers his warriors and heads for the Frosty planet, ostensibly looking for answers, though everyone knows he’s looking for a fight. He gets one, which angers his father, who strips him of his armor and his hammer and exiles him to Earth.
There he meets overly serious astrophysicist Natalie Portman, who’s been studying astronomical phenonema of the sort that brought Thor to earth (wormholes, or Rainbow bridges, or something.) Kat Dennings is Portman’s hipster assistant, who, for some odd reason, carries a tazer gun in her purse. Played by Chris Hemsworth, Thor is every red-blooded girl’s dream: 6 foot 4, 250 pounds cut, blond hair, blue eyes, stubble. It’s kind of fun to watch Portman, who clearly has no use for men in her scientific life, get all giggly and weak-kneed around him. I was reminded more than once of Margot Kidder’s great performance in the first “Superman;” she tries to stay all professional and journalistic, but my gosh, there’s a magnificent hunk of man-flesh staring her down with his X-ray eyes. Who wouldn’t blush a little?
But it’s not just his good looks that turn the girls into puddles of jello. It’s the way he carries himself; his manners, his inherent nobility, the fact that he talks, well, a bit like a king out of Shakespeare. And maybe this is where bringing in Kenneth Branagh to direct really pays off; he knows his way around kings and princes, palaces, regalia, and courtesanship. Really what Branagh did so well in the ’90s was to make Shakespeare’s settings, and words, feel lived in and real, not like stiff costume dramas. He brings that same talent to “Thor.” Thor lands in the deserts of New Mexico, and it takes about five minutes with him for Portman and co. to believe that he’s not crazy but is, in fact, an exiled prince from another realm.
And really, I think Portman stands in for all of us (male or female) as she goes from super-intellectual, no-nonsense scientist to giggly, knock-kneed little girl. We don’t go see movies based on comic books in order to be intellectually stimulated; we go to be wowed, to have our breath taken away, to sit in awe watching the marvelous feats of a magnificent hero. There’s been a lot of humanizing our heroes going on lately; it’s really fun, refreshing (and a little nostalgic) to see a movie that lets a god act godlike.