Thor (2011)

Watch out DC, Marvel just upped their game. After teething problems with the likes of Fantastic Four, Hulk and The Punisher, Marvel Studios have a definite game plan, and they’ve set it well and truly in motion with Thor.

Whereas DC’s Green Lantern adap has been mucking around with silly CGI suits gone wrong and truly apathetic responses to early footage, Thor knuckles down and gets on with it. That’s not to say it doesn’t have ambition – it does, in spades – but the brains behind Thor know what’s important; story, character and, yes, visual spectacle.

Marvel’s real genius here was hiring Kenneth Branagh as director. Though he’s new to the big budget CGI scene (save for that ‘90s Frankenstein adap he directed), it’s clear that Branagh’s strength resides in his ability to craft compelling family drama – something he’s honed through the course of his numerous Shakespearean adaps.

So where lesser superhero movies might paint their domestic drama in the laziest of broad brush strokes, Branagh tackles it with the courage of a true Bardian, infusing family fractures with the kind of Earth-quivering gravity that the story of warring gods deserves. When characters argue, they BELLOW. When they’re angry, they SEETHE. When they’re downtrodden, they’re BROKEN.

Barrelling out of the starting gate, Thor plummets us headfirst into the godly world of Asgard, where the Norse rulers of legend all live. In a breathless 30 minute segment entirely set amongst the stars, we’re introduced to their world, their leaders (Anthony Hopkins’ Odin, his two sons Thor and Loki), their enemies (the Frost Giants), their protectors (Idris Elba’s brilliant Gatekeeper) and everything in between.

It’s a boggling, pulse-raising opening that, though action-packed and overloaded with theatrics, makes sense in the greater context of the film. Once Thor’s been banished to Earth, stripped of his godly powers, the film settles into a more talky mid-section that’s handled with Iron Man-like wit.

Tone was always a concern. How do you reconcile the high camp setting of Asgard with the gritty real-life Earth segments without tipping the scale too far either way? To Branagh’s credit, he manages it with few niggles. Though Asgard is at times more ‘CGI epic’ than truly breathtaking, there’s no faulting the stunning production design. A glimmering green and gold paradise, there’s no doubt this is a place built for heavenly beings. Meanwhile, Branagh cleverly infuses even the Earth scenes with a comic-book kilter, keeping his lense half-crooked even in the most serious of moments.

Crucially, Thor has time for its characters. Though it’s busy, stirring in everything from references to The Sword In The Stone, a cameo from Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and even a Terminator 2 nod, we rarely feel short-changed. The trio of scientists comprised of a spirited Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård are a delight, championing keen chemistry and a fun sense of dry humour.

As for Hemsworth, he is Thor; built like a Viking, massive in every sense of the word. His Thor is a sort of amalgamation of other superheroes, bundled into a He-Man, Superman, God-like mass of flesh and charm. His fish out of water moments are truly hilarious, and when he gets his “fuck yeah!” moment, you’re punching the air alongside him.

Most enticingly, we know we’ve only got to wait another year to see Thor back in action. With Joss Whedon’s The Avengers currently shooting, Thor acts as a compelling prologue to that epic adventure. Unlike Iron Man 2, though, Thor also stands completely as its own entity. A thunderous, magnetic, often warmly tongue-in-cheek thrillride, it has the power to awaken the fanboy in us all. 4/5

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