Let me make this clear from the onset. There is no other director who I instinctively dislike like Kenneth Branagh. I bristle at his films. I’m allergic to them. There’s the fact that his Frankenstein is perhaps literally the worst movie I’ve ever seen. That he chose to play Hamlet while pushing forty. That I have never seen a director more pathologically in love with unmotivated Dutch angles (Or unmotivated oiled shirtless shots of themselves though thankfully Branagh abstains from that particular vice this time). As an actor he’s gooey ham. As a director he’s clumsy. The point is we all have filmmakers who rub us the wrong way and Branagh is one of mine. Big time.
Which is why I’m as surprised as anyone to have enjoyed Thor as much as I did. It’s an admirably straight faced cosmic swashbuckler. A film that seems almost innocent in its sense of fun. Perhaps its comes simply from drawing on a deeper purer strain of myth than most films but Thor genuinely feels like a film from another era, one of with a pure and operatic sense of grandeur and high adventure to it.
Say what you will about Thor but it is not a film of half measures. Asgard looks like something that Franz Franzetta would draw for the cover a utopian heavy metal band while off his meds. It’s as if the dream of every black lit poster and Van Mural gathered together into a force of inertia and created a dream world best described as “Totally Fucking Metal.” Branagh to his credit never winks; he brings to the film a desire to give pathos even to characters like “King Of The Frost Giants.”
The cast in these types of films is crucial and Thor gets a game one. There is of course Chris Hemsworth in a star making performance (and yeah I know that’s an overused term but we’ll be seeing this guy for a long time) gifted with natural charisma, crack sense of comic timing, and one of the most striking “Oh Holy Shit” bodies since Arnold Schwarzennegger in the original Conan. Anthony Hopkins gives a latter day Anthony Hopkins performance complete with inexplicable pronunciations (“But You’re Niet King!”) and feasting on great chunks of scenery, Hopkins has become one of those rarified beings who can over act while they’re supposed to be asleep. Tom Hiddleston makes a good antagonist. Ray Stevenson kicks ass and Natalie Portman, Kat Denning and Stellan Skaarsgaard all do excellent work as the mortals caught in the middle. With Portman most unexpectedly (and gratifyingly) turning in a fine comic performance.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Thor is that Branagh manages the unlikely task of making Earth and Asgard equally interesting. In a film this divided we should theoretically be more eager to be on one plane then the other. Branagh manages to invest us in the drama and reality of both worlds.
It’s an audaciously strange film. Its confidence could be offputting to some. After all the line between operatic grandeur and Cheeze Whiz can be awful thin for some. And I suspect for many Thor will over shoot the mark. But if you can make yourself play on the film’s terms Thor’s is the guaranteed best shot for angst free fun at the multiplex. It’s an angst free story about larger than life heroism. And it feels suspiciously like just what the doctor ordered.