Thursday, 28 April 2011
Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America are popular and, to varying degrees, iconic comic book superheroes. With this in mind, Marvel Studios decision to make big, blockbuster films based on these "properties" is understandable and even inevitable. But Marvel, now owned by Disney, have bigger plans for their so-called "cinematic universe" which involve interlinking their different characters in the same way they did with the comic book continuity years ago. It makes obvious financial sense: like Iron Man but not so fussed about the Hulk? Well, chances are you're going to pay to see the big green guy anyway because of that Tony Stark cameo.
The ultimate goal for Marvel, as announced way back in 2005, is to make what (they hope) will be a massive super-blockbuster in the form of 'The Avengers' - the superhero equivalent of the Travelling Wilburys. And they have been steadily and unsubtly promoting that future franchise ever since by shoehorning cameos, in-jokes and geek-oriented references into each film - often via Samuel L Jackson. 'Iron Man 2' was so concerned with setting up the Avenger origin story that parts of that film felt like an extended trailer. The problem with this game-plan is that, in order to form the on-screen Avengers, Marvel have to set-up some less iconic and potentially less cinematic heroes for that movie to make sense. That's what brings us to 'Thor'. A superhero movie no one asked for.
Thor is somewhat harder to buy into than his future co-vigilantes. Iron Man is a normal guy - albeit a billionaire scientist with a fancy suit - whilst Hulk and Captain America are just victims of experiments in radiation. Crucially, they are all human beings. However, Marvel's Thor supposes that the realm of Asgard is real and exists on a distant planet, with the Viking "gods" of Norse legend being super-powered, space-travelling aliens. Thor, an Asgardian, throws a huge mythical hammer, Mjöllnir, that can only be lifted by those considered "worthy". In contrast to the likes of Spider-Man, his family aren't "normal" either: dad is Odin and his brother Loki. How could this story of a fallen god landing on contemporary planet Earth possibly seem credible? Ancient myths, like that of Hercules, are full of such stories (as are texts as diverse and evergreen as The Bible and Superman), but 'Thor' has to fit in with the likes of 'Iron Man', which featured the War in Afghanistan as a plot element. How can planet Asgard and the War in Afghanistan possibly co-exist in the same filmic universe?
The daunting task faced by director Kenneth Branagh has been to construct a film which marries both worlds - the fantastical realm of Asgard and a dusty New Mexico town - in a way which makes sense. And, surprisingly, he somehow does this rather well, aided by 'I Am Legend' screenwriter Mark Protosevich who solves the principal problem by using self-effacing humour. When the brash and violent Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lands on Earth (stripped of his powers), after being cast out of Asgard by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for starting a war with a race called the Ice Giants, the film immediately becomes a fish out of water comedy of sorts. Thor tries to beat up a hospital full of doctors who are trying to heal him before being knocked out by an injection, and later he smashes a coffee cup and loudly demands a refill in a busy cafe. He acts pompously and is lampooned as a figure of fun whilst he adjusts to alien surroundings.
This jesting is an effective slight of hand that keeps us from laughing at the transition between the two worlds. As with a stand-up comic who cracks jokes about their own obesity, the film heads off any potential tittering cynic at the pass because it's meant to be funny.
From then on the young "thunder god" adjusts to his new surroundings fairly quickly and the world of Thor comes to makes sense to us. By the time he dons his faux-Viking battle fatigues and does battle with The Destroyer (don't ask) on Main Street, we have successfully suspended our disbelief. Instead we can enjoy the fights which - let's face it - are the reason we go to the cinema to watch superhero movies. Branagh perhaps commits the crime of shooting too much action in disorienting close-up and some of the effects work is a little ropey, but 'Thor' is nevertheless good value entertainment with its share of climactic fist-pumping moments. It's also not as shallow as you might expect, with pretty well-rounded characters and a sympathetic villain. Its director is best known for adapting Shakespeare for the screen and, had the Bard penned a treatment of the screenplay, it would be easy to imagine this story from the point of view of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as a great tragedy.
This unexpected depth owes much to the actors. Hemsworth, for his part, is pretty good as Thor and his transition from, as Protosevich has put it, "an Old Testament god to a New Testament god" is carried off well. It doesn't feel like the usual sudden third act u-turn when he becomes worthy of reclaiming his powers because he has genuinely changed before our eyes, becoming more humble and gentle through his association with scientist Jane Foster, as played by Natalie Portman. It may seem as though Portman, a recent Academy Award winner, is slumming it in 'Thor' (an accusation also levelled at Branagh) - and who could blame her after 'Black Swan'. But she gives her all to the role regardless and elevates a love-interest character into something more interesting and appealing. Like Hopkins, Hiddleston and veteran Swede Stellan Skarsgård, she adds believability to this obscure Marvel tale, and in doing so eases what must have been the studio's greatest concern.
Fun, light-hearted and - at times - morally complex, 'Thor' is more than just a cynical means to an end (even if it does feature a completely pointless and convoluted cameo for another Marvel hero). That is not to say, however, that it isn't also serving as a Trojan two-hour advert for 'The Avengers'. It's just that it's good enough that you won't mind. For comic book fans, summer 2012 can't come soon enough.
'Thor' is out now in the UK and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.