Thursday 12 May 2011

The Mighty Thor!

As Richard Reynolds remarks in his fascinating tome Super Heroes (Batsford Cultural Studies 1992) the super hero genre has drawn upon mythologies for their inspiration from the beginning – implicitly as in the original Superman strips, with Siegel and Shuster echoing the tales of Hercules and Samson in their adventures of this modern day strong man, and explicitly in the SHAZAM! Billy Batson uses to transform into Captain Marvel (S for Solomon, H for Hercules, A for Atlas etc.). However it wasn’t until caped crusaders had been around for twenty plus years, that Marvel maestro Stan Lee had the idea of a hero who was actually a mythological character.

Making his début in Journey Into Mystery #83 in 1962, Thor quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular heroes, with generations of readers falling in love with the blend of ancient mythologies and bang up to date comic book escapades found in his adventures. For countless kids who enjoyed tales of both super heroics and the legendary heroes of the ancient world, Thor was a dream ticket, for here was a character that could effortless switch from foiling modern menaces in contemporary New York to smiting evil gods and monsters in Asgard.

However while this heady mixture of present day adventures and mythic fantasy has proved enduringly popular in the comic books, it has been something of a hindrance to bringing the God of Thunder to the screen. While he has appeared in various Marvel based cartoon series over the years, live action manifestations have been very thin on the ground with only a guest star spot in a feature length episode reviving the 1970s Incredible Hulk series. Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) was intended to serve as a backdoor pilot for a Thor TV series, however due to the machinations of Loki or plain old shoddy production values, the version of the Thunder God here bore little resemblance to the comics character and furthermore was an embarrassment to the name. Unsurprisingly the proposed series never materialised…

However back in the early ‘90s, Sam Raimi, fresh off his distinctly comic book flavoured Dark Man, pitched a idea for a Thor movie to Twentieth Century Fox, however the concept of a movie about a hero who was a god and had a hammer was too much for the minds of the minions employed by billionaire tyrant Murdoch, and the project came to naught. Hugin and Munin, the eyes and ears of the All-Father in the Nine Worlds, inform me that they are still laughing at this over at Sony as they gleefully roll around in the piles of cash the Spiderman franchise brought in…

However in the late ‘90s, with the success of the X Men movies, the idea for a Thor movie surfaced again. But the forces of evil laboured mightily and the project languished in the Hollywood equivalent of Niflheim; shunted from Fox, to UPS, to Sony, before Marvel Studios got Paramount onboard in 2006 and work actually began on the film.

But the Thunder God still have a way to go. Matthew Vaughan of Kick Ass fame was signed to direct but dropped out after the project looked to be stalling again with difficulties over the script and budget. However in late 2008, a new director signed on and movie buffs across the world were united in a global WTF moment – the new guy in the chair was to be Kenneth Branagh.

Critically acclaimed for his screen versions of Shakespeare, Cuddly Ken seemed a bit of odd choice to helm a comic book adaptation. On one hand, a man who could bring the Bard to movies again and had showed a keen grasp of genre material with Dead Again (1991) might well be the fellow to capture the epic grandeur a Thor movie would need. But on the other, his last big budget production for a popular audience had been the mendaciously named Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) which despite having some merits was somewhat fatally flawed.

However one thing was for certain – with such a highly respected director behind the camera, we were assured he’d attract a decent cast. And indeed, it’s directly thanks to Ken’s status among the thespian community that we’ve have Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and Idris Elba as Heimdall and Stellan Skarlsgard as Dr Erik Selvig. Now actors turned director often can attract a good troupe of players to their movies, but does Ken have the chops to wield the hammer of the gods?

Well, in a word, yes. Yes! Yes!


(looks sheepish and stops running around the office pretending a ruler is Mjolnir )

Thor is simply a great movie, hugely entertaining, delivering fantastic action, big laughs and bags of heart. It‘s a great tale that balances the top class thrills with deft humour, contrasts mythic grandeur with human drama and is never nothing short of glorious fun. Apparently Ken has been a big fan of the Thor comics since he was lad, and while I usually take such claims with a sack of salt, his enthusiasm for the source material is apparent in everything up there on the screen.

We might have had to wait an awful long time for the mighty Thor to make his screen début, but by the Gods, it was worth it! This is the ideal vehicle to bring Marvel’s Norse hero to the silver screen - based on a story outline by genre legend J. Michael Straczynsky who revitalised the Mighty One’s comics in the 2000s, it contains all the elements of a classic Thor adventure. We have action in the world of men, mayhem in the halls of Asgard, hammer spinning ass kicking, and eye popping cosmic panoramas, all wrapped up in a properly epic tale of struggling divine siblings.

But best of all it captures the look, tone and feel of the comics. Now while there are some minor changes to some of the depictions of characters, such as Volstagg being somewhat slimmer, Hogun missing his ‘tache and Thor himself sporting a well trimmed beard, overall the visuals are spot on – looking appropriately larger than life and clearly inspired by the art of Jack Kirby. But more importantly the characterisations are exactly right – we have a very strong cast here to bring the inhabitants of the Nine Worlds vividly to life. Even Anthony Hopkins refrains from his recent usual scenery chomping!

Thor is suitably noble and heroic but yet sometimes impulsive, and he’s played to perfection by newcomer Chris Hemsworth, who lights up the screen with his charisma. A star in the making? We think so. And he’s well matched by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki who makes a memorable and interesting villain, for the God Of Mischief has fascinating and complicated motivations rather than usual cardboard moustache twirling.

Now the fact that the villain has a character arc as strong as the heroes is testament in itself to the strength of the script. But the fact there is such a strong adversary puts Thor ahead of previous Marvel movies – after all, dull or poorly characterised villains have been a recurring problem in super hero flicks. So then it’s a real breath of fresh air to have an enemy that is as interesting and compelling to watch as the title character.

And this dynamic is mirrored in the story line. Without giving away any plot spoilers, what we have is a tale that builds the character development in parallel with the action and spectacle. Admittedly there none of the dark sophisticated psychodrama of Chris Nolan’s Batman films, or even the underlying teenage issues in Raimi's Spiderman franchise or the socio-political subtexts of the first two X-men but this kind of emoting and chest beating isn't appropriate for Thor.

Instead it’s colourful and joyous, revelling in the universe it builds and the relationships that are forged between its inhabitants. It’s meant to fun and entertaining while underlining the virtues of loyalty, nobility and wisdom, in exactly the same way as many of the original tales of Asgard told by the Vikings did*. And there is some darkness under the hood too - but it’s there as subtext, which is exactly where it should be in a movie that is literally populated with mythic archetypes.

And this combination of a strong cast in an equally robust story, that is a good cinematic reflection of the source material, and achieves a pleasing balance of action, drama and humour, lead me to think that Thor may well be the best of the Marvel adaptations so far.

Now I realise I’m sticking my neck out here, but let’s look at the competition. The first Spiderman loses marks for dwelling on the origin and mishandling the Green Goblin, Singer’s X Men were good but felt a little distant from the original books, and both Iron Man movies suffered from a lack of decent super villains. And I don’t think we need to consider the faults of the various Fantastic Four, Punisher, Hulk and latter X Men outings. All of which leaves the title of Bestest Marvel Super Hero Movie between Thor and Spiderman 2 - a pair of movies that superbly translate their respective titles’ heroes, villains and milieux to the big screen in fun yet satisfying stories.

And Thor is certainly one of the better summer blockbusters we've had for while; solidly entertaining and not ashamed to cut loose and have some fun. It delivers all the spectacle you’d expect yet refreshingly tells an engaging story too for a change. Here’s hoping this summer’s Captain America and next year’s The Avengers can translate Marvel’s visions to the silver screen just as successfully!

PS - Don't forget to to stay until the very end for the now traditional post credits sequences!

* If you are interesting in reading such tales, I recommend The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland published by Penguin, which retells the old legends superbly.

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