If, like John Cleese in the classic Monty Python sketch, you’re an avid consumer of fermented curd (albeit of the cinematic variety), only to find that there are no cheesy comestibles to be had, you may be in for a similar disappointment with Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, the latest in Marvel’s self-financed superhero flicks. At first glance, all the ingredients for a cheddar convention to rival the likes of Flash Gordon are there — ginormous sets, larger-than-life characters (one of whom has a blond barnet any page-three stunna would kill for) with ridiculous names and powers to match. But Thor is too knowing to stock up on the movie mozzarella. What it is, though, is tremendous fun, and further proof that Marvel Studios knows how to handle its back catalogue.
He’s a tricky one, the Odinson. Unlike Iron Man, Hulk or Captain America, he’s a god. An actual god, with awe-inspiring powers and a rich back story. There’s a lot to get through, and this is the sort of material that has to be handled with the utmost care, lest it go in any number of directions: pompous, cheesy or, most damaging of all, unintentionally hilarious. Things could go from bad to Norse.
Thor plunges you straight in, following a pre-credits stint in New Mexico, to a dense 30-minute sequence in Asgard where we meet all the major players — Thor, his dark-haired brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) — and the notion that these extraordinarily powerful beings have been at war with a race of Frost Giants. And not only is it done with a straight face, but the sweep of the material, with vast tracking shots through stunning Asgardian landscapes, is by far the biggest thing Marvel has attempted; this is fantasy on a cosmic scale.
It’s bewildering at times, condensing nearly 50 years of comic history with a speed that can mean characters are paid scant lip service. You suspect there’s a lot of material on the cutting-room floor — Rene Russo, as Thor’s mother Frigga (stop sniggering), might want to have a word with her agent, while the core relationship, between Thor and Loki, doesn’t really get going for a while.
When it does, though, as Loki manipulates the esurient Thor into defying his father’s orders, kicking Frost Giant butt and ultimately getting the heave-ho from Asgard, it’s powerful stuff. After Marvel set Branagh to direct — another leftfield choice to go with Jon Favreau, Joe Johnston, Joss Whedon and Shane Black — you sensed that their model was the Bond films, with tech gurus (in this case, the mighty Vic Armstrong) ensuring the bells and whistles were up to scratch, while the directors bring their own skill-sets to bear. And when it comes to making Shakespearean material — and the relationship between Thor, Loki and Odin positively reeks of the Bard — work on the big screen, Branagh has no equal.
So as father and sons square off against each other, it’s heady stuff, the three H’s attacking the material, and each other with fury and intensity straight from the West End stage. In one scene, Hiddleston’s Loki, a complex and surprisingly layered villain, confronts Odin about his true origins. It’s intimate and affecting, yet as thundering and loud as you’d imagine gods would be.
Then, once you’re up to speed, the film yanks Thor off to the modern day and tackles the thorny issue of his near-omnipotence by separating him, and his powers, from his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir. There’s a neat tonal shift, as human beings meet Thor (and, later, in the film’s funniest moment, the Warriors Three and Sif) and find everything he does or says ridiculous. Here, Hemsworth — the Australian actor who impressed so much with his one-scene cameo in Star Trek as Kirk’s doomed dad — comes into his own, adding new layers of humility and humour to his blustering God Of Thunder. At one point, Thor fights off hospital orderlies with an outraged, “You DARE attack the son of Odin?!?”. The fish out of water stuff works like a charm. Hemsworth emerges from this a true star, adept at action, good with comedy, swell at the romantic stuff with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster (there’s a romantic streak a mile wide here) and cut like Kate Middleton’s engagement rock.
In fact, you’re instantly intrigued by the prospect of seeing Hemsworth on screen with Robert Downey Jr. (and Chris Evans) in next year’s The Avengers. Marvel copped flak for turning Iron Man 2 into essentially an extended trailer for its big gamble, and has clearly learned a lesson. Yes, SHIELD is involved. Yes, Jeremy Renner shows up for one spectacularly pointless scene as the ace archer, Hawkeye. But Thor, ultimately, stands on its own two feet. We’ll toast that with a glass of mead and a feast fit for a king. Hold the cheese.