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At The Picture Show
May 2011

Eat your heart out, Vincent D'Onofrio

Branagh's 'Thor' is lush and stately, but can't get a grip on the god himself

Paramount Pictures
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee, Larry Lierber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings and Anthony Hopkins
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 54 minutes
Opened May 6, 2011
(out of four)

You'd think a guy who once convinced a studio to let him make a 4-hour film version of Hamlet would be able to take a comic-book blockbuster at least past the two-hour mark. Perhaps then director Kenneth Branagh could have figured out something to do with his superhero that actually made a bit of sense.

Instead, in Branagh's Thor - the filmmaker's first stab at a summer tentpole - we get a superhero who seems secondary in his own story, and whose role feels motivated entirely by the necessities of a predetermined narrative arc.

The film is built around the idea of its title character's transformation - from boy to man, from arrogant warhawk to noble leader, from selfish brat to selfless hero. And yet nothing of Thor's experience is so life-altering as to make that shift from one to the others believable.

What, exactly, turns him? What is it that suddenly puts things in perspective? The screenplay is counting on the audience taking for granted that, of course, the hero will see the error of his ways and become truly worthy of the title. We're not meant to question it, but I must, for the film never justifies the transformation. Sure, there's a girl involved (natch), and there's a betrayal that he hears about second-hand, and there's the humbling experience of going from Norse god to mere mortal. But nothing he goes through directly is of such magnitude that it would convince me of his sudden desire to change.

The lack of conviction or justification for that arc speaks to one of the fundamental problems I find in Thor. Branagh juggles two different stories in two different worlds, and while what we see in Asgard (Thor's natural realm) makes for a strong film, what we see on Earth does not. In Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is on the cusp of ascension to the throne currently occupied by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But after defying Odin's wishes by unilaterally attacking the Asgardians' mortal enemies, he is cast out - exiled to Earth and stripped of his power (in the form of his hammer, Mjolnir).

While Thor gets used to his sudden mortality after landing in the middle of the New Mexico desert, Mjolnir sits embedded in rock, immovable, entrenched like Excalibur until someone worthy of such power can lift it. The hammer's presence is both a mockery of Thor's plight and a promise, to the audience, of his eventual destiny. But the road from point A to point B is unpaved.

Back on Asgard, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) inherits the throne by default after Odin falls into "Odinsleep" (yes, I had to look that up), which is basically a sort of regenerative coma (yep, I looked that up, too).

(Quick aside: Does the wise, all-powerful Odin really not have a contingency plan in place in case he happens to fall into Odinsleep and, say, one of his sons decides to wreak destruction and havoc? Just asking.)

But I digress. The stakes are clearly drawn - in Asgard, at least, which is where virtually all of the film's most compelling scenes take place. (Whenever we head back to Earth, it's kind of a drag.) With Loki betraying what his father stands for and insisting upon his brother's continued exile, it's up to Thor to . . . uh, somehow . . . learn his lesson, stand up to evil and thwart Loki's little scheme. And yes, making those two things connect is as tricky as it sounds. So now I return to my earlier question: What, exactly, turns Thor around?

The film gives us plenty of options, none convincing. There's the budding relationship between Thor and the visionary young scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); but it's such a lazily constructed romance that the script is throwing out lines like "I see the way you look at him!" when she has, in fact, barely had a chance to look at him. (Beyond basic, primal ogling, that is.)

Is Jane's tenacity regarding her research - all of which is stolen ("borrowed," according to the government) - meant to be inspiring to Thor? Maybe, but that would hardly convince a man to do a full 180.

OK, so it must be the actions of his jealous, sinister brother, right? Except . . . no, because Thor is only peripherally aware of what's going on back home; it's certainly not the kind of visceral experience that would change a man, right? His experience on Earth and the goings-on in Asgard only converge late in the film when his friends show up to warn him about what's been happening. And even then, his primary role in this sequence is to try to keep his friends from getting killed by a giant Loki-controlled robot.

(On that note, certainly there's some metaphorical value in the fact that the antagonist in the movie's penultimate action scene is a giant piece of lifeless CGI metal that blows things up at random. It's one of the movie's biggest setpieces, and it's a dud.)

And what of his exile? Is that it? Does the experience of living powerless, stripped of his former authority and "greatness," force him to reconsider all that he once believed and fought for? OK, I guess you could make that case - but the movie doesn't make that case, which I suppose is my point. It wants to be about Thor's transformation from brave but foolish warrior to noble warrior-god, but there's precious little connecting tissue between where he begins in the story and where he ends. The plot mechanics dictate all.

There's much to admire in Thor - from Bo Welch's production design, to the light comedy in Thor's fish-out-of-water moments on Earth, to Hemsworth's performance despite an underwritten role. But the dual narratives are too divorced from one another for the film to fully work.

Branagh brings a sense of majesty and style to the Asgard sequences reminiscent of his Shakespearean work; but down on Earth, he seems much less confident in what he wants. Thor's personal journey is meant to be one of maturation, humility and change; the film, though, never earns that change.

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