It’s fair to say that when Marvel Studios announced back in 2008 that noted Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh was to direct Thor, there was an outburst of hysteria from some quarters. Even some of us who are fans of Branagh’s work from way back were a little surprised by the decision as there doesn’t appear to be a hell of a lot in his backlog of movies to recommend him for the helm of a big budget superhero adventure about a hammer wielding Norse god.
That’s of course quite ridiculous and based on a very narrow point of view: Branagh’s inexperience at the helm of a big budget special effects production. From another, and frankly more relevant perspective, that of character, theme and plot, Branagh is ideally suited to the material. He’s said himself of Marvel’s Thor, “It’s got everything that I love. A hero who is a reckless, headstrong young man who has to confront his past and deal with a complicated relationship with his father. There are a lot of savage Europeans hacking each other to death at various points and actually, it sounds very much like Henry V to me… So, you could say that I started in superhero films. The only difference in my previous ones, is that people talk funny!”
Well, Branagh has answered the critics in the only way that counts, by proving them wrong. Thor is quite simply an unmitigated triumph of a superhero movie. At a time when the superhero comic book adaptation has come to dominate Hollywood’s offerings, it takes something exceptional to stand out from the crowd and Thor has that exceptional something. It’s no surprise that the movie is heavy on action and humour, effects and big name actors, but that’s par for the course these days. What sets Thor apart from the crowd is (for want of a better word) a certain weightiness. To be sure, it’s there in the masterful screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, based on a story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, but I suspect that it would take a director with a similar background to Branagh’s to draw out so clearly what is a very human story from the doings of gods, kings and giants amongst men: after all, that’s so often what it takes to bring the works of Shakespeare to life.
Thor, son of the All-Father, Odin, is a prince amongst gods, an unmatched warrior “nearly invulnerable,” observes screenwriter Ashley Miller. “He’s supernaturally strong, he has the ability to fly and he is gifted with a great hammer that controls the storms. As the prince and golden boy, he’s never heard the word no, and he’s been allowed to do practically everything he’s ever wanted to do.” For reasons best known to Odin, the All-Father decides that the time has come to hand over the reins of power to his son but on the day that Thor is to be crowned, a small group of Frost Giants violate a longstanding truce, entering the palace to steal back their greatest weapon. The attempt fails but Thor, proving himself to be an impetuous and reckless youth, disobeys his father’s commandment and takes a band of warriors to Jutenheim, realm of the Frost Giants, to seek revenge for the affront. It’s an arrogant and misguided act which threatens to unleash an ages old war once more, bringing death and destruction to the nine worlds.
Furious with his son, Odin banishes Thor to Earth, stripping him of his power and all that defines him. Miller again: “Now, at the point in the other stories where the hero is bitten by a spider or hit by a gamma blast, Thor is stripped of every quality and possession that makes him what he believes he is. And on top of that, he is banished to a strange place. That makes him a displaced prince who is now a pauper – and so, he’s one of us.” Naturally, there is method to Odin’s punishment. Cast out, banished and bereft of his power, Thor discovers humility and self-sacrifice, and learns what it is to be a responsible leader
There is of course always a temptation to invoke Shakespeare as soon as Branagh’s name is mentioned but it’s not unjustified in this case: the exec’s at Marvel Studios knew what they were doing when they shocked most of us with their choice of director for this project. Thor is quite simply replete with the gravitas of Shakespeare’s plays. How could you not be reminded of King Lear when Odin prepares to hand over power to his son before the god-prince is ready (is this the foolish act of an aging king, like Lear, or does the All-Father know that his son is unready? I’m undecided on this point at the moment). And the complex, bitter love/hate relationship between the two brothers, Thor and Loki, one child impatient to prove himself to his father, the other, resentful and craving a place in the sun is familiar stuff from Shakespeare’s History plays in which the ambitions and squabbles of royal dynasties bring chaos to the world around them.
Pride, arrogance, love and hate, a fall from grace and the rise of a man-god wiser for the experience and worthy of his father’s love and faith, weighty stuff indeed. But for all that the subject matter is gods and kings, giants and cosmic warfare, at the heart of the stories are very human relationships and struggles. As Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige recalls, “When you read those stories, it’s like the best of the Marvel Comics, because it’s people who are very human, despite their powers—despite their calling down the storm, the thunder and the lightning. They have family issues, in the two brothers fighting, Thor and Loki. It’s a family drama, and they’re just as flawed as any of us, or any of the Marvel heroes. That’s what makes the Marvel characters so relatable.” In Branagh’s words, “The success of the Marvel connection with Norse mythology is an understanding that the human dimension at the centre of epic tales is the glue that holds everything together. There’s an exhilaration, a visceral kind of enjoyment in seeing those kinds of characters go through the same things we do.”
More successfully than any other director adapting stories of comic book superheros for the screen, Branagh has brought to life the magnificent capacity of the comic book for mythic storytelling but with a human heart. J. Michael Straczynski, writer of Marvel’s Thor comic from July 2007 until November 2009, was thrilled that Branagh was chosen to direct the hero’s motion picture debut: “With his classical training and his grounding in language, Ken has the ability to make this both lofty and accessible. He can bring these gods down to where a person can understand them.”
I’ve focused on the weightiness of Branagh’s Thor only to stress how it stands out from the crowd, but it is also a thrilling adventure, with more than a few laughs, drama and pathos aplenty. Under Branagh’s direction, the story is told with great good humour and respect both for the material and the audience and the end result is a hugely entertaining film.
My only criticism is that the 3D contributes nothing to the storytelling, neither detracting nor adding anything tangible to the experience, so what’s the point? But it’s a minor criticism of a movie I highly recommend. A great addition to the live action superhero genre.