I remember Ang Lee once said that, regarding "The Hulk", he didn't know how to do a comic book film: he only knew how to do a drama. This comment always irked me, because it suggested comic books and drama exist in two separate categories. Fortunately, Kenneth Branagha's "Thor" perfectly bridges the so-called gap with a clever mix of comic book roots, classic mythology and Shakespearean drama.
In Branagha's "Thor", the Viking Asgardians are depicted not as gods, but as an advanced civilization (stay with me - it does actually work). After defending humanity from the alien Frost Giants, the Asgardian leader Odin (Anthony Hopkins) withdrew his forces back to the world of Asgard, which he lead into a new era of peace and prosperity, with his two sons Thor and Loki at his side. Flash forward twenty years and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is preparing to ascend to the throne, until a Frost Giant attack on Asgard prompts Thor to ignore the commands of Odin and launch a counter-attack on the Frost Giant world of Jotunheimr, with his friends Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The act puts Asgard on the brink of war and leaves Thor stripped of his powers and banished to Earth.
On Earth, Thor meets storm-chasing scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and their colleague Eric (Stellan Skarsgard). He'll need all the help he can get when everyone's favorite Marvel law enforcement agency SHIELD, headed by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2", confiscates Thor's hammer Mjolnir. Meanwhile, things get even worst on Asgard as Odin suddenly falls into a coma and Loki ascends the throne upon realizing his true origins. The revelation puts both brothers on a cosmic collision course across space.
"Thor" plays out like a classic comic book film, which more in common with the first two Christopher Reeve "Superman" films than the last two "Iron Man" films. The results can be more than a little cheesy, but they are no less satisfying. Under Hemsworth, Thor is effectively played with a sense of impetuous entitlement undercut by a fair amount of slapstick (within twenty minutes of arriving on earth, he is tazered, sedated and hit by a car twice). While Loki is certainly conniving, Hiddleton plays the character with a similar dose of humanity. In the comics, Loki can seem like Lex Luthor with a funny hat, but here, Loki never stops being Odin's son, even as he threatens his stepfather's rule and regime.
Though fairly numerous, the rest of cast is similarly effective. I've never been a big Natalie Portman fan, but I found her Jane Foster a cute and likeable character, even if her role seemed cut short compared to other Marvel leading ladies. Jaimie Alexander is similarly captivating as Sif, and working with even less screen time. My favorite supporting character has to be Heimdall (Idris Elba), who lays claim to a meaty role as Asgard's all-seeing gate keeper. Comic book fans will also be pleased to know there's a cameo from the archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), which contains everything a cameo should be - short, sweet and to the point.
The idea of Asgardian aliens could have clobbered this film in the knee but it didn't. The set is designed with a futuristic, Kirby-esque comic book feel which merges the mythology of the Aesir with advanced technology. In particular, the Bifrost Bridge is designed with a classic combination of glittering golden scales containing a Stargate-style wormhome within.
On the downside, even this story of Viking alien mythology feels a little too cartoony. Perhaps it's because Branagh does such a good job setting up his world and characters that cheesy moments feel a little too cheesy. In particular, when Thor's friends arrive on Earth and literally end up on his front door, the moment, though played for laughs, comes off as cheap. Branagh and company do so well setting up the world and characters that anything less is off-putting.
Overall, though, "Thor" is one of the most enjoyable Marvel movies since "Iron Man". Not only does the film advert the possible headache of blending Norse mythology into the science-heavy line-up of the Avengers, but the film also succeeds in adding more personalities I cannot wait to see interact on the Avengers. And speaking of Avengers, be sure to stay past the credits, because as you might have guessed, there's a post-credit scene which sets up for both "Captain America" and "Avengers".
(That's it for this week's rant. Check back next week for a new rant along with another installment of Blue Yonder)