Kenneth Branagh’s hotly anticipated “Thor” is the first of the year’s would-be summer blockbusters, and it ushers in the season not with the thunderous bang we were all expecting, but a timid whimper.
It has garnered some praise and enjoyed a strong opening weekend simply because it “isn’t bad,” but I ask: Is the absence of abject stupidity really all we’re looking for in a movie these days? Are we so relieved not to be met with complete incompetence that we’re willing to settle for simple mediocrity?
Nay, sir, nay. I submit that after four months hard time in the hellish post-Oscar, pre-summer void that we optimistically call the “spring movie season,” we the movie-going public have earned the right to actual entertainment — something more than the malformed, cookie-cutter movies that we sheepishly call “decent enough” simply because they don’t inspire us to storm out of the theater in a rage-induced spectacle. Movies like “Thor.”
Next week we’ll have a look at “Bridesmaids” (probably awful, but at the very least Kristen Wiig will be delightful), followed by “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” to kick off the summer movie season good and proper.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the normal rules of auteurism don’t always apply to superhero flicks. Yes, Christopher Nolan knocked it out of the park with his two “Batman” films, but what of Ang Lee’s singularly bizarre take on “Hulk”? Or Jon Favreau’s uncharacteristically assured “Iron Man”? Surely, one would expect the creative voice behind “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to deliver a work superior to that of the guy who directed “Elf.” Yet as we see time and again, these movies have a way of taking filmmakers so far out of their element that they sometimes find their own natural talents buried under a heap of tired genre conventions — or, in some rare cases, they find a sense of vision that previously eluded them.
Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” falls squarely into the former category. In the past, Branagh has proven himself a capable — even visionary — filmmaker. With his Shakespeare adaptations (particularly the bold and uncompromising four-hour “Hamlet” he released in 1996), the classically trained veteran tapped into something in the Bard’s works that even Olivier couldn’t find. And in his non-Shakespeare works, such as the contemporary noir classic “Dead Again,” Branagh has consistently displayed a knack for sophisticated storytelling, and a keen eye for classical compositions that make his films interesting on a visual level as well.
To be fair, “Thor” would seem like a nice fit for the director, as far as superhero flicks go. Telling the story of a shamed God who is cast out of his realm by his father the king and forced to learn humility by living amongst mortals, there’s a Shakespearean quality to this film that can’t be ignored. Branagh focuses on the relationships between characters as much as possible, and the whole thing (up until the overly optimistic finale) takes on the feel of a grand tragedy tailored to fit into the superhero genre. So far, so good.
Trouble is, Branagh has very little idea what to do with the tools at his disposal as a big-picture director. He sets the stage nicely for an epic tale of sibling rivalry as the outcast god Thor must battle his treacherous brother, Loki, to save humanity from destruction. Yet, for all the grandiose sets and expensive special effects and ambitious set-up, nothing much happens in “Thor.”
It’s your typical “boy meets hammer, boy loses hammer” story as Thor spends the majority of the film trying to recover his trademark weapon, and after about 45 minutes the film begins to feel less like a fully formed superhero movie and more like a collection of dailies from the first few weeks of shooting. There’s no real sense of urgency to the story, and very little momentum to keep things moving forward.
Branagh has some experience with grand-scale action sequences (his “Henry V” basically wrote the book on modern battle scenes before “Braveheart” came along to take the credit), and when “Thor” is in full action mode, it’s hard not to be taken in by the spectacle. The visual effects are sometimes iffy, but in terms of shot composition and kinetic coherence, Branagh clearly knows what he’s doing.
Unfortunately, there’s only one action sequence in “Thor” that is lengthy enough to be truly impressive, and it occurs near the beginning of the film as Thor launches a unilateral invasion of a hostile planet. It’s all downhill from there, as we see when things eventually culminate in a truncated battle royale that appears to take place on the Rainbow Road from “Super Mario Kart.” Branagh has the technical stuff down pat, but what good is that when your action sequences aren’t weighty enough to properly showcase technical talents?
The director has said that he has no interest in helming another “Thor” film, and I say that’s fine. But the studio shouldn’t let the potential franchise die here, only to be absorbed by the “Avengers” series ala “The Incredible Hulk.” There’s a lot to work with here: a decent storyline that comes across with the minimal amount of silliness; a capable cast headed by the naturally charismatic Chris Hemsworth; and a solid if sometimes confusing mythology that demands to be expounded upon.
My advice: Hand the reins over to Neil Marshall, the British auteur behind “Dog Soldiers,” “The Descent” and “Centurion.” Given his knack for perfectly staged set-pieces and fully formed, engaging action scenes, he seems like the natural choice to pick up the pieces and turn “Thor” into a bankable franchise.
Sorry, Kenneth, but perhaps another Shakespeare flick is more your style.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.