In anticipation of The Avengers, I took time out a few weeks ago to re-watch Marvel Studios’ Thor with audio commentary from director Kenneth Branagh. Branagh’s deliberations spurred me to take a deeper look inside a film already brimming with mythological depth and visual beauty. Since its release back in 2011, I’ve come to consider it one of my favorite comic book films of all time, and while I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the comics, Branagh’s film is admirably passionate towards its source material, constructing perhaps a more meaningful film than many give it credit for.
Thor begins in the inter-dimensional realm of Asgard, introducing us to legendary figures of Norse mythology – Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the all-powerful father, and his sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god of thunder, and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief. Thor is blinded by arrogance; a brash, impudent soul, he ignores his father’s wishes and, when mysterious enemies of Asgard called the Frost Giants interrupt his ceremonial crowning, takes the battle to the icy realms of Jotunheim with Loki and his comrades. After a short but tolling battle, Odin rescues the troupe and banishes Thor to Earth to live among the humans as punishment for igniting a new war.
It is there that Thor meets astrophysicists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and Darcy (Kat Dennings), who acquaint him with earth culture and try to decipher where it is he really came from. Meanwhile, Loki discovers his true origins as a Frost Giant and confronts his father, who falls into shock following the confrontation. As Thor learns humility on Earth, Loki usurps the throne in his brother’s absence. Thor is faced with finding a way home before Loki reigns terror upon all of Asgard.
Thor’s tale is one heavily rooted in classical mythology. It’s a great example of the archetypical hero’s journey of death and rebirth, but also a story of redemption, of a fish-out-of-water, and, as Branagh puts it, of fathers and sons. Capturing an age-old, yet fresh and original magic in its execution, Branagh discusses finding a balance between the realism of sci-fi and otherworldliness of mythology that compelled him to tackle the project.
Branagh truly was an inspired choice to take the reins of Thor. The director’s experience in Shakespearean theatre lends the film an old-fashioned sensibility sorely lacking in other films of the subgenre. Throughout his commentary, Branagh is constantly relating elements of Thor to biblical, mythological (Norse and monomyth), and historical details, on top of film and Marvel references as well. He’s a very intelligent filmmaker, and one certainly more deserving of widespread acclaim.
When I first wrote a review of Thor last year, I mentioned that Branagh directs the film as fearlessly and reverently as one of his Shakespeare adaptations. Indeed, much of the Thor universe of the comics is rather goofy and admittedly a bit alienating, yet Branagh retains small things about it that make his film unique, like Thor twirling his hammer at great speeds to fly. In context, Branagh treats it seriously and it works. We believe it. He makes the ridiculousness of the concept more relatable, more human, and more real, taking the best of the comic mythology and unabashedly translating it to the screen. It’s faithful, yet better than the sum of its parts.
One thing I found interesting throughout Branagh’s commentary was the director constantly downplaying the idea that Thor was at least partially influenced by Shakespeare, claiming that he never really looked to the playwright’s works for inspiration. But really, how can one not draw such comparisons? Branagh’s direction is so deeply rooted in classical theatre, his eye so encompassed by Shakespearean lore in his past works. It’s hard not to see some of Shakespeare in any of Branagh’s works, let alone Thor, which so heavily deals with Shakespearean themes of warring peoples, familial betrayal, and young, inexperienced royalty, on top of the overall mythological background. Hell, even the Thor comic books give Thor and his Asgardian brethren a faux-Shakespearean dialect, though Branagh wisely excises this for a more accessible, less pretentious regal-speak.
The film’s plot is crammed, or as Branagh puts it, “compacted” into under two hours, keeping each and every shot packed with detail. The sheer volume of material in the film gets to be rather overwhelming, even more so for those unfamiliar with the mythology. There’s just so much going on, so much story tightly packed together here, that the film easily leaves one exhausted by the time the credits roll. Still, the craft behind such volume really shines through amidst its rushed presentation.
In typical Marvel comic book tradition, Thor ends on a cliffhanger, with Thor destroying the Bifrost Bridge and being separated from his newfound fling Jane Foster. It works well – the film poses several questions about their future together, as well as what lies ahead for how Asgardians will be able to travel between the two realms. Like the comics before it, it’s a clever way of keeping the audience coming back for more the next time Thor spins his hammer on the big screen.
Visually, Thor is incredibly sophisticated, working within its Hollywood boundaries (obvious product placement, anyone?) to nonetheless create a stunningly beautiful atmosphere. Adhering to the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic, Thor is mindful of both its pulp roots and its Norse origins alike, both of which are brimming from the film in its design.
Branagh’s theatrical background makes him an expert at staging, even in the many digitized realms of Thor. The director clearly loves sprawling throne room scenes like the one above, as evidenced by Henry V, Hamlet, and others of his films. He truly knows how to capture the silent majesty and depth of a grand throne room, and Thor may be the best-looking one of his films yet.
Perhaps most visually apparent is Branagh’s use of primarily Dutch angles in the film’s cinematography. They’re typically used to convey disorientation; in this case, Thor is disoriented at the brand new world he’s landed on, and we the audience are disoriented at this alien world of Asgard we’re seeing for the first time. Or so I’d originally theorized. Branagh reveals that he used them simply because “that’s the way [he] remember[s] comic book frames”, and to convey “dynamism” in each of the shots, using wide-angle lenses to convey depth. On either level, the film’s tilted perspective works well. And unlike, say, the entirely thoughtless use of Dutch angles in Batman & Robin, Thor poses several legitimate reasons for utilizing the angle.
When discussing the film’s additional converted 3D release, Branagh audibly drops his tone, a hint of restrained disdain for the format in his voice. He describes being hesitant to the idea of 3D at first, concerned more with his actors, but that he eventually warmed up to the format and kept it in mind during the shoot. His voice, however, tells the real story – 3D did not do this movie a hint of justice. I haven’t seen Thor in 3D, but I’ve heard nothing but bad things about it, so perhaps it’s best the film be remembered in its native 2D format.
Another interesting tidbit from Branagh’s commentary, detailed in greater depth in the featurettes of the Thor Blu-Ray, explains that the small-town New Mexico setting specifically built for the film was designed to visually parallel Asgard. Branagh talks about keeping both worlds isolated from other societies, keeping their color schemes similar, and on top of that, having the infrastructure of the buildings resemble the Asgardian architecture of Thor’s native realm. This kind of thing is a common trope of setting transitions between panels in comic books, and it’s yet another layer of thoughtful design proving just how in-tune Branagh and co. are with this universe.
I would of course be remiss not to mention Thor’s two fantastic, perfectly-cast lead performances. Much of the film’s success can be credited to Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who, as Branagh puts it, is a natural, convincing screen presence. Thor could’ve easily turned out to be an unlikable douche if played by a lesser actor, but in Hemsworth, we root for him the whole way through. I’d go so far as to say the actor does for Thor what Christopher Reeve did for Superman, an impressive feat to say the least.
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is equally outstanding. As a stage actor, Hiddleston is particularly skilled at conveying the inner turmoil behind Loki. This is not just some cackling, goofy trickster like in the comics; here, Loki is far more vulnerable, a tortured soul in conflict with himself just as much as he is with his brother. Hiddleston brought the character to even greater heights in The Avengers, but his Loki in Thor will still be remembered as one of the best villains in a Marvel movie.
Finally, worth noting is Thor’s fitting relationship to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Clearly a lot of thought was put into getting the films to coexist, which Thor succeeds at with flying colors. The two films have very different styles, so much so that they can easily stand apart, yet they can easily sit beside one another through their shared characters and overall approach. Again, it’s the unlikely pairing of sci-fi and mythology here that really drives Thor, and it makes for a great companion piece to Iron Man in that respect. Also interesting is both Favreau and Branagh’s background as actors as well as directors. Both bring out some very memorable, charismatic performances from Hemsworth and Downey Jr., crafting more meaningful character-driven experiences than any other Marvel solo films to date.
It’s far too early to see what Thor’s long-term influence on the industry will prove to be, but the seeds are already present. The film has definitely played a part in getting even the most obscure comic books into the scripting stage for potential film adaptations. It’s also been vital to the success of The Avengers – the film would’ve almost certainly avoided focusing on Loki as the centerpiece villain with an inferior actor in the role.
In short, the sheer level of craft behind Thor is nothing short of spectacular. It’s a sophisticated blockbuster experience, visually stunning, expertly directed, steeped in mythological lore, and all-around heartfelt in its execution. I’m disappointed Branagh isn’t returning for the sequel next year, but I’m still thoroughly pleased with this, his profound mark on Marvel’s ever-growing legacy of films. And hey, the man definitely knows how to make for a damn good commentary track.
Thor is available on DVD and Blu-Ray here.