It is not difficult to imagine how director Kenneth Branagh got roped into the latest Marvel comic adaptation, Thor. Beneath the movie’s loud, brash, cluttered, ransacked visual rubble lies an essential familial story with Shakespearean echoes: two sons vying for the throne and the affection of their aging father. There are times, even, when Branagh manages to let this essential drama wink out from behind that shattered celestial debris that is the true star of this ungodly mess of special effects-fueled action. But all Thor manages is a little glimpse of what could have been an epic heart.
Amongst the slew of action flicks of recent years, Thor most resembles Transformers 2, a movie that was likewise drowned in confusing visual cacophony. When we are in the realm of Asgard, the home of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the backdrop is a digitally painted gothic Tron, an ugly, chiseled city built of glassy rainbow strips of steel.
Here the story is overblown and verbose, pushed to Shakespearean significance without the script to back it up. Asgard is a kingdom under siege by an evil race of ice giants. These marauding giants once warred with the people of Asgard, an epic battle digitally recreated here in a blur of bodies. We are told that this battle is what inspired the Norse myths from which these characters all derive their names. Clever enough, but in this overwrought universe there is little magical or mystifying – only moments that are dazzling and spectacular.
Thor is a beefy, underwear model of a man, with Hrothgar-ish lust for battle and an impertinent regard for peacemaking. This inspires an ill-fated expedition on the part of Thor and his warring buddies to the ice kingdom, where his brazen arrogance incites war between the ice giants and Asgard. Odin must arrive at the last moment to sew together the sinuous ties of peace, but as punishment, the brokenhearted Odin banishes his son and takes away his power. Thor is hurled through space, landing on the hood of Natalie Portman’s jeep.
Portman plays Jane Foster, a giddy physicist studying space in alien-ridden New Mexico. Along with her team, which includes the required Norwegian, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and the wry-witted intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), Jane has captured all of the data resulting from Thor’s fall from the heavens. That means, of course, that hours after she brings the subdued superhero to the hospital, federal agents have swept in to Jane’s lab and seized all of her gear.
That incites much pouting and moaning from Portman, who, watching her performance in the movie, we can hardly believe just won an Academy Award a few months ago. There are two or three flashes of charm, but mostly Portman mails it in with her Julia Roberts smile and ditsy flirtations with the hunky Hemsworth. Portman seems to be enjoying herself, which is probably why she took the lighter role and the heavier paycheck. The problem is, watching her, we don’t enjoy anything.
The same could be said for much of the acting in this film – Hopkins: snore, Hemsworth: grunt – with the exception of Hiddleston as Loki. Gifted with the majority of the movie’s pathos, Hiddleston makes good use of the role, snarling and seething, plotting and scheming, and taking his character on the kind of emotional ride that reminds us that villains are always the most interesting characters in these things.
Loki’s journey is singular, the rest of the characters merely engaged in slapdash battles dressed in pupil-dilating lightning flashes and ear-crushing sonic booms. Thor is at its best when it lowers its guard of epic seriousness, which never quite catches our imagination, allowing the juxtaposition of the real world and the antiquated verbosity of the legendary characters to provoke some giggles. Too bad Branagh didn’t follow all the way through with these comic moments. Falstaff is infinitely more enjoyable than two hours with Macduff.