Stan Lee and his acolytes are fond of describing the dialogue he wrote for the denizens of Asgard in Marvel comics as "Shakespearean," though that's really sort of an insult to the Bard. Maybe that's why someone thought that Kenneth Branagh would make a good director for the latest episode in the long build-up to Joss Whedon's The Avengers. But here's another theory: maybe the producers thought Branagh would emphasize with the film's protagonist, a golden boy fallen from grace. Twenty years ago or so, Branagh seemed a young god of cinema. Henry V staked his claim to be the next Olivier, and he even came with an appropriate consort in Emma Thompson. Henry was a fine film, in some respects superior to Olivier's film, and Branagh followed it with a high-concept thrill-ride, Dead Again, that pointed toward pop success to match his works of art. Two films later came a double disaster: the unmodulated hysteria and dismal miscasting of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the end of his marriage. While Thompson moved on to surpass Branagh, earning Oscars as both actress and writer, he staked his future on an all-star complete-text Hamlet that proved only that William Shakespeare himself probably never staged his full text if he had any sense. Given that Branagh had previously and judiciously cut down Henry and Much Ado About Nothing, his "playwright's cut" stank of gimmickry as well as cronyism. It suffered by comparison to Franco Zefferelli's version of just a few years before (which also handicapped Branagh by pre-emptively casting some of his cronies). Meanwhile, his credibility as a master thespian, already shaky due to his failure to ever come up with a proper American accent, suffered further from association with another disaster, Wild Wild West. Chewed up and spat out by the arch-homewrecker of our time, Helena Bonham Carter, Branagh had fallen to the level of a mid-range character actor by the time Marvel and Paramount promised directorial redemption with the tale of a youth born to godhead who must learn to be worthy of his station.
Branagh has exploited the opportunity by making a mostly efficient, mildly entertaining and utterly impersonal film. Cut off from his cronies except for his musical alter ego Patrick Doyle -- who contributes a mostly efficient, mildly entertaining and utterly impersonal score -- Branagh had one task above all others. He had to put over Chris Hemsworth as a hero people would want to see again and a personality people would believe could hold his own with the overwhelming star power of Robert Downey Jr. in the Avengers movie. In that task, I think he and Hemsworth succeeded. If the actor came across as a mere muscleman, both Thor and Avengers were probably doomed. But actor and director, working with five writers, made the title character a likable egotist with a sense of humor, a god who does dumb things but doesn't come across as stupid, who is humbled and redeemed but can by expected to retain enough arrogance not to be blown off the screen by Downey or Mark Ruffalo or Jeremy Renner (who makes his unbilled Marvel debut here) or Chris Evans when the time comes. Following current comics, this Thor doesn't actually talk "Shakespearean." That is, there are no thees and thous or archaic verb conjugations. Instead, he comes across as a mostly good-natured, articulate barbarian, the sort of fellow who expresses his appreciation of a cup of coffee (his first ever) by dashing the cup on a diner floor and demanding "Another!" The scene in which he tries to explain to a gently exasperated Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) that he meant no disrespect to the diner is one of the film's more charming moments, and there are more of those throughout the picture than I originally expected. It seems to be a tendency of Marvel movies (though the upcoming Captain America movie is likely to break it) to make their heroes slightly boorish and abrasive -- just enough to humanize them and stay true to the "superheroes with problems" archetype that defined Marvel back in the 1960s and differentiated them decisively from their DC Comics rivals. The Marvel heroes seem to need to learn many times over that great responsibility comes with great power, but it's a lesson that probably can't be taught often enough for some audiences.
Thor is a star vehicle for an actor who is not yet a star. In Hemsworth's orbit, Academy Award Winner Natalie Portman gives a likable yet nondescript performance that probably any two dozen actresses of her age and stature could have given just as well. It was clever of the writers to give her a pretty female sidekick (along with token actual Norseman Stellan Skarsgard) as comedy relief to make Portman more credible as a hardcore scientist -- still not very credible but at least more so. As for Academy Award Winner Anthony Hopkins, I sighed when I read that he'd been cast as Odin. It was the thoughtlessly obvious choice and I expected him to phone it in -- loudly, of course. But the fact is, Odin Allfather is probably the ideal role for Hopkins at this stage of his career. Odin does little but bluster and rage in the comics, and Hopkins can certainly bluster and rage. The meeting of Hopkins and Branagh, once possibly highly anticipated and later probably highly dreaded, is disappointing only because Odin comes across as weak due to the script's emphasis on his role as a peacemaker and its emphasis on the usual Fathers & Sons archetypes. Likewise, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is perhaps too subtle and nuanced a villain for the film's good. The mischievous god is just learning about his origins in this story, and the revelations render him conflicted rather than utterly evil. Hiddleston performs the role well but the vagueness of Loki's ultimate agenda makes him an uncertain foundation on which to build the Avengers edifice. Noteworthy among the rest of the cast is Branagh's characteristically inclusive casting of Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall and the wasteful casting of Tadanobu Asano (Genghis Khan himself) as Hogun the Grim of the Warriors Three. This mighty man of Asian cinema gets maybe a half-dozen lines of dialogue and doesn't even get to wear Hogun's cool Mongolian cap from the comics.
I just called Thor an impersonal piece of direction, but doing that begs the question of whether Branagh has ever had a personal style. He's always been fond of the moving camera, whether he was tracking himself lugging little Christian Bale across the battered landscape of Henry V or restlessly circling around his actors whenever an opportunity arose. You get the circling about here and you get plenty of the uniformed spectacle that is arguably also a Branagh trait. But it's not as if no other director has these tics. As an FX wrangler and director of action he's a mixed bag on Thor. Much of the fighting is filmed too close to be coherent, though the battle with the Destroyer in New Mexico is done well enough. Sometimes Branagh gets the action and pacing just right, as when a powerless but still formidable Thor invades the SHIELD cordon around the impact point of Mjolnir, beating up guards through a labyrinth of fencing while Renner's "Agent Barton" draws a bead on him from above, only to face a terrible surprise when reunited with his hammer. Sometimes, like during a flashback battle between Aesir and Jotuns, he reduces the screen to a jumble of vaguely violent stuff. I'm not sure whether it makes a difference that I saw the film flat; 3D might actually make some parts of the action more confusing. Would Bo Welch's production designs of Asgard and Jotunheim look less ugly or tacky in 3D? I leave it to those who saw it that way to say. Fortunately, the story has momentum enough to let you overlook the film's visual flaws.
Speaking of momentum, Thor should restore any that the Avengers project had lost following the tepid critical reception for Iron Man 2. My guess is that people will be willing to see Hemsworth reprise the role, and I'm interested in seeing him interact with Downey and the other high-powered stars next year. Thor also has to be considered some kind of personal triumph, if not career redemption, for Kenneth Branagh. It means he'll probably have some future behind the camera. He can at least advertise his next project as coming from "The Director of Thor," and if he behaves himself, he might be hired to make a Bond film someday.