When Marvel announced they'd signed up Kenneth Branagh to direct their latest superhero movie there was a lot of shaking of heads and 'what???' coming from the film blogosphere. But after seeing his take on the Norse God I take my hat off to producer Kevin Fiege, Branagh is an inspired choice who has done a fantastic job launching what I am sure is going to be a new franchise.
Thor plays out as a Shakespearian drama (no surprise really with Branagh's background). It is the story of two brothers and their fight to win their father's approval. Thor, a Norse God, is due to inherit the throne of Asgard from his father Odin while Loki must forever live in his brother's shadow. But when the cocky Thor decides to pick a fight with Odin's enemy he is banished from their world to live as a mortal on Earth, paving the way for his more machivellean brother.
For viewers who don't know Thor's story you have to pay attention to the film for a good half hour to really get what's going on, there's a lot of shifting between the fantastical Asgard and our world. The set design and effects of Asgard are excellent and at times it leaves the scenes on Earth looking almost flat in contrast. No matter how pretty you make the New Mexico desert look it still pales in comparison to a rainbow bridge in all its glory. I also found the relationship between Thor and his human love-interest Jane a bit flat at times. That's not a criticism of Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, it's just maybe the scriptwriters had too much on their hands with all the different elements of the story.
One thing the writers did do was bring the funny and there are some great references to the Marvel universe including lines about Iron Man and The Hulk. Thor also gives us our first glimpse of Hawkeye who we'll be seeing a lot more of in The Avengers. But the character's relevance is never really explained and I'm not sure the casual viewer will pick up on why he's there.
Any film of this nature lives and dies on the casting of its leads and here Branagh and his producers have come up trumps. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are going to be big stars. Hemsworth is completely believeable as Thor, turning him from cocky Prince to a man who begins to understand his place in the world. In lesser hands, Loki could have been cartoonish and a 'typical baddie' but Hiddleston enthuses him with pathos and you're never quite sure just how bad he really is. After seeing the trailer I was worried that Anthony Hopkins might spend the film chewing the scenery but Branagh gets a toned-down performance from him in the film (which is surprisingly the first time they've worked together). Portman is ok as love interest Jane and she's backed-up well by Skarsgard and Denning, the latter providing a lot of the Earth-based humour. Idris Elba banishes all thoughts of The Wire with his role as gatekeeper Heimdell, I'll admit I only realised Rene Russo was playing Thor and Loki's mother at the end credits and Clark Gregg gets a lot more screentime as SHIELD Agent Coulson.
But as good as his cast is though, this is Branagh's film. For a director who has never worked with effects before he has done a fantastic job making Asgard seem just as real as Earth. He's pulled great performances out of two unknowns in his lead actors and he's shown Hollywood he can be trusted with a 'studio' movie. Whether he returns for the inevitable sequel remains to be seen, but I certainly hope he does.