Thor (Branagh, 2011)

Chris Hemsworth as Thor

I didn’t hate Thor. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t.

True, I can’t recall two consecutive minutes of the film where I was conscious of enjoying myself, but that doesn’t mean I hated it. Really.

It’s a “things go boom” movie, and, well, plenty of things go boom. If the politics feel a little more pointed than The Conspirator‘s and the art design a little too Flash Gordon-y, that doesn’t mean I hated it. It only means that the idea of it is not one that I loved. As far as execution…

There’s one problem, really, and the comic book movie genre has gotten to the point where even the criticisms of it sound and feel canned. Everything is designed to be a tentpole movie these days. The first movie is about setting things up. The problem then is that the second movie is about catching people up and advancing things only so slightly…and from then on each movie is really only about how much you’ve already invested in the franchise.

Here the audience knows already to stick around for the post-credits preview scene for how the new character relates to The Avengers. (Even the “Thor will return” line feels like a nod to the James Bond franchise…). There is a lot of work going into setting up the team movie, into creating intertexutality in the Marvel films. Unless The Avengers is really, really, good, though…and I’m talking Citizen Kane good, I suspect a lot of deferred disappointment is going to be unleashed. Then again, there could be a reverse-Catch-22 kind of synergy at play. The mundane individual film feels bigger and more important than it is because it is leading to something beyond the film. The mundane last film feels bigger and more important than it is because it comes at the end of a long journey. The problem, of course, it that the payoff is never in the present moment; a franchise is always, only about how the event has been manufactured, not about how the work of art is itself excellent or interesting or memorable.

I guess the most distinctive thing about the movie itself is Chris Hemsworth without his shirt on. He has, what Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) calls a “really good look.” The CGI-battle between the Asgardians and the Ice Giants was nice as a CGI battle, but I kept thinking about how much more emotional the battle scene was in Henry V. ¬†Ironically, that play begins with Shakespeare calling on the audience to use its imagination in order to assist the artist who must evoke rather than try to represent spectacle:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,

Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may

Attest in little place a million;

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

Are now confined two mighty monarchies,

Whose high upreared and abutting fronts

The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide on man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,

Admit me Chorus to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

Branagh, then, is an interesting choice to try to direct a CGI epic. The special effects age means the auteur must have a visual imagination that uses the special effects to re-create his mind’s inner picture (I’m thinking of James Cameron or Ridley Scott). Branagh’s imagination has been funneled into staging (how bodies interact with each other) and interpretation of dialog. Thus we get elaborate sets and establishing shots that give way to mostly empty stages (or frames) where Thor and Odin (Anthony Hopkins) talk to each other or Thor talks about how much he loves Jane or Thor’s buddies talk about what their relationship to Thor means.

A classic example of how, I think, Branagh is the wrong director is a scene in which Thor goes to a desert crash site to retrieve his hammer. Think about how Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) can convey a sense of majesty and mystery simply through the staging, the imagery of an installation around some artifact. Everything in Branagh’s conception of this scene is abstract…we have the perimeter fence, a square metal frame around the artifact, and a series of corridors consisting of white sheets around catwalks that serve no discernible purpose other than to keep Thor from walking straight toward his object. Even with such a setup, Spielberg’s studied his Buster Keaton enough to think of all sorts of ways to have his characters move through and around space that one at least feels have structural sense. Given this set up, Branagh doesn’t know what to do other than have Thor run through a few corridors until he is knocked down and then roll around in the mud (another scene which seemed oddly more effective in Henry V, too).

My point is not that I think Branagh is a bad director, because I don’t. I am one of the few people in my circle who defends Hamlet and I think Much Ado About Nothing is about as perfect a comedy as you can have. He strikes me as very intellectual, though, ¬†and he is a top notch reader of texts. Give him something fully formed and he can bring it to life. Make him responsible for filling out something generic (Frankenstein) and he’s a bit like a classical musician trying to play jazz. You can tell the technique and talent is there, but he’s least comfortable at the things that are most important to the genre.

All that being said, the audience I saw the film with seemed to love it, and I tend to think that may be a better gauge of a movie’s charms. Do the people who both expect to and want to love it get what they think is coming? I expect the answer is yes, even if for those of us who want to love it but expect that the most we can hope for is to not hate it get pretty much the same.

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