Why Branagh’s Marvel movie is more little cracker than hammer horror.

Thor review

Is day-glo the new dark on the superhero scene? Is levity the new heavy?

If the old-fashioned fun dished by summer Marvels Thor and Captain America has any say, don’t bet against it.

Five years ago anyone selling spandex cinema to studios might have met with a Bruce Wayne-ism: does it come in black? But Thor makes playfully light work out of potentially hefty lifting, leaping from Marvel’s line-up as a surprising romp made doubly so by the bloke hired to direct it.

Doubts over Kenneth Branagh’s appointment weren’t just inverted snobbery talking. His Shakespeare films don’t exactly scream ‘pumped for action’. He’s shown tendencies towards the kind of over-baked bluster (Frankenstein) that could sink a superhero film requiring tonal care: get Thor wrong and it plummets into either camp froth or pompous ceremony.

He can be fussy (Sleuth), which won’t do for a studio tent-pole project prioritising story. And the fan-worrying tension multiplies when you note that Thor is part-paving the road to The Avengers, a mega-project that needs a hammer-shaped hole in its head like Chris Nolan needs another set pic leaked.

Against the odds, though, Branagh delivers the right stuff in at least the first two acts, breezing between multiple worlds and a Valhalla’s army of characters like a man born to Asgard’s throne. In present-day New Mexico, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård and Kat Dennings chase twisters and meet a man who fell to earth.

Cut to Norway, way back when, where Anthony Hopkins’ Odin cools the Frost Giants’ boots. Then we’re shot to Asgard, where Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is stripped of powers and exiled by Odin after the god of thunder (and good hair-care) proves too cocksure to be king.

Finally, just before Asgard’s speechifying gets too starchy, we plummet back to Earth for some well-timed fish-out-of-water japes (Thor’s table manners amuse) and skewed establishing shots straight out of original Marvel artist Jack Kirby’s sketch book.

Between the two, Branagh’s vision is clearly revealed: poised between sincere and silly, but smartly faithful to its source material.

Gods and monsters

With so much ground to cover in so little time, Branagh’s well served by stars able to suggest, as his gracious chat-track has it, “a lot with a little”. Working his one eye with beady wit, Hopkins enlivens stolid scripting with quiet-LO UD-quiet (“BUT you’re NOT ... king”) deliveries.

Hemsworth strikes a charismatic mock-brawny balance, showing sly comic talent as he struts into a pet shop and demands a horse or, failing that, a dog, cat or bird big enough to ride.

Dennings turns thudding gags into choice drolleries (“Hammer, hammer...”, “Yeah, we can tell you’re hammered”) and Portman gamely geeks out as Jane Foster, even if the required degree of dizziness falls just outside her poised range.

Best of all is Tom Hiddleston who, as Thor’s lurking brother Loki, resists the temptation to topple into camp, instead scheming and scowling inwardly. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t fully exploit him, a problem also extending to the Warriors 3 and the monsters.

Like the galaxy’s narkiest health-food advocate, the Destroyer visits Earth but only gets to blitz fast-food stops. The Frost Giant threat is Thored faster than your average freezer.

Branagh’s staging of these climactic confrontations is efficient but stylistically anonymous, lacking the distinguishing clout Sam Raimi and Chris Nolan stamped on their superhero action sequences.

In fairness, the big menaces are only intended to be minor players in the larger arcs: the Destroyer’s Earth visit facilitates Thor’s redemptive rebirth and the feisty Frosties fuel Loki’s motives.

There’s a sense of choppiness to the plotting, but with so many characters and conflicts on hand, Branagh keeps an impressively tight focus on the core story and smoothes out most of the narrative fits and starts.

Building bridges

We’ll see more of Loki’s mischief in The Avengers too, which is one reason why fans might rush to the DVD like gods to war: the Road To The Avengers featurette.

Don’t get excited – it’s pure puffery featuring snippets of Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige intercut with Comic-Con clips we’ve watched to death on YouTube.

More satisfying is Ken’s likeable commentary, where he drops lit-myth references, stresses the need for “lightness of touch” and playfully teases Hemsworth’s eagerness to get his top off.

That’s almost your lot on DVD, besides deleted scenes suggesting that Ken cut material erring on the wrong side of camp. For more you’ll have to buy Blu, where seven featurettes go behind the scenes and the much-teased short film The Consultant (Clark Gregg stars) builds more pre-Avengers character bridges.

A 3D disc’s also available, though striking design ideas like the psychedelic rainbow bridge shine brighter in 2D than in colour-clouding theatrical 3D. Thor doesn’t need such gimmickry: it’s shamelessly old-school, trading in brisk, bright pacing and multi-layered storytelling – and it needs to glow like Hemsworth’s baby-blues.

Will it give The Avengers a shot at out-dazzling The Dark Knight and out-swinging Spider-Man in 2012? We’ll see about that, but Branagh’s keen hammer blows have laid down sturdy foundations. Joss, let’s do this.

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