Regular readers may have come across my observation that, in the past, Hollywood shows odd tendencies when it comes to rewarding young actresses who have proven themselves to have considerable talent. Are these women given the chance to shine in thoughtful, mature dramas, that offer us a deeper insight into life when seen from a feminine perspective? They are not. They are, more often than not, stuffed into a big-budget knuckle-dragging special-effects-focussed genre movie. To wit: Halle Berry in Catwoman (and much else besides), Charlise Theron and Sophie Okenodo in AEon Flux, and Anna Paquin in the X-Men series, amongst others. Now you would have thought that recent Oscar laureate Natalie Portman would be spared this kind of treatment, having already served her time in the Star Wars prequels, but apparently not: already in the can when she won, and now erupting onto the screen in boisterous 3D, is Marvel Studios' latest offering, Thor, in which she is the leading lady.
This is not so much a case of Mallett's Mallet as Branagh's Hammer. In line with their usual policy of, er, interesting directorial choices, Marvel have recruited Ken Branagh to bring this movie to the screen. (Still no sign of Edgar Wright's take on Ant-Man, alas.) The logic behind this seems a little suspect to me but Ken makes a pretty good fist of telling what, at first glance, sounds like an immensely stupid story.
Peace reigns in the Eternal Realm of Asgard, along with Odin the All-father, King of the Gods (Anthony Hopkins, not quite phoning it in). But there is discord between his sons, the proud and braggartly warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the devious and roguish sorcerer Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Jealous of his brother, Loki manipulates Thor into attacking Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants, nearly provoking war with Asgard. Odin is not best pleased by this sort of behaviour and not only strips Thor of his rank and privileges but banishes him from Asgard, casting him out into a terrible, primitive wasteland...
...also known as the southern USA. Yup, this is that kind of film. Thor crashes to Earth in New Mexico and is nearly run over by passing physicist Jane Foster (Portman) and her friends. Deprived of his godly powers Thor ends up in the local hospital, while his magic hammer Mjiolnir attracts the attention of the good men of SHIELD, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom you may recall from Iron Man 2 where some of this got set up. While Jane, her friends, and SHIELD are trying to figure out what's going on, and Thor's trying to get his hammer back, Loki seizes his opportunity and usurps the throne of Asgard from Odin (who is conveniently laid low by a plot device). Will Thor learn humility and wisdom in time to stop Loki's evil plan?
Well, it's difficult to go into too much detail here without spoiling the plot, but Loki's evil plan is really the weak link in the film: it's just not the sort of thing you're really going to care about. One of the film's major strengths is the way in which it is set in vastly and obviously different worlds – Asgard, Earth, and Jotunheim – and it derives much of its energy from the moments when they brush up against each other – armoured Aesir wandering down the main street of a present-day town, for instance. But, come the climax, events move back to Asgard with no immediate threat to Earth or any of the characters there – and it all becomes a bit of an exercise in special-effects virtuosity without any real grounding in reality or emotional weight.
It's not even as if Earth and Asgard – the two main settings – are presented as contrastingly as they might. Earth isn't as grimy and mundane, nor Asgard as soaringly otherworldly, as it could be, and I suspect this is mainly due to Thor's nature not as a film in its own right but as the latest chapter in Marvel Studios' ongoing continuity. In addition to the elements continuing from Iron Man 2, Samuel L 'Mr Post-Credits Sequence' Jackson pops up once again as Nick Fury, there's a heavily veiled reference to the Hulk, and Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner) pops up in a role just too small to be satisfying but just big enough to be slightly distracting. More importantly, the end of the film seems structured to leave several of the major characters in the places they need to be for next summer's Avengers to work.
Having said that, this is a fun and fairly satisfying film with the epic fantasy element giving it an identity separate from most superhero adaptations. There's relatively little of the large-scale action I was expecting – the sole examples being an opening-reel battle with the Frost Giants and a final act rumble between Thor and a giant metal Asgardian construct ('Is that one of Stark's?' asks a confused SHIELD agent upon seeing it – one of the moments where the film uses continuity to its advantage). Instead there's more of a focus on character and humour, and the cast Branagh's recruited is impressive. Stellan Skarsgard is rather good as Portman's mentor, and also in the movie are people like Rene Russo (who barely gets any dialogue, sadly), Idris Elba from The Wire, and Ray Stevenson. Rather surprisingly, Branagh hasn't cast Brian Blessed anywhere in this movie despite the abundance of roles he'd be perfect for. What gives, Ken? In the title role, Chris Hemsworth looks striking enough, and his performance isn't actually bad, but he's got nothing like the presence of, to pick a wild example, Robert Downey Junior or Samuel L Jackson. Hopefully Hemsworth won't have an issue with being blasted off the screen, thesp-wise, in future appearances.
I have to say that you wouldn't recognise this as the work of a director with a record as distinguished as Branagh's. For a summer blockbuster the direction is fine, and Branagh seems to have worked hard on performances, to the film's advantage, but it's not really what you'd call distinctive. Again, the film's identity as a Marvel product swamps everything else. But I suppose this is the price one pays for a unique experiment such as the one Marvel are currently engaged upon. I enjoyed Thor, but I don't think it's a great film by any means, and I'll be surprised if it makes the kind of money required to turn it into a genuine hit (then again I wasn't that impressed with the first Iron Man, which everyone loved). In the end, what is my opinion of this movie? I say thee 'Mmm, well, okay.'