Let us jump back a decade. Of the four superheroes launched in Marvel Studio’s initial production schedule, Thor stood out as the most challenging to adapt. Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk were effectively no-brainers, and Captain America was easily adapted through setting his film in a World War II context. Thor, however, proved a much larger hurdle. As depicted in decades’ worth of comic book stories, he was a Norse god of thunder re-imagined as a blend of science fiction and fantasy. The technology was enormously advanced, yet depicted through a medieval lens of kings, queens, swords and hammers. More often than not the dialogue was unnaturally old-fashioned, feeling more akin to Shakespeare than a superhero comic book. It is perhaps unsurprising that of those four “Phase One” heroes it was Thor that Marvel Studios tackled last. Thanks to director Kenneth Branagh, I feel they knocked it out of the park.
The storyline for Thor is a remarkable simple one, all things told. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a boastful and irresponsible heir to the throne of Asgard, fully expecting to be named as king by his powerful father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). When his rambunctious ways always lead to war with the frost giants, he is banished without powers to Earth until he can learn some humility. While Thor mourns his lost status and home, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) turns traitor in an attempt to take over all of Asgard.
The simple narrative works enormously in Thor‘s favour, as the film has a lot of potentially ludicrous elements to introduce with a comparatively straight face – and they need to be introduced in such a way that they can be shoe-horned into all of the other Marvel films and characters already introduced. Later Thor features – notably Taiki Waititi’s Ragnarok – only succeed in being as outlandish as they are because of groundwork set up here.
To keep up audience interest, Branagh (with screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller (Fringe), Zack Stenz, and The Simpson‘s Don Payne) lays a heavy focus on the film’s characters. He casts appropriately for the heightened dialogue and assembles one of the strongest casts from which a superhero film has ever benefitted. For Thor and Loki he casts pitch-perfect newcomers in Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston; Hiddleston in particular is superb, and it is little surprise to look back over the past 10 years and realise just how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has leaned on Loki over any other villain. Anthony Hopkins brings tremendous prestige as Odin, as does Rene Russo as Queen Frigga. The supporting cast is littered with strong international talent, who bring an enthusiasm to their performances that you often fail to get when prestige talent turns up in popcorn entertainment: Idris Elba, Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Colm Feore, and Stellan Skarsgård. As physicist Dr Jane Foster, Natalie Portman gives a hugely underrated performance as both audience viewpoint and love interest. Sure, her gushing love affair with Thor does seem extraordinarily rushed – but to be honest that is pretty much on par with Hollywood.
The production and costume design in Thor absolutely sings. It should all feel much more ridiculous than it does, but Branagh keeps an astonishing balance throughout. Of Marvel Studios’ first four films, this honestly feels like the most ambitious and ultimately the most successful. No disrespect to Favreau, Leterrier, or Johnston, but there is no challenge in their respective efforts that comes close to what Branagh achieves here. This is a tightrope walk act par excellence, and if you want evidence of just how great an achievement it is one needs only look at Thor: The Dark World, and what happens once Kenneth Branagh is no longer involved.