Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman
Following the somewhat underwhelming Iron Man 2, Marvel Studios really needed another belter to help right their ship. Sure, the money was still flowing in, with comic book fans – clearly starved of big-budget big screen offerings – proving more than happy to take what they were given, but the MCU was definitely in dire need of another genuinely high-quality movie to match their emphatic opening salvo in 2008 with Iron Man.
Enter Kenneth Branagh in 2011, who assembled a plethora of talent to provide us with one of the most polished and enjoyable origin story movies that the MCU has ever produced, ranking up there with Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy for sheer “wow, these guys are awesome” first impression impact.
Perhaps the first thing that strikes you about the movie is how visually stunning the realm of Asgard is, providing a massive shift from the often shadowy, Earth-bound events of the first three movies. Thor managed to expand the MCU into a whole new arena, pushing back the horizons into a variety of different ways and providing a high fantasy experience that felt like it had been ripped straight from the pages of the classic Walt Simonson comics.
The film is impressively well laid out, with two stories effectively happening simultaneously. The first sees Chris Hemsworth’s Thor being deemed unworthy by his father Odin and cast down to the realm of Midgard (Earth, to you and I) as punishment, struggling to acclimatise himself to his new powerless status and meeting a group of human scientists (including love interest Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman) who help give him a new perspective on the strength of humanity. This is the lighter hearted part of the movie, with copious amounts of ‘fish out of water’ humour being delivered courtesy of Hemsworth’s impressive comic timing.
The second story is based in Asgard, where Thor’s scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston in an absolutely stellar turn that would see him invited back to the MCU time and time again) tries to subtly overthrow his father and seize power for himself, while also trying to deal with the unexpected circumstances of his own birthright. This part sees Branagh doing what he does best, coaxing powerful and emotional scenes out of his actors and giving the whole thing a heady, almost Shakespearean quality that hadn’t been seen before (or, arguably, since) in the MCU.
One thing that’s perhaps most impressive when watching this movie back almost eight years later is just how seriously the actors are taking it. Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins attacks his role as Odin with some real scenery-chewing gravitas, and the scenes he and Hemsworth share – including the one where he strips his son of his powers and casts him out – are absolutely fantastic. LIkewise, Hiddleston hosts a masterclass in subtlety, with his scheming, Machiavellian Loki only really cutting loose during one passionate plea about his real family history.
The flow is impressive throughout as we flick back and forth between each of these stories, each counterbalancing the other and preventing the movie from ever becoming too serious or too flighty. And, while Thor’s ‘journey of redemption’ arc isn’t exactly an uncommon one for superheroes, I’d argue that his transition from arrogant, boorish fool to genuine hero is every bit as impactful as Stark’s Iron Man character arc, if not more so (and certainly light-years ahead of Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange in 2016).
Above all that, however, the one thing that lifts Thor above the majority of the MCU is that its villain is absolutely fantastic. Yes, there are the typical CGI monstrosities for the hero to overcome, with Frost Giants, giant dog things and a hulking Destroyer all being dispatched in various ways by our hammer-wielding He-Man, but these are all are used merely as stepping stones to Loki, the real villain. And while the final showdown between the brothers perhaps feels a little underwhelming given the circumstances, Branagh adds a poetic, poignant slant to the proceedings that feels more than worthy of the Asgardian story to this point, with Thor stranding himself in Asgard to save his people and Loki letting his brother go and falling to his (not) death rather than having to live in his shadow any longer.
It’s perhaps not the best offering in the entire MCU, being surpassed in sheer scale and fist-punching awesomeness on several occasions, but it may very well be my favourite origin story. Hemsworth is endearing, humorous and heroic as Thor, Hiddleston and Hopkins provide some of the best acting you’re going to see in a comic book movie, and the whole thing still looks utterly gorgeous nearly seven years later. Something of a forgotten gem in the history of the MCU, but one that deserves re-watching every now and again in order to appreciate just how good it really is.
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