Going to as many movies as I do, I do everything I can to ensure that seeing a new one is as spontaneous an experience as possible. That means that I’ll generally try to avoid knowing very much about it when I walk in. So it wasn’t until I sat down at a preview screening of Thor, right before the movie started, that I actually found out that it was directed by Kenneth Branagh. I literally did a jaw-dropping double take. It was as if you’d told me that the upcoming Spider-Man reboot was going to be directed by Whit Stillman — or that Jane Campion was going to try for a change of pace by signing on to make Fast Six: Furious in Moscow. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of a good idea.)
In one sense, I shouldn’t have been shocked. The notion of a smart, ambitious, prestigious, serious filmmaker doing a mega-budget comic-book adaptation lost its novelty long ago. The most spectacular example, of course, is Christopher Nolan, who we now think of as such a big-spectacle visionary that it’s almost hard to remember back to before The Dark Knight and Batman Begins and Inception, when he was just an earnest upstart who had made the dazzlingly cerebral Möbius-strip thriller Memento. The same instant redefinition happened with Jon Favreau, who directed the first Iron Man (2008) in such a fun and exciting and clever flying-teapot way that it’s easy to forget his modest indie roots (the writer and co-star of Swingers, the director of the very funny and overlooked Made).
Then, of course, there’s Ang Lee, a relative cinematic highbrow who seemed profoundly cast against type when he signed on to direct Hulk (2003) — and maybe the fact that that didn’t work out so well is one of the reasons that the Thor/Branagh pairing caught me off guard. As a filmmaker, Ang Lee gravitates to the supple humane center of every scene he stages, and when he tried to do that with Hulk, he ended up making a “humane” study of a bulgy-muscled rotten-green monster-man who splits his pants whenever he gets angry.
In the eleven previous features that he’s directed, Kenneth Branagh has made himself into Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary big-screen adapter, but he hasn’t done much else of note (though I personally enjoyed his tricky-goofy second film, Dead Again, and his unjustly savaged update of Sleuth). There was every reason to believe that the combination of Branagh and Thor would take the comic-book saga of a rippling Norse-god Superman and make it as heavy as Thor’s hammer. Instead, Branagh brings to Thor exactly what you dream of a shrewdly literate entertainer doing: He brings out the pop-classical grandeur of the material — yet he keeps it light on its feet and character-based. He stays true to the pulpy majesty of a superhero origin story — yet he treats his actors not like slabs of meat reading smudges of functional dialogue but as avid presences with sharply angled emotional dimensions.
Most of all — and this, I think, comes from Branagh’s deep understanding of Shakespeare as a popular entertainer — he knows that acting doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. Don’t kill me for saying this, but a lot of highly celebrated Shakespeare acting is actually fairly blustery and one-note. What counts is that the note that’s struck rings like a bell. Branagh, working with the Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, shapes the character of Thor so that his strength and simplicity, his princely twinkle and beefcake swagger, and his amusingly incongruous (at least, on earth) stentorian speech all work together to create the dynamic image of a god who must learn that he’s also just a guy.
Franchise filmmaking is supposed to be the ultimate safe bet, with a built-in blockbuster audience, but the executives at Marvel Studios took a real chance when they hired Branagh. I give them props for attempting to bring some flesh-and-blood dimension to the project (the scenes on Asgard are like something out of an intergalactic Gladiator), but who knew that Branagh would prove to be such a maestro of three-ring digital spectacle as well? To me, that may be the single coolest thing that he brings off. We’re so used to getting eye-popped by the effects in even the cheesiest sci-fi/fantasy films (like 2012 or Sucker Punch or Spider-Man 3) that it’s hard to define what distinguishes a good special-effects movie from a bad one. I think that what makes the effects in Thor so satisfying is that Branagh, hailing from a non-effects background, doesn’t come off like a slave to F/X. He uses the effects, rather than overdoing them. You can see that in the elegant, no-fuss speed with which the frost giants freeze their foes to a crisp, or in the playful way that the movie brings a mystical shrouded glow to Heimdall (Idris Elba), the gold-armored guardian of Asgard, or in the fantastic robot monster — his plating like some Art Deco stove – who shoots fire out of his eye visor in a battle with Thor on earth. That metal creature gave the kid in me a bigger blast of nostalgic wonder than anything in the last two Terminator pictures (or either of the Transformers films). It has a deeply innocent Ray Harryhausen “Wow!” factor.
The whole nimbly counterintuitive, let’s-try-it-on notion of Kenneth Branagh directing Thor, and doing such a terrific job of it, is just the latest reminder of one of the essential things that has kept the art of moviemaking alive in the franchise era: If you recruit real artists to make these films, the movies will often turn out…better. The other side of that coin, of course, is that the artists themselves have to be willing to become popcorn showmen, even if that isn’t why they got into the business of making movies in the first place. The dream scenario, of course, is that they can still do both. But for a filmmaker like Kenneth Branagh, it probably helps to remind himself that there’s no shame in working within the popular forms of the day. Just ask Shakespeare.
So what did you think of the way that Kenneth Branagh directed Thor? Did you go in as a fan of his? Do you think he was just “selling out,” or could you see genuine traces of his personality? And is there a filmmaker we don’t associate with comic-book superhero movies who you’d like to see try his or her hand at one?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman