'Thor' meets Kenneth Branagh (say WHAT?): The franchise gods approve (and so would Shakespeare)

Kenneth-Branagh

Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios

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


Comments (80 total) Add your comment
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  • JLC

    I thought it was terrific. Perfect balance of gravity and silliness. It felt more like a “comic book” movie, in the best sense of the word, than a lot of these films. I hope Branagh will take on a Thor sequel.

    • Bonnie

      Agree, wholeheartedly. Give us well-thought-out characters on top of the OVER THE TOP stories and F/X and we’ll give you an audience!

    • Joe

      And not only that, but it was under two hours, and it didn’t feel long at all. It was pretty streamlined and cut to the heart of the story…almost Shakespearean in the editing, I guess. I loved it.

    • tipsy

      Agree totally. It was terrific and big props to Branagh for discovering Hemsworth and Hiddleston. I admired Hemsworth`s small but memorbale turn in Star Trek but Thor is a star-making perforemnce. Never seen Hiddleston in anything before, but boy do I hope we see more of him. Terrific talents both of them.

      • Joe

        Hiddleson was in a series called “Wallander” which starred Branagh over on the BBC. A pretty great series, actually.

    • Sarah O

      Absolutely saw flashes of Branagh in the humor, especially. And in the humanity of the grieving and guilt-ridden Odin. It certainly helps to have Sir Anthony Hopkins play him too! But Branagh was good with the younger, less-known actors, like the one who played Loki.

    • s

      Loved the movie! Hope they make Thor 2!!!

      • steph

        they are, sort of. these movies are all precursors to the avengers in 2012, which thor will return for.

  • Jeff

    I thought he delivered on his promise and the Shakes background helped. Honestly the Asgaard and Ice Planet stuff where superior to everything on earth and that is because he nailed the heightened reality.

    • Stacie

      The other-worldly sets were amazing. The candlelit, gold rooms were my favorite lair scenes since Flash Gordon.

  • Nappa

    I went in without any awareness of Branagh. I thought the movie was okay, but nowhere near enough to deserve the hype surrounding it. I was disappointed with the tame climax and the overall stunt scenes. CGI was good.

  • S.

    Yay, I’m not the only one who likes Dead Again – lol. Besides, Shakespeare was considered entertainment for the low brow masses back in the day (read Dirty Shakespeare to fully appreciate all the “vulgar” humor/comments spread throughout) , so it’s only fitting that Branagh can direct for the masses now.

    • Crystal

      Exactly! Within the first 10-20 minutes, when they introduced Thor’s warrior friends, imposing father, and dark brother, I thought: No wonder Branagh’s directing this! It’s an intergalactic Shakespeare play, complete with silly situations and people meant for comic relief, double-crossing, disguises, fights, and love. Perfect choice!

      • Carla in Houston

        I agree, Thor is about as Shakesperean as a superhero movie can get, so I think Branagh was a great choice. I didn’t LOVE the movie, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I’m interested to see how they are going to work Thor into the Avengers movie.

  • oliviersansau

    I could definitely see traces of him in the movie. I knew ahead of time he was gonna be directing, and seeing the movie, I instantly knew why he would be drawn in the project. It IS just like a shakespearian drama set in outter space. The only thing I did not like about his directing was the over use of tilted camera angle (something I do not like to begin with). I really find it… … distracting. But all in all, I thought it was a perfect fit: something the people at Marvel probably did not just select an artsy name at random but actually made a research.

  • Allen

    I thought he had a deft touch on the film. I truly enjoyed it and will be taking my nephews next weekend to see it.

  • Juli

    As a huge fan of Much Ado About Nothing, I was definitely excited about what Branagh could do with a big blockbuster. Ever since Jon Favreau was able to turn Iron Man into both fun AND smart – I’ve been waiting for it to happen again. Totally support the pairing.

    • Rosa

      I love Much Ado About Nothing. I was shocked Branagh was directing Thor. I took my 6 year old son yesterday to see it, as a Mother’s Day treat. Aparently IMAX means LOUD, and we made it about 4 minutes before he was screaming and wanted to leave. We will try again, on a regular screen next weekend. Kids…….

      • Shane

        Well, why would you take a 6-year-old to a movie that’s rated PG-13? At least check it out first. Parents……

      • Dani

        This is really to Shane. I took my six yr old too and I thought it was completely appropriate for him. PG-13 films have a VERY wide range of violence and language and this was definitly on the PG end not the over 13 end.

      • TimW (No, not that one)

        Shane and Dani, Rosa wasn’t talking about the content, but the volume – hence “IMAX means LOUD.” She’s right of course, which for ME, was a wonderful thing. But even the 16 and 18 year olds next to me covered their ears for part of it. Otherwise, entirely agreed with everyone so far – not only appropriate content, but a truly wonderful movie made by a great storyteller.

  • chocolateislove

    I thought he was perfect for this movie. Thor’s story really has Shakespearean undertones, and only a Shakespearean director like Branagh could really capitalize on that and make an awesome movie.

    • pdy

      Agreed. The Marvel Studio executives probably recognized the Shakespearean undertones of the story and decided that who else could direct a Shakespearean movie but none other than Kenneth Branagh. It’s also a good thing that Mr. Branagh was able to use CGI effects to enhance the storytelling. I’m surprised that it all worked out for the best and I’m impressed that Thor is a very fun and exciting movie.

  • Christine James

    I hope in this Thor film series, they will include:

    Balder, Beta Ray Bill, Frey, Hermod, Hercules, Hoder, Hrimhari, Idunn, Kelda, Thor Girl, Thunderstrike, Tyr, Valkyrie, Vidar, Volla, Zeus.

    I look forward to seeing the following villains in future Thor sequels:

    Absorbing Man, Atum, Bloodaxe, Cobra, Desak, Ego the Living Planet, Enchantress, Executioner, Fafnir, Fenris Wolf, Grey Gargoyle, Hela, Karnilla, Kurse, Lorelei, Malekith the Accursed, Man-Beast, Mangog, Midgard Serpent, Mr. Hyde, Mongoose, Perrikus, Quicksand, Radioactive Man, Ragnarok, Seth, Surtur, Ulik, Wrecking Crew (Wrecker, Bulldozer, Piledriver, Thunderball), Ymir, Zarrko.

    • Rich

      are you going ot post hat on all Thor related threads? How can you expect to see ALL of those characters in what may end up being a trilogy? That would be the most dilluted movie ever, worse than Spiderman 3

  • Tracy

    I watched this movie through my 46 year old eyes, but felt like I was watching amovie through my comic-book girl-geek 13 year old eyes. I enjoyed it. It was not overblown, over-CGI’d and over hyped. It was fun…just what a comic book hero movie should be.

  • Nerwen Aldarion

    A really great film that I totally agree with, Branagh was the perfect choice I never would have thought of.

    (I’d like to give kudos to the effects though, the scenery at Asgard was GORGEOUS! I enjoyed watching the background whenever they were on the Bi-Frost because it was so beautiful)

  • Sailesh Ghelani

    Horrible film. Poor costumes, horrible dialogue and Chris Hemsworth can’t act.

    • Rich

      You are horrible, and stupid.

    • Evan

      Sailesh, Rich is correct. You are a horrible film. And you can’t act.

  • Megan

    I liked Kenneth Branagh better in Harry Potter to be honest.

    • umm

      Yeah, he wasn’t actually in Thor…he directed it.

  • Shameless

    Your article should have led with “Idris Elba.” Had no idea he was in it, but now I may actually watch this thing.

  • Mo

    Thor and Branagh was a match made in heaven. Branagh knows how to blend high-brow with the every day and he does so beautifully. I love that he brought along Patrick Doyle to score the movie. They have worked so well together in the past – Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, etc. – it only seemed fitting that they ventured together into the comic book realm. I absolutely loved the entire experience of the movie! Bravo Branagh!

    • Jerry

      Watching the battle scenes from Henry V are telling. He knows how to film action very well. He is an excellent director.

    • Sara

      The music was fabulous. Yay for Patrick Doyle.

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