The fourth installment of Marvel's cinematic output, Thor, was perhaps less of a gamble than say Guardians of the Galaxy. Based on an established Avenger and the re-invented series was seeing new popularity on the shelves of Local Comicbook Stores. Iron Man did enough to ground the tale before getting into the techno-engineered whimsy of the suit and Hulk was so well established in the zeitgeist of audiences the premise could be accepted with little effort. That being said, not only was Thor going to be dealing with Norse mythology, Gods and magic, but our blonde haired Avenger had been trapped in development Ragnarok for 2 decades.
Originally put into development by Mr Spider-Man himself, Sam Raimi, following the popularity of Darkman. However, 20th Century Fox didn't understand it. Then, following the success of Bryan Singer's X-Men, it was thought a good idea to make our Hammer Wielding Hero into a TV serial. Sony even flirted with Odinson and put Batman collaborator, David S. Goyer at the helm, before giving up and passing it all back to Paramount and then Marvel. But the hot-potato'ing didn't stop there. Layer Cake and X-Men: First Class' Mathew Vaughn took a stab before leaving the project to Guillermo Del Toro, who in turn jumped ship for Middle Earth and The Hobbit. The character himself seemed like a sure bet, but making it a cohesive blend of reality and otherworldly did not seem easy. Who better than Shakespearean master Kenneth Branagh to adapt the "verily" into something audiences would embrace as much as Tony Stark's box-office-busting adventures.
Thor's celluloid mead is a tasteful retelling of the fallen hero's tale. The story is a template as old as the viking sagas that birthed Asgard's pantheon, but Thor is a real victory of detail and unapologetic bombast.
The MCU brain-trust were probably never worried about the performances Branagh could pull from the cast and there are some thunderously powerful emotional exchanges. When Thor returns from inadvertently sparking an age-old war with Frost Giants, Anthony Hopkins' growling reproach of his son is so powerful you're left in stunned silence. Similarly, Loki's discovery of his felonious origin and following confrontation is as emotionally charged as bolt from Mjolnir. However, there's subtly here too. Thor's realisation of his unworthiness is as drenched in mournful resignation as the sodden ground. Hiddleston and Hemsworth dance a despondent two-step of Loki's faux-empathy and Thor's anguish when he's captured by SHIELD at his lowest ebb.
However, the real surprise is the visual flare in which Branagh attacks his foray into Marvel's shared universe. Much like his control with the script, it's equal parts brave committal and subtle assurance. While Odin's monologue introduces us to the gods we'll be spending the next few hours with, the camera is all cinematic sweeps that would give pause to David Lean. There's rushing shots of landscapes, marauding monsters and epic battle scenes which add a surging momentum to the proceedings. Asgard's introduction is all panoramic dynamism that allows you to soak up the wonder of this otherworldly decadence. Again, there are understated details abound that push certain moments over the edge to fantastic. Odin's silhouette in the bifrost before bringing a stop to the Frost Giant's fracas dominates the moment before he even opens his mouth. Mjolnir's enchantment represented visually with a symbol that presents itself when it comes into effect is one thing, but the low thrum that it emanates from it whenever an unworthy suitor tries to lift it is hypnotic.
Thor does drop the hammer in parts. As effective as the humor can be, it's broad statements don't quite fit into the jigsaw of it's more lofty scenes and it creaks a little uncomfortably. In the wake of the persuasive potency of Asgard, Branagh seems to struggle a little to make the dusty americana of earth quite as dynamic, resorting to "the dutch" so much you'll need a spirit level to readjust come credit roll.
3* - Much Ado About Loki
Others in the series:
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captain America: The First Avenger
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
The Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Captain America: Civil War