Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Marvel Musings #2: the gathering storm of 'Thor'

The last month or so has seen a steady leak of new images from Kenneth Branagh's Thor come spilling onto the internet, and the reaction has been, at best, mixed. Many are concerned that it all looks a bit too camp. The words Flash Gordon have been invoked, as a negative. The words Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have been invoked also, by those doubting the suitability of the director.

Here, as y'all Americans like to say, is my two cents.

What exactly should we be expecting from a superhero movie about Norse Gods? The Dark Knight?

Personally - I love that this movie looks gaudy and outlandish. I love that it looks about as rooted in reality as The Care Bears Movie. And just look at Anthony Hopkins in the picture below; that wild, pirate-ish expression that suggests he might actually be having fun here in a way he hasn't since his gloriously hammy Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula. 

(Though I still wish Brian Blessed had been cast as Odin. Truly, no man is more fit to portray the king of the Gods than he; it pains me to my guts that two movies were released in the past year that featured Zeus, and Blessed didn't get the part in either of them. Yes, the Flash Gordon comparison is no negative in my book.)

I realise that a lot of comic lovers are long since fed up with how the uninitiated tend to assume the medium to be tacky, silly and only fit for children. As such, the likes of Nolan's Batman films and Snyder's Watchmen have offered a fair amount of vindication, enabling fanboys worldwide to proclaim "see, comic book movies can be sophisticated!" much in the manner of Charley Brewster screaming about Dracula being a "truly great book" in Fright Night 2. However, while I don't want to badmouth Nolan's films (Snyder's I could say a few less than favourable words about, but some other time), I do occasionally wonder if they may have done more harm than good, as now a great many people - most worryingly the money men - assume that to be successful a comic book movie must be grittily realistic. And this simply isn't the case.

Ang Lee's Hulk demonstrated how comic book realism and kitchen sink realism can make for awkward bedfellows indeed. I think the main problem with Lee's film is that it tried to deny the inherent absurdity of the premise and play the angry green giant as seriously as possible. Subsequently, it all just came off all the sillier, especially by the absurdly over the top finale. Far better to embrace the ridiculousness from the get-go, then the movie and the audience will be on the same page immediately.

This is why Branagh is a great choice for Thor; he understands melodrama. Watch almost any of his work as an actor. By contemporary standards, he's a total cornball, screaming and flailing and carrying on in that archly theatrical fashion. (As I write this, I've just seen that Branagh may be set to portray Laurence Olivier, which makes perfect sense as Olivier was much the same in his approach.) This same ethos follows through in his directing, too. From his numerous Shakespeare movies, he's well accustomed to having his cast spit forth language that sounds completely unnatural to modern ears. But even in his non-Shakespearean work - movies like Dead Again and, yes, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - everything plays out as though the script was written entirely in block capitals, from the volume of the actors to the swoop of the camera to the bombast of the soundtrack. Thor needs this. It's about ancient Norse Gods coming to modern day America, for crying out loud.

(Incidentally, Devin Faraci wrote a great piece about this very subject last year entitled The Tyranny of Realism. Well worth a read.)

A major concern of many seems to be how comfortably the magical universe of Thor will fit with the more material world of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and soon Captain America. All I can say is: come on now, people, it's all make-believe. A guy in a robotic suit, a guy who turns into a green giant, a guy who happens to be the God of Thunder; no matter how you play it, none of it is feasible in the real world, so why worry? Personally, I welcome the prospect of a comic book movie that is unabashedly free of the trappings of reality. I hope it's every bit as brash and excessive as these early stills suggest. Will the result be a film that cannot be taken seriously? Not necessarily. It simply means it will be watched in a different way; much in the way Faraci refers to, the way we watch the likes of The Wizard of Oz. Once we accept the movie on its own terms, we allow ourselves to be sucked into that world. There will be those who take exception to this. I know plenty of people who couldn't get past the protagonists being able to fly in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and subsequently couldn't fully embrace the movie. But what's the alternative? Movies like Troy, King Arthur and by all accounts this year's Robin Hood; movies which strip away the very things that make the legends what they are, winding up soulless and frigid. To hell with that. Give me Excalibur any day. Give me Beowulf. Give me Sin City. Once again, give me Flash Gordon.

And yes, give me Thor.

And one other thing. They sure as shit better get Led Zeppellin's Immigrant Song on the soundtrack. Know what I'm saying? Just as Iron Man needed the Black Sabbath classic of the same name, Thor needs Robert Plant's viking war cry: "Hammer of the Gods... Valhalla, I am coming..."

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