the simple joy of incomprehensible madness: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor
I was excited about the prospect of the film Thor. This was last winter, when the film was being advertised. Thor was always a favorite comic of mine in my comic book days. Thor’s heroism and dual participation in the land of gods and men led to a fascination with the character’s complex inter-species nature. As a college and graduate student I studied Shakespeare, and film adaptations of all ilks, including those of Kenneth Branagh. Generally I thought Branagh’s adaptations of Shakespeare to be ostentatious and filled with elegant pomp and and a clear understanding of Branagh’s own seriousness as an interpreter of the Bard. The perfect tone for Shakespeare.
So when I heard that it was Kenneth Branagh that was directing Thor, the match seemed exciting. Someone who was capable of taking the Battle Agincourt to such brilliant heights, could udnerstand the grandiosity of the immortal war between Asgaard and the Frost Giants. This made perfect sense. Thor is nothing if not Shakespearean History, and Thor is nothing if not a perfectly absurd Shakespearean madcap hero.
Last night I finally watched Thor. I watched the film rapt in attention, baffled and confused and filled with enthusiasm. Not because of any of the reasons I anticipated Thor. It quickly became evident that Branagh was just going to pick up the ball and run with it, regardless of the potential. It was not going to be Shakespearean and Tragically retold. Rather, from the moment I realized that Natalie Portman was cast as an astrophysicist to the final moments, when the good guy is holding the bad guy’s wrist as he hangs from a cliff , trying in vain to save the villain and his soul, only to fail, as Loki is dropped from the broken rainbow bridge of Bifrost into the depths of space, I kept thinking: What? I watched, attentive, and gleeful, and asked myself: what is this?
What is this movie? Thor is incomprehensible. The film is beautifully put together and filled with beautiful human actors (Chris Hemsworth is pretty much a god) playing parts who start as X and become Y and nothing makes sense. There is nothing to hold onto in this movie, nothing to interpret or to understand with nuance or complexity. The characters are simply on screen talking, then fighting, then talking. The action moves from Asgard to New Mexico to Asgard to Jotunheim without any attempt to provide space or sense to the viewer. Thor as directed by Kenneth Branagh is incomprehensible madness.
But is it is incomprehensible madness of the best sort. I loved watching Thor. It is truly what a comic book would look like if one were to make a film of a superhero comic book. For the past decade or so, Hollywood has been aflutter over the “best comic movies”: Dark Knight and Spiderman 2 and X-Men 2. These are all wonderful films, inspired by and starring characters from the world of superhero comics. But I do not think they are representative of a film version of a comic book, at least the comic books I grew up loving in the late 80s and early 90s. The superhero comic books of that day are just strange, mostly incomprehensible, and built out of pure joy and enthusiasm. They do not worry about character arc; barely did they concern themselves with story arc.Thor does not grow. Thor just becomes something other than Thor was, because that is how Thor operates. Thor is Thor, then a lesson happens, then Thor is a different Thor. This is neither a complaint or a compliment to Thor, it just makes Thor a comic book. And Branagh seems to have been content to simply make a movie out of the pages of an incomprehensible mess of Norse Mythology as seen through the lens of American Superhero Comic books. Do not tell me Thor does not make sense. Why would it?