Marvel Month II, or, ‘Why I love Kenneth Branagh’

by TheLitCritGuy

Right,

Marvel month kicks off properly here, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who, when thinking about the Marvel Comics films, immediately jumps to a middle-aged Irish-man with a burning desire to be Lawrence Olivier. Ah, Kenneth Branagh – good old Kenny; big Kenny B, a man who has been nominated for an Oscar in five different categories, a man who was married to the wonderful Emma Thompson and decided to have an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter as well as playing the title role in five different films/TV shows. In short, this man is the ultimate classically trained and RADA educated LAD. (not in the misogynistic, horrific rape culture endorsing way, mind you – that wouldn’t be cool..)

Yes, I know that he has got his fair share of dross on his CV but you know something, I don’t care. I think Kenneth Branagh is simply flawless, and yes, that does include his version of Hamlet which is about five days long and earned him the honour of being one of three people who make a punchline in Blackadder. (A shiny penny to the first person to get the other two and no using Wikipedia! That’s cheating!)

So Branagh, (*swoon*) was the man brought onto the juggernaut that is the Avengers franchise to direct Thor. I will admit, however, that at the news I wasn’t delighted. I was distinctly sceptical. Branagh seemed too cerebral a choice, someone reliant on dialogue and character to really handle, what I assumed would be a big noisy blockbuster. Now this attitude, I freely admit, was based on a shocking lack of knowledge about Thor’s comics and a little snobbishness about the kind of work I thought was beneath King Kenny.

Thankfully the film soared over my expectations. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year so I won’t waste too much time re-hashing plot, but suffice to say it involves the Gods of Asgard and the war with the Frost Giants, a sibling rivalry between Thor and his brother Loki worthy of the greatest tragedies and, of course, scientists.  In keeping with all Marvel movies there is the inevitable build up towards the Avengers nerd-gasm coming this year but even considered as a separate entity rather than a 120 minute trailer for another film, this is a very solid movie. To a large extent the strength of the movie comes, in my opinion, from Branagh’s direction and the cast. The gods of Asgard are old school in the theatrical sense of the word – these are Gods of wrath, violence and all the worst traits of humanity with the power to destroy the entire world. The relationship between Thor, Odin and Loki has more than an echo of King Lear to it; helped considerably by the thespian legend Sir Anthony Hopkins chewing through the CGI scenery as the Allfather and the hulking presence of Chris Hemsworth as the adolescent and powerful Thor.  Tom Hiddlestone deserves all the credit one can heap on him as Loki and I am delighted beyond words he’s returning as the villain for the Avengers. Idris Elba adds another touch of gravitas as Heimdall, as well as stirring up some cheap publicity by having the gall to be a black actor in an action film!

As the previous paragraph may have given away, I think the films strongest scenes are the ones that focus on the realm of Asgard and the power dynamics of the Gods. Also of note is the sequences where Thor rashly plunges into a fight with the Frost Giants and his final confrontation with Loki really adds to the grand, Shakespearean themes the film is trying to aim for. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the scenes here on Earth, as to keep the films running time down, it feels rushed, (especially the love interest with Natalie Portman) and personally I never get the impression that Thor’s exile on earth is a real struggle to overcome. That being said, the film succeeds for the most part in marrying grand themes of betrayal, power and jealousy with an action packed story.

So, a good movie. But a good adaptation? Well, this is where the whole thing becomes a little more complicated…

As I said in the last column Thor has been around since the early 1960’s in comic form, and his legends have been around for literally thousands years. This is, not just a literary story – Thor is a cultural juggernaut, it surely isn’t possible to fuse Nordic legend into a comic form without being not just crass, but hugely insensitive.

Or so I thought. And then I started reading what I consider to be one of the finest comic runs I have ever read – The Mighty Thor Volume 1 337-382. Written and drawn by Walt Simonsen and lettered by John Workman it is an incredible piece of work. The look of the comic is like nothing else, thanks to Simonsen’s wonderful art style and the sense of scale and grandeur is done so well thanks to the jaw-dropping lettering from Workman. The dialogue too,  is just as good as the film’s and in some respects, much better. This Thor feels even more Shakespearean than the film thanks to the sometimes archaic syntax and tendency of the characters to think or say what is actually happening mid scene! What I love  about this run is the sense of cosmic scale that the creative team has achieved; whilst there are times where the dialogue feels clunky everything is given the time and the space to breathe, all of the action feels like it has a sense of great importance and the characters are given the page space to be given depth and characterised to an astonishing degree. Loki, especially, is shown to be an incredible villain, one who will happily destroy someone’s entire life just for the fun of it.

The problem is, of course, that the film adaptation has to be something unique to the Marvel comic as opposed to a slice of cultural appropriation in the obligatory cape and big hammer get up. To an extent I wouldn’t say this is what the film is; it certainly encouraged me to actually pick up the comics and see what Marvel writers wanted to do and the stories they wanted to tell. In a way, Thor’s problem is one I feel could be repeated by the rest of these films in Marvel Month. Thor is so well-known that, in a way, the adaptation is always going to fall short. We all know the name of Thor and many of us are familiar with the legends and mythologies of Nordic culture – the Norse gods have even named the days of the week.

Many people might think that there are so many different stories that could be told with  these characters and just as with Batman and Superman there will be people who demand different tales be told. The problem is, of course, that it simply isn’t possible to adapt what is a continuing narrative, you can’t adapt Thor in the traditional sense of the word, as the source material is still being generated. However…what you can do it take the original concepts, and they clearly are the original concepts from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and add to the ongoing narrative that is being told. Strictly speaking, this is a transposition of the original mythos, world and characters into a new medium. And it’s done well. Really well. It makes the world of Thor accessible to a huge new market.

The more I think about this, the more exciting I think comic movies are – it adds to the story and the characters in a way that traditional narrative couldn’t. Roll on next week, as Marvel Month continues!

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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