Thor: Tales from Shakespeare (and Johnny Utah)

While there’s been much surprise at the choice of Kenneth Branagh to direct Marvel Studios’ action film Thor, there’s plenty of evidence that he was an inspired choice. This is my post today for The Spectator Arts Blog. Thanks to Simon Mason and Scott Jordan Harris for letting me post it here, too.


The bastard brother. In the tastiest characterisation of the film, Loki plots and schemes like Edmund in King Lear, but Is he really born to evil? Stolen from his race, Loki inspires much sympathy. Intelligent and patient for longterm victory, not an impetuous warrior, Loki is also Octavian to Thor’s Mark Antony. Anthony Hopkins, a veteran of King Lear, brings epic depth to the ageing King who may not be fair in passing on his kingdom.

Hamlet and Gertrude. The Oedipal complex. Evidence of the watering down of stronger drama comes in  the bedroom scenes with the regal Queen Rene Russo. We all await a confrontation like Hamlet of Gertrude; as Odin lies asleep and vulnerable. Unfortunately she gets to do almost nothing. Bet Ken could’ve done really good stuff here.


Courtship. With only 1 topless shot of Thor’s rather seriously cut abs, and two chaste kisses on the hand for Astrophysicist Natalie Portman, this is definitely an action hero from the old school. Anyone else find themselves remembering the courting of the French princess from Henry V?

Brian Millar (@arthurascii) pointed out after we saw the film that Thor is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus  — he is the great general who won’t be humble. He can win battles, but has no humility to win over the common people. Unfortunately in Thor the crowds of common Asgardians who gather for Thor’s coronation seem to disappear for the rest of the film (another victim of Marvel’s demand that the film focus on the antics on earth?). So the sense of a kingdom at stake is rather lost.

Non-Shakespearean influences.

In his  interview for The Hollywood Reporter (April 22 2011), Branagh listed his favourite films including Cool Hand Luke, Black Narcissus and Dog Day Afternoon. While I failed to spot explicit  references to any, Thor does come in the shadow of some truly great action movie moments:

Superman II (1980): The show down in the small town

Lester’s film, unlike Thor, captures the menace of villains who were stupid, malicious or psychopathic suddenly discovering they are endowed with superpowers.The horror of the scene where Terence Stamp makes the US president “kneel before Zod” on live TV just months after the real life humiliation of the Iranian embassy hostage crisis is what Thor sorely needed. And a major personal gripe. How come, in the age of rolling news and instant Twitter updates,Thor fails to have any news media turn up as alien technology starts landing on earth and  blowing up New Mexico?

The Dead Presidents: Point Break (1991)

The underutilised but hedonistic gang of warriors who hang out with Thor — some with almost no backstory — add to the sense that Thor is a cosmic surfer; with his own Point Break style band of buddies. Potential here for a spin off with The Silver Surfer?

Astral Romance: Starman (1984)

Despite the strong casting, the romance with Natalie Portman fails to grip. I suspect, again, the victim of too much rewriting on the script. The X-Files did atmosphere much better. There is little sense of threat to Earth or of love across the divide. For a model in scripting a film about alien romance and government  agency pursuit, with its own desert locations, I point you to John Carpenter’s charming Starman, with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen.

Finally, while he apparently was sent every back issue of Thor in preparation for shooting, I wonder if Kenneth Branagh took a little inspiration from this underrated 80s female bratpack movie:

Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

If he gets to do the Sequel, here’s hoping they let Branagh really make it his way.

You can read the original post on The Spectator Arts Blog here.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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