Should Shakespearean Stalwart Kenneth Branagh Direct 'Thor?
MTV News Writers Debate Whether the Actor Is the Right Choice for Marvel's Superhero Movie
MTV.com, 1 October 2008
As any movie/comics fan now knows, news went around this past weekend that Kenneth Branagh is in talks with Marvel to direct the first-ever feature film starring Thor, their Norse-god superhero. The good majority of online buzz-makers was not only stunned by the possible selection but quite pleased. Personally, I couldn't express myself verbally when I heard the news — as my mouth was preoccupied with a yawn.
Print this article out, file it away and then feel free to throw it in my face when 2010 rolls around, because I sincerely hope that I'm wrong. But as of this moment, I'm quite confident in guaranteeing one fact about our immediate future: Kenneth Branagh's "Thor" would suck. Here are my reasons why (followed by a rebuttal from my colleague Shawn Adler):
1. It's Lazy
The reason why some people like the Branagh choice is because they can already imagine the movie in their heads. After making his name with Shakespearean adaptations like "Henry V" and "Hamlet," it's easy to imagine Branagh taking on another conflicted being with an affinity for staid, rigid, old-timey speech — which is exactly why he shouldn't make the film. While we're at it, why don't we have Oliver Stone make "Captain America," since his movies are usually about the U.S.? How about Spike Lee for "Black Lightning"? Rob Cohen made speedy things look cool in "The Fast and the Furious," so let's give him "The Flash"! The best thing about Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau and Richard Donner is that nothing in their past suggested that they'd make a good superhero movie. If the studios are lazy in selecting their director, the finished project will turn out every bit as unimaginative.
2. Branagh Hasn't Made a Good Movie in 12 Years
Seriously, if not for Harry Potter, we'd have spent the last few years looking for this guy's face on the side of a milk carton. After beginning his career with a meteoric rise that had people mentioning him in the same breath as Orson Welles, he spent more than a decade following the rapidly diminishing career path of ... Orson Welles. "Love's Labour's Lost" was dismissed with such viciousness that you'd think it was called "Swept Away." "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" made me want to have myself neutered. And let's not get started on "Wild Wild West," OK?
3. Thor Is the Debbie Downer of Superheroes
Invite Hulk to your party, and you know he'll be tossing the proverbial keg through the window. Tony Stark is fun and charming, and he'd bring the ladies. Everybody would want to get Wasp drunk on a thimble of whiskey, Hank Pym seems kooky enough to put a lampshade on his head, and Captain America is, quite simply, the man. But Thor only works when his stiff, stick-to-the-plan sensibilities are contrasted with the other Avengers. The very notion of spending 120 minutes with an arrogant, wing-helmeted, fuzzy-boot-wearing thunder god and his goofy hammer promises the worst superhero misfire since "Ghost Rider."
4. Playing a Different Tune
Branagh doesn't strike me as gutsy enough to use Thor's decidedly non-mighty theme song, not even in a hip, ironic way.
An Argument for Branagh
1. Comic Books Are Now Serious Business on Serious Earth
Make Thor a rebellious youth who learns the right way to come into (given not earned) power, and it could be "Henry V." Make him a man of noble intentions undone by an evil trickster (Loki), and it could be "Othello." But what something "could be" and what something "is" are two very different things — and Thor, the character and the comic book both, are really, really silly.
Branagh is a tremendous choice in that his appointment signals that Marvel is reaching for the "could be." When Chris Nolan sent out the scripts for "Batman Begins," he didn't write "Batman" on the cover sheet, because he didn't want actors like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to dismiss the project out of hand for being based on a comic. Branagh's appointment means there's not an actor alive who can dismiss the project. Nor, for that matter, can any fan.
2. Intelligence Can't Be Faked
I don't know Kenneth Branagh personally, nor have I ever interviewed him. I can't claim to know whether or not he's as genuinely smart as I think he is. But if he's only half as intelligent, then "Thor" is going to be the deepest, most thoughtful comic book film in history. And you can bet your Asgard that's exactly what this character needs.
Everybody — even "Thor" writer J. Michael Straczynski — seems to harp on the "classical" bent of the language, comparing Thor's high-falutin' dialogue with that of Shakespeare. No doubt true to an extent. But it doesn't take a smart man to learn to understand that language. It takes a smart man to make that language fresh, to twist it into new and exciting possibilities. In "Hamlet," Branagh has the titular prince deliver a soliloquy in front of a mirror. In "Henry V," the opening chorus (Derek Jacobi) appears on a movie set. That's the kind of inventiveness, intelligence and cinematic creativity that speaks volumes about his potential for a superhero spectacle.
I don't know how in the world they are going to fit this silly, magical, supernatural entity into the world of "Iron Man," "Captain America" and "Hulk," for the "Avengers" movie. But I'd wager anything that based on his unconventional Shakespearean filmography — which made Hamlet a Victorian prince and "Love's Labor's Lost" a musical — that Branagh does. That's good enough for me.
3. 'Cause He's Actually Really Good. And Fearless. And Did I Mention Good?
Kenneth Branagh has more Academy Award nominations than Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, Chris Nolan, Louis Leterrier, Tim Story and Bryan Singer combined. He didn't just make "Henry V." He made the "Henry V." He didn't just make "Hamlet." He made the "Hamlet." Yeah, he has some missteps on his resume ("Frankenstein"), but what director doesn't?
The important thing is that he seems fearless. There's a reason he made "Henry" when he did — because Olivier owned the role at a similar age. Let's just make this clear: He purposely attacked Olivier on his own ground — and won! You can call it obvious to go from Shakespeare to a flipping comic book. I call it fearless.