Thoughts on ‘Thor’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2

After three relatively grounded science fiction stories, Thor takes the MCU in a starkly new direction with world-hopping high-fantasy tale of gods and kings.

It’s really kind of amazing that it works as well as it does.

We open with a trio of scientists – well, a senior scientist, junior scientist, and political science major who wanted six easy credits – in the New Mexico desert to observe atmospheric phenomena. They get a little more than they expected when a cyclone of energy reaches down from the sky and deposits a muscular, seemingly dazed man directly in front of their car.

From there we flashback to Medieval Norway, where Odin, king of the gods, narrates how the Frost Giants of Jotunheim invaded the Earth, but the mighty Asgardians came to save humanity, eventually conquering the giants and stealing the Casket of Ancient Winters, which was the source of their power.

This leads to our introduction to Thor, a boisterous, arrogant warrior prince prepared to ascend the throne (there’s some very good use of expressions in this scene). An incursion by the Frost Giants interrupts the ceremony, and a subsequent argument with Odin causes the king to postpone Thor’s coronation. A little prompting by his silver-tongued brother Loki leads Thor and his friends to make an ill-judged expedition to Jotunheim itself, nearly sparking a war between the two kingdoms. For his actions, Odin turns Thor mortal and sends him to Earth, along with his hammer, Mjolnir, enchanted so that only the worthy might hold it and so “possess the power of the Thor.”

On Earth, Thor sets about trying to regain his hammer, under the impression that it will restore his power and allow him to return home. Meanwhile on Asgard, Loki discovers that he is in fact an adopted Frost Giant, and begins setting a plan in motion to take the throne.

The first thing that stands out about this film is that it looks fantastic. It’s easily one of the most creative and visually spectacular superhero films ever made up to that point, and still a strong contender. Half of the frames of this film look like they could be used for the cover of a fantasy novel. Asgard is a visual feast; a vast floating continent set upon clouds and surrounded by a sea pouring endlessly off into space. Past that it’s a dreamland of lush mountains, golden palaces, and enormous statues powered by an ambiguous blend of super-science and magic and inhabited by god-like beings, each seemingly with their own particular area of command, and armed with elaborate pseudo-medieval weaponry. Then there’s Jotunheim, with its ice-bound, crumbling ruins and weird geometries and its red-eyed, blue-skinned, glowering inhabitants. And during the end credits we get a stunning flyby of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, here imagined as a giant tree-shaped nebula connecting the worlds.

As this indicates, the film doesn’t shy away from its mythological and fantasy roots, either visually or in terms of its story. The plot – or at least half of it – is gloriously Shakespearean in style, all about wars and kingdoms, fathers and brothers and sons, and who will or ought to inherit the throne. What is more, it was clearly written by someone who understood these matters. Things like the line of succession, peace treaties, loyalty, and the limitations of kingly rule are taken completely seriously and portrayed lightly, but with care. When Loki refuses to lift Thor’s banishment upon ascending the throne, for instance, he actually gives a perfectly legitimate reason: that his first act as king can’t be to undo his father’s last. Likewise when Odin issues the oath of kingship to Thor, it includes the promise to “cast aside all selfish ambition and pledge only to serve the good of the realm.” This, as it turns out, is the main thrust of the film.

Like Iron Man, Thor is about an arrogant man being transformed into a true hero. Only, while Iron Man was a redemption story, Thor is more a morality play (a subtle distinction, I’ll grant you). That is, Iron Man was about Tony Stark having a change of heart and turning his life in a new direction. Thor is about its hero learning a lesson in humility and self-sacrifice.

When we open, Thor is already a hero of sorts; he’s a warrior who has been in countless battles alongside his brother and his friends, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three. He’ll gladly risk his life for his kingdom – though with his power it’s hardly a risk – and he of course has his friends’ backs. However, as we see in their fight in Jotunheim, Thor is also a glory-hound who can be so focused on his own pride and his own lust for battle that he doesn’t stop to think how it will affect the people he cares about. Surrounded by giants and given a chance to walk away with their lives, Thor throws it away when one of them taunts him, risking all their lives on a point of pride. Not only that, but he grins as he does so, not even considering the consequences. During this fight, he devastates the enemy, but his friends have a much harder time, with one of them being badly wounded.

Then, after they’re rescued by Odin, Thor still refuses to admit he was wrong, calling his father “an old man and a fool!” Basically, Thor is too proud, stubborn, and self-centered to see where he could be mistaken, or to take correction. He means to be a hero, but he acts without thinking and is more concerned with his own ambition than the good of others.

The point of his exile, then, is to teach him a lesson, and Odin enchants Mjolnir so that he’ll only get it back once he learns it. Much of the film, then, is Thor learning humility, but the interesting thing is that part of that requires him to be initially mistaken in his goal. Since the problem is that he’s so sure of himself that he doesn’t stop to think things through or consider alternatives, his progress requires that he come to a point where he doesn’t know what to do or how to direct his energies. It’s at that point that he has to let go of his pride and admit he doesn’t have all the answers.

As that suggests, Thor’s progression is actually much better thought through than you might expect. The writers gave careful consideration to what his specific flaw was and what the contrary virtue would be. He’s not a jerk or a cad like Tony Stark, but he’s very proud and stubborn. It’s a flaw that makes perfect sense given who and what he is. It’s also a flaw that allows Thor to still be a very appealing character in his own way; he’s extremely confident and self-assured, but also warm and courteous, if a little haughty. He’s friendly and supportive of his friends, including good-humoredly rolling with it when Sif gives a little push-back to his boasting. On Earth, he is initially abrupt and commanding, but adjusts well as he figures out the rules of his new environment and develops affection for his new friends.

I also appreciate that, though Thor’s in an unfamiliar environment, the film doesn’t simply turn him into an idiot when he lands on Earth. He doesn’t freak out at technology or attack cars or anything; for the most part he simply ignores whatever he doesn’t understand and stays focused on his goal. The famous scene in the diner where Thor asks for a refill by smashing his coffee cup shows this well; when Jane tells him off, he doesn’t lose his temper or demand an explanation, he simply says that he meant no disrespect and accepts that manners here are different.

This is smart writing; Thor may be arrogant and haughty, but he’s still a prince, with all the training and experience that implies. He’s not going to simply be discourteous for the sake of it. Besides that, he’s a warrior who has travelled to many different realms; he’d be used to finding and adjusting to different customs.

On the same note, Jane and her friends react to Thor in a pretty believable manner; they know something is strange about him, since he just appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, but aren’t quite sure what. Jane wants to question him to uncover his mystery (not to mention being charmed by his old-fashioned manners and evident attractiveness) but Selvig is unnerved by his apparent insanity and wants her to keep her distance from him, which she in fact does at his request. She only agrees to drive Thor out to the SHIELD base erected around his hammer after Agent Coulson appropriates all her research, making her feel she has no other choice. This is further helped by the fact that Thor, though he appears delusional, is warm and courteous rather than being aggressive and unstable. She doesn’t know what to think, but at least he doesn’t act like he’s crazy (even when she directly questions his sanity, he doesn’t get angry but only laughs).

The romance between them is sweet, if not perfect. It’s a lot of fun to see Jane being flustered by Thor’s strong-yet-gentle, old-fashioned personality. There’s a great scene where he kisses her hand and she’s almost speechless, and another where he shows up at her trailer and she frantically tries to clean up without realizing what she’s doing. She’s a pretty likable personality all in all; eager and dedicated to her field to the point of being unfocused in other areas of her life, while also being a warm and cheerful young woman. There’s a really good scene where Jane and Thor sit up on the roof of an abandoned diner, just looking at the stars and talking. Who would expect such a simple, human scene in a film about a mythological demigod and his magic hammer?

However, though Jane’s attachment to Thor is understandable, it’s less clear why she exerts such a fascination for him. He expresses admiration of her intelligence, and she’s obviously kind and helpful to him (and she’s, you know, played by Natalie Portman), but Thor is a god, a warrior, and a prince; we know he’s used to dealing with strong, intelligent, beautiful women, so what is the draw to Jane in particular? It doesn’t kill the romance, but it does make it feel a little flat. With Thor being so well realized as a classically chivalrous fantasy hero, it’s a shame that Jane couldn’t have been better developed as a worthy object of his devotion.

On the other hand, one of the best parts of the film, if not the best, is the villain. This version of Loki of course has since been widely considered one of the best superhero antagonists of all time, and for good reason. He’s such a curious blend of affection, sincerity, deceit, and malice that we in the audience are left constantly guessing just what he’s up to and why in each scene he’s in. On the one hand he maliciously ruins Thor’s coronation and goads him into the disastrous expedition to Jotunheim, but on the other he’s sincerely hurt and angry upon discovering his true origins as a Frost Giant, yet seems honestly concerned for his father when he falls into his ‘Odinsleep’ (a kind of magical coma to recover his energies, which the film could have explained a little better, though the pieces are there). Not to mention the way his plan initially seems to be simply a bid for power, but turns out to be an effort to prove to Odin (and perhaps himself) that he is as good a son as Thor. This involves committing genocide against the Frost Giants, who are, again, his own people, suggesting that Loki is trying to remove his ‘tainted’ nature. And all this is because of his envy and resentment against a brother who honestly loves him.

There is a lot to unpack with Loki, motives inside of motives, and it’s legitimately ambiguous when he is and isn’t lying. I love the scene with him and his mother watching over his sleeping father, and Loki comments that he “never gets used to seeing him like this.” He then asks her why they never told him the truth, and she answers that it’s because they never wanted him to feel different, since he’s their son.

Add to that the fact that Tom Hiddleston is just so darn entertaining in the role of the silver-tongued serpent with a tortured psyche. In a world of warriors, he fights with words and tricks, blending mean-spirited cunning with an ingratiating personality, going about like a PhD student in a boxing gym; confident that he’s the smartest person in the room and intent on showing up the swaggering jocks around him.

I also like that, when it appears Loki’s been killed in the end, the whole family mourns for him, including Thor. Though he was a monster, he was still his brother and Thor cared for him (this relationship will be a source of endless interest throughout the series). With so many films about best friends and family members who turn on each other, it’s remarkably rare to see one where the hero actually takes time to grieve for their defeated enemy and to honor their relationship (this is more the kind of thing I would have wanted from Betty and General Ross in The Incredible Hulk).

So, while the previous few films were, at best, underwhelming with their villains, this one knocks it out of the park with this psychological rubik’s cube of a deceitful snake.

Loki also fits perfectly into the theme of selfish ambition against humility and self-sacrifice, for though he points out (rightly) that Thor, in the beginning, is too hot-headed and reckless to be king, he himself risks the safety of his kingdom and family for the sake of satisfying his own envy, turning to crueler and more brutal methods to try to keep himself in power and Thor out of the picture as the film goes on (he also can’t resist giving Mjolnir a tug during his own brief visit to Earth).

Again, the whole film is about the question of “what makes a man worthy to be king?” Thor thinks merely the courage and strength to fight his way in and seize his hammer will be enough. Loki thinks that his ‘unworthiness’ is due to his being adopted and overshadowed by his brother and so seeks to ‘prove’ himself. What it in fact turns out to be is humility and the willingness to put others first. Thor becomes worthy when he swallows his pride, apologizes to Loki, and offers his own life for his friends. He then completes the transformation by willingly sacrificing his own desires – his promise to return to Jane – not for the sake of saving his friends, but of saving his enemies, contrasting with his earlier eagerness to humiliate and kill them just to prove himself.

Meanwhile, our friend Agent Coulson gets a larger part here than in the previous films, acting as the antagonist for the Earth-bound sections. This allows for some good moments for him as he takes unorthodox steps to figure out what’s really going on, such as pretending to swallow Selvig’s patently ridiculous cover-story for Thor in order to follow and observe him. This follows on him holding back and allowing Thor to try to lift the hammer (helping to mitigate the dubious likelihood of Thor, in his mortal form, being able to infiltrate a secure facility like that). It’s a good addition to his character: Coulson is supposed to be the guy in charge of investigating unexplained phenomena, which requires that he be able to both think outside the box and take gambles in order to learn more. At the same time it makes intimidatingly competent, meaning that when he opposes Thor and Team Foster, we know that he poses a legitimate threat, reinforced by Selvig making an oblique reference to Bruce Banner, whom he apparently was a colleague of (though we also know that Coulson’s telling the truth we he assures Jane that “we’re the good guys”).

The earth-bound scenes are, it must be said, much less interesting than the Asgard ones, though that’s perhaps for the best. There ought to be a stark contrast between the two in order for the story to make sense. If Thor were dumped in, say, New York or London, there would be too many people and the setting would be too grand in its own right for us to feel his sense of isolation and abandonment, or to convey the same message of humility. A small New Mexico town fits the bill much better, as well as avoiding the potential trap of trying to repeat the Iron Man or Hulk films. Thor very much has its own pace and style, and though that makes for a rather slow middle, it is ultimately all to the good.

Then there is the supporting cast, which is as colorful as you can imagine, but unfortunately underdeveloped (particularly the Warriors Three, who are entertaining, but don’t have much chance to show their particular personalities). Idris Elba’s Heimdall of course is a standout as the stoic badass watchman who is ultra-loyal to his duty, but no fool either. Laufey, king of the Frost Giants doesn’t get to do much beyond being coldly menacing, though I like his line to Thor that “You know not what your actions will unleash. I do.” Anthony Hopkins as Odin is of course Anthony Hopkins, though he also indulges in some glorious overacting at times, and really what else could you do when playing Odin?

Back on earth, Dr. Selvig acts as the voice of reason and a father figure to Jane, down to warning Thor off from her (though they forget about it by the next scene). And then there’s Jane’s intern Darcey, who frankly I think is hilarious; this completely disinterested college student trying to fill out her requirements with a set of easy credits and who ends up involved in inter-planetary politics.

There is also a briefly glimpsed “Col. Barton,” who seizes a bow and arrow during Thor’s raid on the compound and who makes a greater impression with two or three lines of dialogue than some characters can in a whole film (looking at you, Cyborg from Justice League).

So, as you can probably tell, I really like Thor. In fact, I was surprised to find how much I liked it. It’s got its fair share of flaws, but on the whole it’s a very solid blend of superhero and high-fantasy, told by people who clearly respect the material, full of spectacular visuals and centered around a pair of very strong characters. After two comparatively mediocre entries, it signals a strong turn for the budding MCU.

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