[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
Iron Man 2 may have stumbled badly, but Marvel didn’t fall. Instead, it took an important step forward with Thor, a movie that tries to be both cautious and ambitious in taking viewers on their biggest leap forward. In 2011, over a decade after X-Men, there was still a level of apprehension with superhero movies. Marvel in particular needed to figure out how to take a completely different superhero and make him live in the same world as another franchise. The plan for The Avengers was truly in motion, and Thor needed to show that the worlds could be connected yet distinct.
The unique setting was also a challenge because Thor is a magical space alien. He comes from a different galaxy (or “realm”) and he’s a Norse god. He couldn’t be further away from any other superhero, but he needed to conceivably live in the same universe as a man who dresses up in super-powered armor. Both are extraordinary, but no matter where Tony Stark goes, he’s still from the planet Earth and came from the traditional origin story of someone who acquires power and uses it for good (he continues to grapple with the “great responsibility” part of the “great power”).
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) starts out at the same place as Tony Stark, but whereas Tony’s cockiness is what fuels his need to be better, Thor has to learn humility. Unlike most superheroes, Thor needs to have his powers taken away in order to appreciate them and discover what it means to be heroic. It’s a big leap for a character who starts out going to a foreign land and murdering its people because they insulted him.
On the surface, it would seem like the stuff on Asgard would be the biggest challenge, but that’s where Thor feels most comfortable, which isn’t too surprising given director Kenneth Branagh’s experience directing Shakespeare and costume dramas. I admire the boldness of Asgard and the desire to make it look both regal yet alien. Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) castle looks like a giant pipe organ, and the movie doesn’t blink twice at giving Loki (Tom Hiddleston) a helmet with giant horns on it. Thor’s costume and production design doesn’t run from the comics, and that fearlessness became a sign of Marvel’s aesthetic. The studio and its filmmakers worked hard to find a way to blend the fantastical with reality, and didn’t get hung up on explaining minutiae.
The studio also knew where to make concessions. Some of the names had to be changed or muttered, like “Rainbow Bridge” being uttered once and officially called “Bifröst”, which is also an accurate name, but also one that sounds more regal and less like something out of Care Bears. However, when you have a cool name like “Frost Giants”, the movie goes for it as opposed to calling them “Citizens of Jotenheim” or something similar (which would humanize them, and the movie definitely doesn’t want to do that).
The biggest challenge in Thor from a storytelling point was trying to find a connection from magic to science. If Thor is magic, then he can do anything and solve any problem. Thor cleverly grounded his powers by explaining that “magic’s just science we don’t understand yet,” and he comes from a place “where they are one and the same.” So while he’s technically from an advanced alien race, the movie cleverly recontextualizes the character so that his world and background are now relatable even though it’s simply a mitigated risk: Marvel wasn’t sure the audience would accept space magic, but knew they would accept “science.”
But even more than trying to explain how Asgard works, the most crucial part of Thor was casting. Incredible Hulk aside, Marvel never miscasts their heroes. Once the movie introduces Thor at his coronation ceremony, we’re instantly on board with Hemsworth. He’s as cocky as Tony Stark but with arrogance in place of smugness. He holds a hammer of the gods, and flips it like a toy. This is Stark Expo in another realm, and while the star may pretend it’s about the greater good, he knows it’s all about him because nothing in this world is more important than his ego.
It’s a herculean task to get a bunch of comic book fans on board with a boastful jock who starts the film wanting to kill a bunch of foreigners. We have the expectation that we’ll automatically like heroes, and that if these heroes are “flawed” then it’s in a sympathetic fashion like a nerdy kid who gets beat up. Tony Stark and Thor are not likable people; their actors make them lovable.
Hemsworth was basically an unknown before Thor. He had a brief appearance as Kirk’s dad in Star Trek, and came out of the long-running Australian soap opera Home and Away, which also produced stars Heath Ledger, Isla Fisher, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, and Naomi Watts to name a few. There are plenty of handsome, muscular actors in the world; Chris Hemsworth’s performance in Thor shows the difference between an actor with charisma and one who’s just good-looking. We needed to buy Thor as a god and as a man, and Hemsworth sold us on both.
Watching the test footage of Tom Hiddleston auditioning for Thor is bizarre because it’s not only difficult to imagine someone other than Hemsworth playing the character; it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Hiddleston playing Loki. Like his co-star, he was largely an unknown to American audiences (feel free to keep your “I watched Wallander!” comments to yourself), but no Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) villain has connected to audiences like Loki.
While every Marvel villain craves “power”, Loki’s hunger for it comes from a clearly defined place of jealousy and pain. The character’s mischievousness may be scaled back, but it’s in service of a more compelling personality. There’s a tragic element to Loki, and in Thor he’s a sympathetic figure even though the script puts his actions into the retread of “the traitorous compatriot” a la Iron Monger. Hiddleston pours all of the character’s hurt into the performance so that even at the end when he’s goading Thor into a fistfight (the only action climax Marvel could seemingly manage leading up to The Avengers), he’s doing it with tears in his eyes. When Loki falls into the abyss, it’s because he makes an active choice to do so.
Thor is about laying groundwork, and the story and even the style are secondary. The movie needed to hit a checklist: 1) Make audiences accept Asgard and how it relates to Earth; 2) Cast Thor; 3) Cast Loki; 4) flesh out S.H.I.E.L.D. and their responsibilities. That’s it. It’s a list of chores and Branagh’s accomplishment is making them feel like organic parts of the narrative.
I admire that Thor is counter-intuitive. It’s the inverse of Iron Man not only in that the hero has to learn humility, but also it’s a superhero movie that takes away the hero’s superpowers. Thor goes from a guy who can take out a bevy of frost giants to someone who is felled by cars and sedatives. The “humbling” storyline for a hero isn’t unique overall, but it is an outlier among superhero origin stories. It makes Thor a fish-out-of-water movie that rests largely on Hemsworth’s endearing performance because ultimately is still comes back to “What makes a hero?” and the answer is (as it is for most Marvel movies) a willingness to die in order to save others. If “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor,” and worthiness is determined by self-sacrifice, then Iron Man, Captain America, and all of the Guardians of the Galaxy should get to wield Mjolnir.
Thor is an accomplished film, but it’s also shoddily constructed and poorly made. Marvel still hadn’t quite zeroed in on how it wanted its movies shot and composed, and Branagh made an unfortunate decision when it came to shooting the picture. Branagh suffered the same issue Ang Lee did on Hulk, which is that he misunderstood how to adapt a comic book and tried to literally translate its visual language to the screen through cinematography and editing.