A fan’s take on Marvel’s God of Thunder
THOR (Minor Spoilers)
As a fan of both Norse mythology and Silver Age comic books, I was a little worried about the new film adaptation of Thor. Co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 60s, Thor is the Viking God of Thunder reimagined as a comic book superhero. Running dry on origins for heroes with godlike powers, they decided to just go ahead and make their next character an actual god. The result was some of the best of Silver Age Marvel.
It’s important to note, however, that Thor is a bit like the comic book equivalent of a strong cup of coffee. If it speaks to your sensibilities, you will find a lot to love about it, but these stories take “larger than life” to a whole other level. Characters walk around speaking in stilted, faux-classical language (with thees and thous and so on). And the stories and designs are pretty out there, even for comics. Silver Age Superman looks realistic in comparison. It’s difficult for me to expect a modern film audience to “get” Thor, so I was a little worried about what to expect.
I was heartened by the choice of director Kenneth Brannagh, whose well-known Shakespearean background is well-equipped to handle both the epic scale and family drama inherent in the mythology. Also, Brannagh’s Frankenstein is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s so deliciously over the top and energetic. I know that Brannagh has the right sensibility to blend the heavy melodrama and still preserve the sense of fun and old-fashioned adventure that any classic superhero needs to provide.
Now having seen it, I have to say up front that I was floored, absolutely eyes-wide-mouth-agape, at some of the imagery in this film. I did not expect to see Thor hovering in mid-air, creating whirlwinds with Mjolnir (Thor’s lengendary hammer), smiling as he smote his enemies. I thought, of all things, the Rainbow Bridge is far too corny for them to include in a modernized adaptation. To say I am happy to be wrong on these counts would be an understatement.
Although quite a few artists have been involved with the character over his fifty-year run, it’s impossible for me to separate Thor from Kirby’s designs. Jack Kirby, the so-called “King of Comics,” really hit his stride in the 1960’s, and some of his most definitive work is on Thor. When I think of Asgard (the Norse realm of the gods) I picture Kirby’s Asgard. It’s clear that the film’s production designers had the same reverence for the look and feel of Jack Kirby’s Asgard and its people.
Thor’s costume is also suitably Kirbyesque, with his bright red cape inexplicably swept back far above his shoulders, almost hovering above him. That’s a unique element of Kirby’s design, and I’m happy they were able to translate it to live action. The fact that the filmmakers took some care into translating the look and feel of the costumes in an age when superheroes tend to be redesigned as leather-clad bikers, armored-up beyond recognition, and devoid of color in general is another homerun for this film, and I immensely appreciated it.
The core of this film is really the star-making performance of Chris Hemsworth. Upon first glance, I thought, first of all, this guy’s too young and too pretty. Thor is a Viking god; Hemsworth looks like a male model. I couldn’t see him commanding the respect of the biggest, meanest, scariest barbarians to ever ransack a kingdom. Fortunately, I was wrong. Not since Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has an actor so thoroughly and convincingly owned the portrayal of a comic book hero.
The first time we see Hemsworth as Thor, he’s a prince accepting his father’s crown. As he strides through the crowd of adoring fans, he flips Mjolnir into the air like a football. Everything you need to know about Thor is conveyed without words in that moment. He knows that he deserves every bit of adulation he receives. He doesn’t appreciate the weight on his shoulders. He’s flippant where he should be respectful. Hemsworth set the foundation for Thor’s character right there, and that’s where he won me over.
The controversy over Idris Elba as Heimdall is silly. Yes, Heimdal was white in the comics, but the comics also made it clear that Asgard is populated with many races. Hogun, a member of the Warrior’s Three (Thor’s comrades in arms) is a Mongul in the comics, as in the film. Elba did an excellent job with the part. He was actually one of the highlights of the film.
Unfortunately, I cannot heap as much praise upon the rest of the cast. Natalie Portman, Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman… where are you? Because you clearly weren’t present during the filming of Thor. Anthony Hopkins was fine as Odin, though a bit too-obvious casting. Tim Hiddleston was fine but a bit reserved as Loki. The Warrior’s Three didn’t have much to say or do. And then there’s Cat Dennings as Comic Relief Sidekick, and Stellan Skarsgard as Obligatory Scandanavian Who Can Provide Exposition About Norse Mythology.
Which brings me to my biggest problem with the film. In the comic books, Thor is essentially the same character we know of from Norse mythology. Some differences are put down to errors in the telling of the tales (for example, Thor has blonde rather than red hair) but all the classic stories from antiquity we know are assumed to have happened, basically, as we know them. You might call Lee and Kirby’s Thor the first “vague sequel.”
But in the film version, Thor is no longer Thor. He’s an alien, not a god, whose people once visited Earth because it was the battleground for an interplanetary war. The primitive people saw these advanced aliens as gods, and handed down the myths we know of, imperfectly translating the events (yet somehow flawlessly transcribing the names).
Maybe you’re saying to yourself, what’s the problem with this? Aliens sound much easier to swallow than gods and monsters. Well, imagine you’re a Superman fan, and you’re excited to see the new Superman film. Now the day has come, opening weekend. You’re off to see your childhood hero realized larger than life on the big screen. The lights dim, the titles roll. It’s thrilling! But as the story begins to unfold before you, it becomes clear that this movie is not about Superman. No, because modern audiences are far too sophisticated for that nonsense. It’s about the story that “inspired” Superman.
Wouldn’t you find that a little off-putting? Maybe even a little insulting? Well, I did.
As I noted earlier, Thor is a big pill to swallow. I get that it may need some translation, some tweaking to find a mainstream audience. But the solutions the makers of the film have come up with are just as absurd and far more difficult to wrap my brain around than the comic books. Although I’d have preferred a straighter adaptation of the comics, my biggest problem is that its own internal logic doesn’t hold up.
For example, major plot points of this film are borrowed from the Norse myths, yet… those events already happened, according to the myths. The ancient Norsemen seem to have scary accuracy in predicting events involving people who weren’t even born yet, which have yet to occur thousands of years later, light years across the galaxy. I mean, everyone seems surprised to find out that Loki betrays everyone and that he’s the son of a Frost Giant. But if they’d cracked a copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology they’d have seen both of those developments coming down Main Street.
Also, the whole “science and magic is the same thing” nonsense is yet another wrong-headed attempt to explain away and rationalize what is inherently supposed to be vague and mysterious. Yet other example of how any attempt to explain the unexplainable just highlights how ridiculous it is in the first place. If Thor is a god, then I don’t need an explanation. That is the explanation. He’s a god, thus god-like powers. Comes with the gig.
But if Thor is an alien, and he derives his powers from science, then I start wondering things like, what powers the hammer? How does he access the power? Is it coded to his DNA? How does the hammer know he’s become “worthy” enough to wield it? Does the hammer have intelligence? It is alive? Asgard seems to just be floating in space, how does it maintain an atmosphere? If these people are so advanced that they can create wormholes to other planets, why can’t Odin grown himself a new eye? And so on.
Either the ancient Norsemen were psychic, and saw these events coming far in the future, in which case there really is magic; or these characters really are Norse gods come to life, in which case there really is magic. Either way, there’s no getting away from inducing the supernatural in Thor. So why bother?
Overall I think it’s fair to say I got half the film I wanted. All the stuff on Asgard was fantastic, seriously a Silver Age comic book fans dream come true. But as soon as the action moves to modern-day Earth, it undermines itself at every turn.
I get that the character arc here is supposed to be Thor finding humility and purpose, but it just wasn’t accomplished convincingly, with any subtlety or finesse. Some of my favorite parts were the small character-driven moments, the fish-out-of-water stuff like Thor demanding a horse from a pet shop, but the characterization also wasn’t very consistent. One minute Thor’s demanding another cup of coffee, behaving like the spoiled prince he is; the next day he’s serving everyone breakfast. Did I miss something?
Overall I’d say I got about half the film I wanted. On one hand, the makers of Thor have managed to create some of the best comic book-related imagery ever put to screen. However. The film as a whole has left me kind of let down. I think I could learn to embrace the new Thor, if he were given an adventure worthy of his godlike stature. I suppose only time (and the inevitable sequels) will tell.