Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor

For previous articles on this series:

Ant Man
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Thor: The Dark World
Iron Man 3
The Avengers
Captain America: The First Avenger

Moving on:

Preamble

You know, I think it’s taken for granted just how big a gamble Thor was when it first came out. I mean now it almost looks quaint with all the weird cosmic shit in the MCU, and even other superhero properties, have properly utilised. Like, superhero fiction is weird and can incorporate any goddamn speculative genre it wishes to, that’s what have made them so longlasting and varied. The films, until this point, didn’t really tap into that energy, however. Even Superman, one could argue, was more science fiction based, and the more out there elements of his character were kept to a relative minimum. But a superhero directly influenced by Norse mythology? Yeah, that’s kind of nutty.

The only thing most people knew about Thor from the comics, if anything, was the Norse connection and he spoke in this weird, faux-Shakespearean affectation. It’s appropriate, then, that they managed to get a really famous Shakespeare director. Kenneth Branagh was a both a daring and suitable pick to helm the God of Thunder’s debut outing. What I found funny was that the Shakespearean whimsy in the dialogue isn’t that noticeable, especially as the movie spends a lot of time on Earth in contemporary times. I honestly think Avengers beefs Thor and Loki’s dialogue in that affect way more than here. However, what he brings is two things; a sense of dramatic scale and clout. This is one of the best casts in Phase 1, and how much Asgard glides and how mythological the emotions of the scenes are really shows Branagh at his most extravagant. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This was actually one of two Phase 1 films I saw in cinemas prior to Avengers and me seeing every single installment that way since. I went to see it with a buddy of mine who managed to snag free tickets, and we were both interested in how this would go down. If the MCU could pull this off, they could do pretty much anything. And, looking at this 9 years on, that wasn’t the most inaccurate statement. They pulled this off at the time, and they absolutely continued to do whatever they wanted with their franchise. But how does the film hold up looking back at it with the hindsight of what’s followed?

Odin is….the Worst: A Tale of Father and Sons

The MCU in general has daddy issues. If you picked up one of their 20+ movies, chances are the characters in it go through some shit involving their father. Appropriate that it’s the case here, as the dynamic between Thor, Loki and Odin is the best thing in this film. How both relate to their father really defines who their characters are, and it gives them a really solid foundation.

This is a movie about humility. It’s about characters with large egos and larger ambitions learning a better way to meet their destinies. It’s about not having such blind faith in the people who guide you. We kind of get this with Coulson and SHIELD’s involvement in the plot; a noble man being led by an ignoble agency trying to annex power that isn’t theirs. Hell, it’s even kind of there with Jane’s relationship with Selvig, who consistently tries to stop her pursuing her goals because he thinks they’re wild flights of fancy, only to be proven extremely wrong.

But this is reaching a tad, and these themes are mainly focused on the main conflict, which is between Thor and Loki. Both want to impress their father, and both attempt to do this in varying different ways. Thor is arrogant, outwardly so. He’s cocky, temperamental and rushes into things without thinking. He is fuelled by his father’s approval and acceptance of him being King. Where he goes wrong in his assumption that Asgard should be protect no matter the cost, as he is a warrior and not yet a ruler. Hence the attack that was the impetus for the war with the Frost Giants and his banishment. Of course, this was more due to his naivety being manipulated.

Even before Tom Hiddleston’s popularity exploded, it was clear that he was the best thing about this film. His motivation is to be validated by his father, who has taken him for granted and treated him with disregard all his life. Of course the reason for that is due to Loki being a Frost Giant, adopted by Odin as a means of brokering peace in the Nine Realms. This is why it’s impossible for him to grow like Thor does, because it’s entirely based on his father admitting faults he never will. So, he goes about manipulating his brother to cause an international (intergalactic) incident and goad the Frost Giants into attempting to murder Odin so he can kill them and gain favours in his own warped mind. What’s funny is that he directly murders Laufey, his biological father, to appease the one whose neglect fuelled the Trickster God’s trickery.

It’s great, because with the hindsight of now seeing his future appearances, this is probably the most sympathetic Loki is in terms of motivation. In the other films he takes on more of a megalomaniac glimmer. Which is fun, but it’s nowhere near as gripping as how much his literal God-like father’s favouritism warps him into a monster. Not that it makes him wholly justified of course-he tries to commit genocide in this movie-but he is so much more compelling compared to the other villains this early in.

Easily the best scene is when Loki angrily confronts Odin about his origins. It’s some spectacular acting from Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins; you really feel the weight of the situation. I even like how slyly they play up his trickery. I mean it’s obvious to spot if you know anything about the character, but for the first 30 minutes it never gives up the ghost on how Loki is responsible for all of this. outside of subtle things. One example is how he glides into a scene from above a frame to be the angel and devil on Thor’s ear as he manipulates him to attack the Frost Giants. I honestly wish they had kept this going a little longer, at least build it to the scene where Loki tells Laufey he let them into Asgard.

I guess I’ll get to the point that Odin is a massive asshole, and will remain so for the rest of this trilogy? I mean, he’s directly or indirectly responsible for the conflicts in all of these films. Yet Thor, both the character and the film trilogy, never seem to put him in his place and he’s just put on a pedestal, which really goes against some of the theming as set up. They only sometimes bring up his many, many faults, but just leave it at that. He is depicted as mostly a sage, wise father figure/king and not a conniving, controlling, duplicitous bastard. He’s kind of like the MCU’s Hank Pym in that regards, only a God and even Hank gets called out for his shit more. And sure, he’s the one who decides Thor needs a humility lesson after he deliberately disobeyed his orders, so he strips him of his powers and crash-lands him on a planet he has no knowledge of. That’s fair, I guess.

Though it’s funny to me that Loki directly calls Odin out on the shit he pulls regarding his origins, and yet Thor still calls him a wise and just King and father at the end of the film, which is just weird. But I guess that’s kind of the issue when your antagonist is way more likeable than your protagonist.

Speaking of unlikeable, let’s go to where I think this movie loses me.

The Earth Stuff is Boring, I’m Sorry

Okay, let’s start this segment by talking about the general aesthetic and cinematography. While certain scenes can be a bit too underlit for my taste, Asgard looks majestic. Even if the CG hasn’t aged extremely well, it feels grand and well textured, arguably one of the best comic book universes come to life since Krypton in the original Superman movies. Branagh’s gift for making silly, over the top and hammy settings and scenarios seem epic, grand and emotionally fuelled really shines here, with scenes like Thor being cast out feel like they’re part of a mythical, ancient tale.

And then we crash down to Earth, and it looks like it was shot on a set. And just to be clear, it was not a set. It was on location on an old town they used to use to shoot Westerns in. But everything in New Mexico feels flat, dull, and uninspired. In fact, that could be why the infamous Dutch angle shots are scattered throughout the film. To make the Earth scenes seem more “epic” and give it a broader sense of continuity with the off-world stuff. But nothing here feels all that special, and it really reflects just how much the film stops when we reach this point.

This shot looks wonderful, admittedly

And look, stopping isn’t a bad thing. Thor’s arc is self-reflective, he needs to slow down to realise what an ass he was. The bigger issue is its pacing. It’s a lot of scenes of a lot of people frantically talking and kind of standing around not really accomplishing much. A lot of it is focused on Jane, and while I like her character, it’s not the most compelling thing to watch other characters realise what’s been made overtly apparent to the audience that these god-like beings exist.

One of the issues with the pacing has a lot to do with structure. After we finish the Asgard scenes and we go back to Earth, Jane accidentally rams into Thor and they bring him to the hospital. After he wakes up, he freaks out and is sedated again. Jane and her team discuss that he’s probably connected to the solar event where they ran into him and rush back to the hospital to pick him up. Thor escapes and Jane runs into him again, and they bring him to their base. A lot of this just feels like padding. We don’t learn enough to justify the massive time waste that was bringing Thor to the hospital, so maybe it’d be possible to bypass that and have them make that connection faster and just bring Thor straight to their base. There seems to be a lot of time wasting from when Thor lands until he goes to pick up the hammer nearly half an hour later.

We only really cut back to Asgard before the climax to fill out plot details, and outside of the oft-mentioned confrontation scene, they’re mostly focused on Sif and the Warriors Three which brings up another issue I have with this film. It has similar issues that Thor: The Dark World has in that the cast is overstuffed, though it’s nowhere near as chaotic as that film was. But yeah, The Warriors Three are just not that interesting. They’re very broadly characterised (like the fat one…eats a lot) and have no real nuance beyond that. Sif is barely passable-she’s got a sense of savviness and is perceptive and intelligent, but it’s not a lot to make her stand out.

As for the Earth cast, Selvig is likeable, He’s essentially Jane’s conscience and provides the context of Norse mythology. I like his quasi-paternal relationship with Jane and the bar scene with Thor is fun. He gets to be the theme setter with one of the better lines in the movie: “Before any who find his way in the world, he must admit he has no idea what the hell to do”. Learning to be humble in the face of the world makes you stronger in it.

Darcy will forever annoy me. She’s treated like the outsider ready to point out things the scientists too into their work won’t spot, but mostly she’s annoying comic relief. Thankfully she’s kept to the sides here.  Coulson is here, but he’s at his most bland and even Clark Gregg’s usual disarming charm doesn’t do much for him here. It doesn’t help that SHIELD feel so largely insubstantial outside of setting up other The Avengers and maybe making that scene where Thor fails to pick up Mjolnir more interesting.

I liked Jane a lot too. She seems very driven in her pursuits and Natalie Portman puts a lot of awkward charm and personality into the part. I like how committed she is to proving Thor is an alien-she’s very driven in a way that benefits the story and her unwillingness to listen to common sense in pursuit of these goals makes her feel more fully rounded. Unfortunately, the movie seems to sidestep that a lot for her relationship to Thor. And I thought they were trying to make that comparison-that their drive to prove themselves in spite of everything tends to lead them into trouble, and they need to be more humble and accept their own limitations. But they don’t really do that much for Jane beyond her initial helping him break into SHIELD’s base, and she doesn’t really have an arc that isn’t focused on falling for Thor.

Which is a shame. Because Thor’s character is kind of a big problem I have with this movie.

Thor (the Character): All Setup, No Real Payoff

Our main overarching theme for Phase 1 is Discovery, and that’s obviously a huge thing on this film’s mind. It’s a discovery of whether Marvel can successfully adapt a fantasy-based superhero into this series and make it palpable for audiences. And that’s a lot of the human character’s dialogue-their disbelief and bewilderment of encountering this strange man from beyond the cosmos. It successfully captures the wonder and curiosity of discovering something beyond us, both in world and as an audience having never explored such out-there environments in comic book movie form. It’s good that they pulled that off because, goddamn, is that wonder not there in our protagonist.

Thor has a rock solid basis for an arc. He’s arrogant beyond reproach, unprepared for leadership and trying too hard to impress his father, only to overplay his hand and get duly punished for it. When he arrives, he’s still arrogant if shaken. He finds out about Mjonir also landing on Earth and, after fighting through guards to reach it, tries to lift it and finds he can’t. Odin enchanted it to stop him. Okay, good: arrogant hero has to learn humility. Great start and serviceable plan of action to where he succumbs to his lowest point.

Except then he really…learns humility? He has a few mopey conversations with his friends and finds out about Loki’s plan, but there’s never any point where he works towards his growth as a more thoughtful, selfless character. It feels more like “Well, can’t lift the magic hammer, guess I be grow”. While it’s a stretch to call MCU films grand, involving character studies where we get a full context of the human psyche across this grand filmic medium, other character arcs at least got us to understand why a hero got from Point A to Point B. I just think this hurts this one.

Also, his moment of humility is sacrificing himself to the Destroyer to save this New Mexico town (which apparently fully evacuated in seconds). While that certainly is noble, it’s hard to link it to humility because I never got the impression beforehand that sacrificing his own life was not something Thor would do. He’s an jackass at the start sure, but he was also dignified and a ardent defender of his home. Transferring that to this new place with people he’s grown a bond to, in particular Jane, doesn’t feel that humbling. This also feels like a token effort because he’s mortal, and he doesn’t know that Loki only wants to kill him. I mean it’s an educated guess, but he could be going after the other Asgardians who directly betrayed him, and they’re no good at fighting that thing. It just seems like a huge dumb gamble instead of a humbling moment from our arrogant God.

Also, I need to harp further on the fact that he’s apparently mortal after landing on Earth, but gets rammed by a car TWICE and brushes it off, and we never get a sense of his limitations, which absolutely hurts the weight of this moment, and I’m sorry but it really bothered me because it’s so goddamn easy to define!

It doesn’t help that his relationship with Jane, his biggest connection to this Earth, is not that strong. Like I said, their stories nearly parallel, but the movie focuses more on her fascination with him as being an alien from another world (and, well, hot). Considering how much importance this has, that’s very little. It’s also kind of a cynical reading, as it comes across like Jane only cares about him because of her research, but I don’t think that’s what they were going for.

As written their bonding scenes are functional, and I don’t care that they become so devoted to each other despite having only known each other a few days-that’s the standards of the medium. It’s just that these two have absolutely no chemistry, and they never define exactly what each other gets out of their quasi-courtship that makes them better characters. It’s pretty telling that, after spending two movies focused on their love, they break up offscreen, she’s never seen again outside of a stock footaged cameo, and nobody gives a fuck. Honestly the best thing Ragnarok did was dump most of the cast, but that’s for another review.

I bring up the relationship because, had the story done better to thread all these weaves together, Thor breaking up the Bifrost would have actually been a great moment of humility. Because he actually sacrificed something that made him personally happy for the sake of the Frost Giants. It’s a legitimate moment of putting the lives and well being of others over his own well being, made even more poignant as the species who he attacked at the start, causing him to be banished in the first place. It’s a pity these moments were so disparate because he needed to get his powers back before confronting Loki, but I’m sure some tweaking could have had these align.

This is why Loki’s arc works so well. He’s motivated clearly out of spite and trying to win over his father’s approval, going so far as to manipulate his brother into a treasonous act. When he comes to realise he’s a Frost Giant, the effect of this has him realise how little he mattered to Odin-he was a pawn for peace. You’re led to believe-with him taking the throne after Odin falls into Odinsleep and continuing his alliance with the Frost Giants-that he’s done all this to spite his father and have him murdered. Only to find out he did all this to double cross the Frost Giants and make himself look like a hero, just to win his father’s approval. When Odin blatantly rejects that, he plummets to his death after hanging on to Thor who’s hanging onto their father-an ultimate representation of how their dynamic worked. His arc is that he didn’t grow, and because of that his father rejected him. Why this worked was that most of his plan was in subterfuge which is not something as easily done with a protagonist-but it makes him a compelling, dynamic character with a way more well thought out and defined arc.

But enough about Loki being the best character in this movie. Again. How’s the action hold out?!

Clash of the Super-Titans! Action in Thor

Going back again to the visual composition, everything on Asgard is suitably epic. And it adds power to the action scenes. While there’s a sparse few, what we get is packed up with power and finesse. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the editing and lighting. I’ve complained about scene to scene editing and certain moments need to be reordered for greater purpose, but the moment-to-moment editing can be a bit jarring. I think of the famous “I need a horse!” line and Thor seems to come in a bit too fast there (that joke still works, don’t worry). But it affects the action here especially because everything is cut way too fast and it’s hard to make out what’s happening, particularly if there’s multiple characters in a fight. The lighting in the film generally is very low and not that punchy. It doesn’t highlight certain moments and it hurt the focus, especially if the scene is taking place in the dark. This really hurts the fight on Jotunheim.

This sequence starts out great, with a lot of moodiness and atmosphere added with the planet’s darkness. Unfortunately, this darkness ends up hurting them because most of the action is not that easy to see. If Sif and The Warriors Three have distinguishing fight choreography then I’m none the wiser because I cannot make out what they’re really doing. There’s also some clumsy set up, like the fat one (his name is Volstagg, but let’s be fair here-he’s just the fat one) saying don’t let the Frost Giants touch you. Almost immediately followed by one touching Loki to set up him finding out about his adoption. Considering what an important plot point it is, it’s such a rushed moment. This fight does end with Odin riding on horse, which is great. It sells just how powerful and intimidating he can be without him doing much.

Also this cute little fella runs upside down underneath the battlegrounds, which was pretty awesome

Next is the chase through the SHIELD compound to get Mjolnir, and it’s…fine, I guess? I mean the choppy editing is still an issue, but it’s better lit. There’s a really bad slow-mo kick, and this feels way too stacked up in Thor’s favour. Again, this feels like an obstacle to make Thor failing to lift Mjolnir hit better, and it’s not much of an obstacle to begin with. That moment in isolation is great, and I loved its sound effect coming up to trick the audience into thinking he can lift it, it’s a nice touch. I just don’t think this scene is entirely needed to get us there. Also his slow motion “nooooo” was too much.

The Destroyer fight is mostly made by how cool the effect on it is. I love him twisting inside out to face Sif-that still holds up. The visual composition is slightly dull (the Ren Fair looking Asgardians don’t stand out in contemporary New Mexico, which is odd), but this is one of the better fights. The first part is being led by characters I don’t really care about, but some of the hits do land. While I don’t like how Thor gets his powers back, how easily he wins is cool and shows off just how formidable the God of Thunder can be.

Heimdell gets a bit of fighting in after he breaks out of Loki’s freezing (a power used in this movie and never again). It’s a nice little ticking clock as the rest of the cast try to get back to Asgard, but ultimately it’s a lameduck fight that’s poorly shot. Finally, our climactic showdown with Thor and Loki. It mixes the best of the film (familial conflicts and epic looking shots) with the worst (poor lighting and dull choreography/editing). Though Loki gives this bizarre threat about Jane, which doesn’t feel that in character for him even if he is trying to rile Thor up. Love the callback to the Bifrost having the power to destroy planets. Loki uses this to create his own intergalactic WMD. It builds towards Thor breaking up the Bifrost and losing his brother. Also, him pinning Loki to the ground using Mjolnir is great. It’s a shame Thor doing this leads to absolutely zero consequences in the later movies, but fuck it.

Post-Credit Scene and Miscellaneous

Post-credit is Selvig being led down to a secret chamber by Fury and being shown the Tesseract, this little McGuffin’s first ever appearance in the MCU. It ends with Loki appearing in a reflection, similar to a moment when he entered Thor’s prison when he was being held captive by SHIELD, and saying a line Selvig then repeats. It’s a neat little Avengers tease, one of the better post-credit stings. Though it implies that Selvig is being hypnotised or possessed by Loki, but neither is the case so it’s a little confusing. It could almost be Loki keeping true to that stupid line about Jane, but she doesn’t actually appear in The Avengers, so oh well.

Other thoughts:

-Man, I hate to say it, but Chris Hemsworth is kind of weak in this film? I think it’s more due to the material than him. He’s great when he imbues parts of his personality into roles, and Thor is a bit too stiff and arrogant in this movie. Again, he’s one of my favourite things about the MCU, so later movies absolutely change this.

-I like the whole meta thing of the natural meeting the supernatural that plays throughout, and them being more married together than originally thought. The “magic is science we don’t understand” bit was something they tried to push hard early on in the MCU, it even appears somewhat in Doctor Strange, but they’ve pretty much ignored it as weirder and weirder shit starts popping up in the franchise.

-I love the impressively done character work that went into the earlier scenes. When  they first see the Casket of Ancient Winters, Loki wants to know more about the Frost Giants and Thor just wants to defeat them. It informs so much about them.

-Yep, just waste Rene Russo why don’t you…

-There’s some pretty stellar comedy throughout the film. The “another!” cup moment is constantly referenced, or, as stated, “I need a horse!”. There’s a reason these beats stand out more than most of the rest of the movie, and was an early indication to the MCU’s more memetic turn.

-I didn’t talk much about Heimdell, but he doesn’t really have too much to do here compared to his other appearances. There’s a good reason he’s better remembered than the rest of the cast, a lot of that is Idris Elba’s indelible charisma. He has a strong code of honour and he will break his oath if he thinks it’s the right thing to do without hesitation, like when he allows Thor to use the Bifrost or when he turns on Loki. Even subtle characterisation like that made him stand out here.

-I think the Bifrost travelling effects look way better here than they do in Ragnarok. Though, in fairness, that could be more due to plot reasons as we had to see inside the rainbow effect there.

-I liked seeing Mjolnir fall in the background. Just emphasises everything thematically and literally crashing down to Earth.

-Also, all the truckers trying to move Mjolnir is a fun little beat. Not really much purpose, but it fits thematically of magic meeting the ordinary, and it’s not around enough to really derail the plot. Also it’s our Stan Lee cameo.

-I love that reveal of Loki’s blue face when he confronts Odin. Absolutely wonderfully played.

-The truckers letting Thor know about Mjolnir when they talk about it idly near him is such a dumb cliché.

-We get Hawkeye’s introduction! He’s here. Chooses a bow and arrow instead of a gun. That’s our…Hawkeye. It’s really pointless

-Loki trying to lift Mjolnir was great. Worth a shot.

-The blocking in this film can be a little awkward, like when Thor steals Jane’s book back. How did nobody see him?!

-Having Donald Blake be Jane’s ex is a great nod to the comics.

-Okay, Coulson’s inclusion in this movie may have been worth it for “Son of Coul”.

-Any shot where the two brothers are framed around Odin is great, but the one where his sleeping body is between the two of them? *kisses fingers*

-I have issues with how Thor’s arc plays out, but him not getting the throne yet does work. He’s not ready and it’s a bit of a cliché dodge.

Conclusion

There’s a lot I like about Thor. It’s got some of the best sense of scale in the MCU in terms of melodrama. The main cast are really well defined, with the three-way spat between Thor, Loki and Odin at the heart of it. It’s pretty funny in places, and is bursting with imagination and a fun colour palette that made it distinct at the time. However, as we move on eight years later, the idea of the magic meeting the ordinary loses its sheen and we’re left with a bit of a tepid entry.

It’s clear that a lot of the interest was in Loki and Odin’s conflict, and any time Tom Hiddleston is on screen it’s magnetic. Thor’s Earth adventure just needed a lot more screentime, not to have the midpoint of his arc happen so late, and yeah, a lot more talking. In a movie with very little action, I don’t feel Thor really discusses his relationship with his own hubris and trying to live up to his father’s legacy. And Branagh can shoot dialogue scenes really dynamically, I just feel like the film meanders too much and comes to its conclusions in a haphazard way, and it really hurts it in the long run.

This movie is trying to be an epic and mythical science-fantasy tale about a powerful deity family, but also a fish out of water romantic-comedy-fantasy. These do not gel very coherently. It has a solid message, but it’s let down by weak character writing and a distinct lack of focus. That’s a shame, but there’s definitely enough in here to latch onto, and it’s the start of one of my favourite heroes in the MCU who will only get better over time.

Final rating: 5/10

Here’s my placing of it in the overall MCU

  1. Avengers
  2. Captain America: Winter Soldier
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy
  4. Iron Man 3
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger
  6. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  7. Thor
  8. Ant Man
  9. Thor: The Dark World

Next up, we get the first sequel in the MCU, and the movie back from it’s longest hiatus. There was a time we had to wait well over a year for another film in this franchise, believe it or not! Also, is it just me, or does Rhodey look a little different to you…?

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