Thor changed everything without being a new thing.
The character of Thor has always been a gateway to something larger and otherworldly. Thor is the one we think of when we think of Norse gods. Thor’s is the most recognizable name in our days of the week. (Pop quiz: Which god is Tuesday named for?) Thor is one of humanity’s oldest superheroes, one of mythology’s most familiar touchstones.
What could be safer than to take a leap of faith with the mighty Thor?
Because that’s what Thor was to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a leap of faith, which truly gave us a universe. This was the first Marvel movie with no Robert Downey Jr. crutch and only the thinnest of connective tissue to keep it tethered to our Earth. Science grounded both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk as comic book movies that weren’t entirely out of the realm of possibility (just, you know, mostly). But Thor was practically a Big Bang, rewriting everything we thought we knew about what a Marvel superhero movie could be. Suddenly the realm of possibility became the Nine Realms of Asgard.
In space. Where ancient, godlike, multi-ethnic Viking aliens live like Shakespearean kings.
It shouldn’t have worked, right? Thor should have been a joke, but instead, it was … kind of quietly brilliant. MCU impresario Kevin Feige took one of Marvel’s jokiest heroes, wrapped him up in healthy doses of Hercules and King Arthur, spiced him up with sci-fi sensibilities, and handed him to one of the best Shakespearean actor / directors of our time who, using uncommon Dutch angles and fluid tracking shots, actually made a movie that looks like a comic book (bless you, Branagh). Seriously! It shouldn’t have worked!
Yet here we are seven years later, still alive and kicking. Too many people look back on Thor and think it’s one of the weaker Marvel movies, but they’re wrong. Tight budgeting and poor editing made a choppy movie, sure, but Thor laid all the groundwork for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, and did it the oldest way in the book. It gave the Universe mythology.
Consider the players.
First, obviously, there’s Thor. Odin’s firstborn and wielder of Mjolnir, he’s a warrior so skilled that he’s a legend in his own time, on the cusp of becoming Asgard’s king. (His father isn’t dead, just … retiring? Unimportant.) But he’s also entitled and arrogant, a warmongering oaf who is too quick to follow in his father’s footsteps without understanding precisely why Odin walked that path in the first place. Exiled from Asgard to Midgard — also known as Earth, where puny mortals live and die in the blink of an Asgardian eye — Thor must learn humility, selflessness, wisdom. His is the oldest story: the Hero’s Journey. This Thor, unlike his relatively unchanging mythological counterpart, follows the well-worn path of Gilgamesh, Odysseus and Luke Skywalker before him. By the time he reaches the events of Thor: Ragnarok, he is certainly worthy of their company.
Second (always second), there’s Loki. The Cain to Thor’s Abel, his impulsive brother’s measured opposite and therefore his shadow, this Loki is not so different from Loki of old. He is always two things simultaneously: of Asgard and not of Asgard, trickster and savior, friend and betrayer, clever and cruel. Despite his jealousies and resentments, all Loki wants is to be Thor’s equal, not realizing he is Thor’s equal. That is why neither of them can either defeat the other or fully leave them behind, and why Loki is the MCU’s most compelling villain. Thanks to a nuanced performance from Tom Hiddleston, it is not hard to see your darkest self in Loki and to feel sympathy for him as he journeys down a path that mirrors Thor’s. The greatest villains are the ones who you not-so-secretly root for; four appearances later, and Loki is still the best there is. *
But who would Thor and Loki be without the father who shaped them? All the credit and blame for the men they are at the beginning of Thor lies at the feet of Odin, the one-eyed Allfather. It’s easy to forget the Norse Odin was a renowned liar, nearly as skilled as Loki, which is a good thing for Marvel Odin: His lies are foundational, so large and so reality-shaping that you only see the forest, not the trees. Odin’s lies about Asgardian history and about his own nuclear family created a belligerent Thor and a duplicitous Loki, and the exposure of his lies — in this film and in later ones — irrevocably changes his sons. Odin says “peace” and means “conquest.” He says “son” and means “political tool.” It’s not a new tactic. Merlin and Dumbledore lied to their chosen ones, too. Once we learn that mentors (and gods, and fathers) are not perfect, we crumble, and then we rebuild ourselves from the rubble they left behind. So, too, do Loki and Thor.
And finally: Jane Foster. Jane, who sprung from Thor’s first minutes fully formed, a ferocious but goofy scientist with exes and homemade equipment and sidekicks of her own. Jane, who never stops searching for knowledge, even when the answers are just out of her grasp. Jane, who is not Thor’s love interest — Thor is hers. In the first four Marvel movies, she is the first woman who could leave the frame of her film and still exist without the superhero at the center of it. She doesn’t see Thor as anything but a visually pleasing vessel containing the answers she needs for her research until he describes Yggdrasil to her. Then, she sees that this strange man contains universes that are beyond her research, and that there’s so much more out there for her to learn. In much the same way, the first unselfish act Thor commits after failing to pick up his hammer is to steal her research back from S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s his first step back towards worthiness. Jane is Thor’s savior, not the other way around. **
It’s a little simplistic to say this, but mythology is really nothing but a collection of family dramas writ large to explain why the universe is the way it is. For example, Vikings believed that, after doing something particularly horrendous, Loki invented the net as a way to anticipate how the other gods might catch him if he turned himself into a salmon to evade capture. He burned the net before escaping, but Kvasir (an observant and wise god) noticed an odd pattern in the ash (which Thor ignored, preferring to stomp around and complain that Loki had escaped again). Kvasir reverse-engineered the net and promptly used it to catch salmon-Loki. (Thor, of course, took the credit.)
To mine such a convoluted story out of a net just to explain why it exists beyond its function is humanity at its finest, don’t you think? And Thor uses that kind of thinking so smartly, saying outright that if the Vikings had met the Asgardians with their magical hammers and their Rainbow Bridges a thousand years ago, then they would have worshiped them as gods. They would have told stories about them because that’s what humans do when they don’t understand something bigger than them. They tell stories.
Thor built a universe for Marvel, a universe big enough for stories about talking raccoons and giant sentient whale ships and the most powerful human / alien hybrid we’ve yet to meet. One movie was all it took to expand their playground exponentially, to tease the impossibility of an Eye of Agamotto or an Infinity Gauntlet appearing in another movie, to create myths which, later on and with a director whose country suffered under British colonialism, would be revealed as nothing more than imperialist propaganda. Because mythology builds on itself. One story leads to another, which leads to two more, which grows its characters until they’re larger than life, yet still so human, and turns them into legends.
Don’t let anybody tell you different. Thor changed everything.
* To date, Loki is the only villain whose misogynist tendencies only make me love him more. He habitually dismisses and underestimates every woman he comes across, and every time it ends with his ass on the floor. It’s the one thing about Loki that isn’t smart, and I love it. Loki’s Achilles’ heel isn’t Thor at all, but the fact that he just doesn’t get women. Amazing.
** Thor: The Dark World did Jane so dirty. Imagine Jane and Valkyrie. Now join me in my extremely un-chill anticipation for Annihilation, out February 23.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on May 4, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer – some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week when guest writer Sy Stiner takes us back to 1941 with Captain America: The First Avenger.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer