Stuffy academics wearing tweed jackets with reinforced elbows (seriously? are your elbows so worn out they need leather patches?) may scoff at superhero movies, but let's be clear: the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the way movies were made.
It used to be that a good movie turned out sequels. Sometimes the second one was really good—and you occasionally even had decent part threes like Return of the Jedi—but make no mistake: it was a loser's game.
Each successive movie usually got worse and worse until the whole thing became an embarrassment for everyone involved and we all decided—collectively, as a nation—that the whole thing should just go away.
There was one exception—the James Bond movies—and even they had their share of dumpster fires amid all the 007 Awesome. That's the way it was since the dawn of time…and Hollywood saw no reason to change it.
But then something happened: a little boy named Harry Potter appeared on our movie screens and, with a whopping seven books behind him, his sequels looked a lot less like naked cash grabs and more like a single huge saga giving us a full decade of awesomeness.
They didn't get worse with Part Four, Five or Six. In fact, they seemed to get better each time.
It was a big deal—and if you've seen the grosses for the Harry Potter movies, you know just how big—but it was still a franchise centered around one character (and his very cool friends).
Marvel—specifically Kevin Feige, the evil genius behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe—thought they could do that with more than one character. Each hero could have his own movie series: Iron Man could (and did) have its share of sequels, as could Captain America, Thor and any hero who proved viable.
But then they could come together for periodic teams-ups before returning to their own series.
It was par for the course with the comics, but it had never been tried on such a grand scale before. It got around the logistics of having one actor play the only hero, meaning that they could crank them out two a year. In essence, they copied the experience people had reading comic books, except instead of paying $2.95 every month for a new issue, you paid twelve bucks twice a year.
Oh yeah, and got a $150 million movie instead of a 32-page funnybook.
Iron Man set the pace for that grand experiment, but Thor had to take the brunt of it. It was the first MCU movie out of the gate after Robert Downey's first two outings...and the first real test to see if this nutty idea was going to work. It did: not quite as big as Iron Man, granted, but with a healthy $450 million box office gross against a $150 million budget.
And did that with a character who wasn't too well known outside of comic book fandoms…and without a big star like Downey Jr.
Take that, stuffy academics.
Director Kenneth Branagh made his name with the film version Big Willy Shakespeare's Henry V, which is the story of a young king trying to prove himself against long odds.
But it's actually a sequel of sorts…and, more properly, the last chapter to a trilogy. (See? Hollywood didn't invent the sequel game: not by a long shot.)
It's preceded by the two parts of Henry IV, which detail Henry V when he was a headstrong young man named Hal.
His father, Henry IV worries about whether or not Hal will be up for the job as king: he's busy spending his nights partying like it's 1599 and waking in a pile of empty ale mugs and barroom wenches. The elder Henry actually prefers Percy Hotspur, who isn't actually his son, but who holds a lot of the qualities that would make a good king.
Here's a quote from Shakespeare to make our point:
HENRY IV: Yea, there thou mak'st me sad, and mak'st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of Honor's tongue,
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride;
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. (Act I, scene 1, lines 77-85)
Sound familiar? Loki, who isn't Odin's biological son, may actually be a better candidate for king than Thor, who is. (Mostly because Loki doesn't go picking fights with frost giants on a whim.) The central part of Thor'splot borrows this idea wholesale: a troubled relationship between fathers and sons, andthe power of a kingdom that lies in the balance. Odin lavishes Thor with his favor by naming him heir, and Thor wantonly abuses it.
ODIN: I was a fool to think you were ready.
In point of fact, Loki's better king material: he's crafty, he keeps his options open, he forges unlikely alliances, and he's definitely a big picture kind of guy. Okay, so that's accompanied by treachery and deceit, but it's kind of a package deal.
LOKI: I love Thor more dearly than any of you, but you know what he is. He's arrogant, he's reckless, he's dangerous! You saw how he was today! Is that what Asgard needs from its king?
SIF: He may speak of the good of Asgard, but he has always been jealous of Thor!
The thing is, both of them are right. And that leaves Odin in a bit of a pickle as far as the future of his kingdom goes: pick the reckless real son who has some good qualities…but tends to bash before he thinks? Or go with the adopted son who can't be trusted…but might actually do a better job of being king?
All of that comes from Henry IV. And just like Henry IV, the solution to Odin's dilemma eventually presents itself. Hal finally figures out that he can't keep boozing and womanizing, and even tosses aside his drinking buddies who actually aren't good buddies after all. (One of them, named Falstaff, is a dark sort of father figure for young Hal, and is ultimately rejected at the end of the play.)
He even does battle with Percy Hotspur, with the throne of England at stake, and emerges triumphant while proving that his bad boy days are behind him.
Thor does the same thing. He learns that he has responsibilities beyond just breaking glasses and starting wars with frost giants. He shows that he can be a better king than Loki, and eventually earns his father's respect: restoring the proper line of ascension and ensuring that Asgard doesn't fall into the hands of a sneaky git.
ODIN: You'll be a wise king.
THOR: There will never be a wiser king than you. Or a better father. I have much to learn. I know that now. One day, perhaps, I will make you proud.
That's the way Hal acts when he picks up his responsibility. The parallels are subtle, but you can definitely spot them, and knowing the director, he's sure to put them front and center where we can spot them easily. For example check out this line of dialogue from Odin, explaining his basic dilemma to his two sons.
ODIN: Only one of you can ascend to the throne. But both of you were born to be kings!
Now here's a piece of dialogue from Henry, where Hal says pretty much the same thing.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign,
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales. (Act V, Scene 4, lines 64-66)
The more you look, the more those parallels come forward, giving Thor a literary heft that other superhero moves lack. (Unless we can prove that Iron Man is actually a reimagined Great Gatsby…)
Its formal name is Mjolnir…and those comic book guys didn't even have to make that odd-sounding name up.
The hammer of Thor was always a part of the figure, going back thousands of years to when bashing people upside the heads with hammers was a lot more socially acceptable. In the myths, it was so heavy that Thor had to use special gloves to hold it. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby altered that slightly to say that only those worthy could lift it.
Here, it becomes a neat little symbol for all of Thor's power. With it, he can literally call down lightning from the sky, as well as bashing giant space robots real good…and even using it to fly. Without it, he's just another underwear model running around broke on the streets of Anytown, USA.
He's a god, but he needs to be worthy of that godhood. And you can see that in Odin's line about the hammer:
ODIN: So long entrusted with the mighty hammer Mjolnir, forged in the heart of a dying star. Its power has no equal, as a weapon to destroy or as a tool to build. It is a fit companion for a king.
Thor's problem is that he takes that for granted. He doesn't understand the responsibilities of the power he wields. He's like a kid with a can of mace, so nuts about what he can do with it that he never thinks about what he should do with it.
But in a flash, it's gone…and he's going to have to work really hard to get that magic hammer back.
And this hammerlessness spurs on a plot, a Hero's Journey, and the story of a giant jerkwad aspiring to be less jerkwaddy.
As Thor soon learns, he's got to do a lot more than just beat up a few SHIELD agents to get to his precious hammer. He needs to learn; to accept the reality of self-sacrifice and to put his money where he mouth is in the hero department.
THOR: Brother, however I have wronged you, whatever I have done that has led you to do this, I am truly sorry. But these people are innocent, taking their lives will gain you nothing. So take mine, and end this.
That's what gives him the ability to make with the lightning and thunder. Not his lineage, but his attitude.
The Bifrost Bridge is straight out of mythology: a rainbow that the Norse Gods use to conveniently get back and forth to the mortal world. Here's it's pretty much the same thing: an easy way to get Thor and his buddies from Point A to Point B without thinking about it too much.
The symbolism comes in its connection between Asgard and Earth, and what happens when that connection is cut off. For most of the film, Thor doesn't get to use the Bifrost, since he's in big trouble with his dad: reminding us that "exile" is for real in this universe.
That comes full-circle at the end, when Thor pretty much beats up the Bifrost in order to stop Loki for killing all the frost giants. Early on, it's a reminder that he's done wrong. At the end, though, he chooses to sever that connection for a greater good, even though he knows he's be cut off from someone he cares about again.
First he's stuck without it, and then he chooses to destroy it because it's the right thing to do. That makes it a good symbol for what he's learned during the movie, and how his actions help define him as a hero.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
For a film that's basically one big mythic symbol after another, its version of the Hero's Journey is kind of unique in that the young hero starts out with all the power in the universe and loses it, rather than starting out with nothing and gaining it.
In this case, the "ordinary" world is Asgard under Odin: his rule is stable, his son goes out and hits things for him, and everyone's pretty much okay with that.
The call to adventure comes when the frost giants breach Asgard on the day Thor's named heir. It's Thor's first chance to show what kind of a leader he can be, and represents a danger to all those space-age Robin Hood types hanging around Asgard. This one's all yours, big guy. What's the call?
Okay, that's a bad call. Instead of behaving in a noble and kingly fashion—weighing the alternative responses to the frost giant incursion, and selecting the one that will best keep Asgard safe—Thor decides to defy his king and go off with his buddies for a full-bore giant bash.
In the process, he starts a new war between Asgard and Jotunheim. It may seem like he's answering the call to adventure here (because monster thumping), but in fact, it's a refusal: continuing to live in an adolescent power fantasy instead of accepting his greater responsibilities. Bad Thor. No kingdom for you.
The mentor, in part, is Odin, who has been with Thor since he was a little kid and kicks off his adventure by punishing him for refusing the call. It's definitely of the 'tough love" variety, but as Frigga says,
FRIGGA: There's always a purpose to everything your father does.
In other words, Odin isn't just kicking Thor out, but giving him an opportunity to grow the heck up by stripping him of his power.
That's Mentor #1. Mentor #2 is likely Erik Selvig (and Jane Foster and even Darcy, who can taser disoriented former gods with the best of them), who literally run into Thor when he first arrives on Earth and help him catch his breath in his newer, browner world.
No question where this arrives in the movie: it's when Thor is cast out of Asgard and lands in New Mexico with nary a cosmic speed bump to slow him down.
Again, this runs counter to most expectations about the Hero's Journey: usually you're leaving the boring place (like the desert) to got to somewhere shiny and exciting (like the alien city run by ancient Norse gods). Here it's the reverse: with the desert being the exotic destination instead of the get-me-out-of-here starting point.
But look at it from Thor's perspective. Asgard is his home, the only one he's ever known. Earth? Kind of a dump, and a dump he doesn't know very well. He can't figure out the customs, he has grossly misinformed views about pet shops, and oh yeah: if you hit him, he's going to get hurt just like everyone else. That's new and scary for him: a strange place with rules he needs to pick up in a hurry.
This part, at least, feels more in keeping with the classic Hero's Journey we know and love.
Thor needs to first extract himself from the hospital (with a little help from Jane & Co.), then take back his hammer (epic fail, but he does score Jane's notebook for her), then drink Erik under the table (check), then face down the Destroyer with nothing but a comfortable flannel shirt to help him.
He has some good friends to pick up the slack (despite the fact that they run him over a couple of times), a secret enemy to thwart him (Loki… why are you so bitter?), and a few irritating folks like Agent Coulson.
Notice during these trials, however, that Thor doesn't take a literal journey so much as a spiritual one. He doesn't travel far beyond the tiny New Mexico town where he first finds himself, but each step helps him become a little less selfish and a little more mature.
Take Jane's notebook, for example. He didn't have to nab it when he went back for his hammer. But he did, ensuring that she got what she needed even though he didn't.
Then there's the drinking with Erik. He's drinking mainly because he's taken a long, hard look at himself and doesn't like what he sees.
THOR: I had it all backwards. I had it all wrong.
It's the end of a long night, but the beginning of something more: a better Thor, who might just be worthy of all the power his status gives him.
In keeping with Thor's "do the opposite of what we expect" approach, the inmost cave is actually outside, in the street, in broad daylight. When the Destroyer comes a'calling, Thor's friends (Asgardian and otherwise) are put in grave peril (as is that New Mexico town, which did nothing more that offer Thor a delicious cup of coffee when he first arrived).
Thor's gotta stop it—with no hammer, no powers, and no dad to help him out.
Self-sacrifice is very big with Joseph Campbell, and Thor finally figures that out by choosing to give himself to Loki rather than risk the lives of anyone else. He walks out, unarmed, and tells Loki he's sorry, then asks him to kill him and let it end.
Loki complies, because he's a jerk, and Thor, having learned what it really means to be a hero, allows himself to expire peacefully.
But wait. Having finally figured out what Odin was trying so desperately to teach him, Thor gets an instant infusion of Back from the Dead. His hammer comes flying back into his hands, restoring his godhood and giving him the power to bash Loki but good.
Once the Destroyer is, um, destroyed and Agent Coulson's attitude corrected, Thor's still got to get back to Asgard to stop Loki's coup and maybe bring his father back to life.
He's got his mojo back, but he can't just sit around and appreciate his reclaimed ability to toss that hammer around. He's got an evil adopted brother to put in his place.
Technically speaking, resurrection actually occurs earlier in the film: when Thor literally dies on the street in New Mexico, only to be gloriously returned to life thanks to the power of Mjolnir Fu.
We're going to leave it there since it's a tad on the nose, though you might also say that his return to Asgard represents his spiritual resurrection rather than his literal one.
The elixir in this case is purely a spiritual one, but don't think the people of Asgard don't appreciate it. For starters, they get Thor back—a chastened, humble Thor who's probably going to be much less of a jerk during their Friday night keggers.
Odin also wakes up, there to keep leading the kingdom for a few more centuries or so before Thor finally picks up the reins. Loki is out of the picture, at least for now, and while the Bifrost Bridge is forty kinds of broken, no one's living under the threat of war anymore.
We'd say that's a pretty good haul, from a spiritual sense, and worth downing a few tankards of mead in praise of the pouty little prince who did a whole lot of growing up to make it happen.
With the exception of a few brief side trips to the frost giant realm of Jotunheim, the films action stays limited to two places: the fictional town of Puente Antiguo, New Mexico, and the Realm Eternal…otherwise known as Asgard.
Let's break them down one at a time.
Puente Antiguo, New Mexico is actually a bit of a surprise when it comes to Marvel Comics. The MCU likes sticking to New York City, where the studio was based when they came up with all of these characters, and which shows up prominently in a number of Marvel movies.
So why The Land of Enchantment? Is Thor going to break bad?
In part, it makes a sensible setting for us to find an astrophysicist like Jane Foster, who couldn't do much stargazing in light-choked Manhattan. It also has a stark physical beauty that seems in keeping with a guy the Vikings used to worship as a god, and can provide the sort of flat vistas that make those sudden arrivals from the Realm Eternal easy to spot from miles away.
So from a plot perspective, it makes perfect sense, as well as giving it a visual style that sets it apart from the jet-setting So Cal of the Iron Man films and the patriotic Washington DC of the Captain America sequels.
Director Kenneth Branagh built a whole miniature town out in the desert, which we're pretty sure you couldn't do in New York. Finally, its flat and stark features make it a great counterbalance to the film's other big setting…which is rather busy.
Luckily for Branagh, he didn't have to go on location to Asgard. It's all green screens for him and his crew, which gives them all kinds of room to run and play. As we said above, it's busy in the Realm Eternal…and that's definitely by design.
For Asgard, Thor drew its main visual inspiration from Jack Kirby, who illustrated the original Thor comics and who most comic book fans periodically sacrifice livestock to—he's just that beloved. He stressed the marriage of high tech and classic architecture: stressing a future society that still looked like something out of an older world.
In the movie, they toned down the visual pop of the original comic colors a bit. But the hectic-ness of Asgard is still there, as is the sense that we're looking at the joining of the future and the past.
This ensures that the tone and spirit of the comics stayed the same for Thor's big-screen appearance. Also, it gives mad props to Kirby, and successfully conveys the sense that Asgard is a massive galactic center.
But most importantly, it gives us the feeling of Asgard as part of the Marvel Universe…and that it exists in the same realm as Tony Stark's mansion.
Riddle us this, Caped Crusader: what happens when you have traditional third person omniscient narrative narrated by an actual god?
The presumption with usual third-person narrative is that we're seeing it from the eyes of God: able to go anywhere and see anything so long as it moves the narration forward. Cheekier scholars have suggested that it makes the author or movie director something of a god, since he or she can move our perceptions in a similar manner. (And we're pretty sure at least some of them—*cough, Orson Welles, *cough—considered themselves gods.)
Either way, we're getting our narration straight from Odin, who gives us a voice-over early on to explain how his peeps used to do things back in the day…and to set up some rules for this big universe that they're trying to show us.
It gives a funky wrinkle to the otherwise standard-issue narrative technique, since he (with a little help from Heimdall) can probably see exactly what we're seeing and—if he's literally telling us the story like the voice-over suggests—guiding our sight to where we need to go.
That's taking deus ex machina to a whole new level.
Superhero movies practically constitute a genre all their own these days, but that usually means a healthy mix of adventure and science fiction.
The Asgardians are technically aliens here, with their high-tech gizmos and willingness to zap people with bolts of energy. But comic book movies also form a kind of adventure story, especially with Thor, where we've got lots of magical creatures and mystic threats from the realms beyond running around.
Thor definitely trends more towards adventure than science fiction—making it fairly unique among comic book movies—but you can't deny the one-two-punch of both genres that sets this story up.
More specifically, we have a quest: a mission to get back something that was lost and maybe learn a few lessons about not being a petty little god in the interim. Quests can usually be folded into the larger adventure genre, but it's pretty specific here (more so than a lot of Marvel's other movies) so we thought we'd give it a shout-out.
Finally, Thor's a parable, which in this case encompasses earlier myths and folklore that Thor sprung from, but also adds a little twist: a lesson. Thor's very much like a character in Aesop or the Brothers Grimm, who has to figure out a little bit more about how life works before he can be happy and at peace. The mythic influence is there, to be sure, but this time they come with a definite message.
We'd like to discuss the deep significance of this title, and how it invests the film with all kinds of subtle nuance and meaning…but that would be a lie.
They're cutting to the chase as quickly as they can here. It's called Thor because it's about a god named Thor. Ta-da!
When coupled with the simple-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness poster—a close-up of Hemsworth's face in red—it adds up to a get-to-the-point title that wants to get on with the business of superhero-ing as quickly as possible.
Let's see…earth safe from the Destroyer? Check. Thor, wiser, humbler and hammer-enabled again? Check. Loki, sucked into whirling space vortex from which there is presumably no escape? Check.
Sounds like a happy ending to us.
Except that Asgard is cut off from the rest of the universe, Jane and Thor don't get to take long walks on the seashore anymore, and Loki is only maybe dead.
For a happy ending, it sure leaves a lot of plot threads open. And once you add that post-credits cookie where Loki is definitely up to no good, suddenly that neat, tidy happy ending looks a whole lot messier.
That, of course, is by design. By the time Thor came out, Marvel's Very Impressive Franchise plans were coming to fruition. The first two Iron Man movies were big hits, and Captain America: The First Avenger was getting ready to cement the plan.
Even if Thor had bombed (it didn't), Marvel was still ready to set up The Avengers… and presumably more films beyond that if everything went well (it did). That meant they had to leave a few threads open for later resolution: a villain on the loose and a girlfriend stuck on boring old Earth while our hero broods in shiny happy Asgard.
The filmmakers have to do that without denying us the satisfaction of a happy ending. The ending of Thor strikes the right balance that leaves us satisfied while making us eager for more. The immediate threat is disposed of and our main character is relatively safe…but several notable threads are still in need of tidying up.
That balance was actually Marvel's bread-and-butter long before they got into the ginormous blockbuster business. Comic books always played the cliffhanger card as a way of getting you back into the store next month to purchase the next issue. They had long, involved arcs taking up multiple months, but had to balance that against the fact that bad guys had to be beaten.
By the time Thor rolled around, Marvel had perfected this into an art form, and anyone who knew comics back in the day could spot the give-and-take between leaving 'em happy and making them beg for more here.
And frankly, there's more to that than just getting us back in theaters for The Avengers (or Thor: The Dark World for that matter). One of the goals of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to simply transfer the experience of being a comic book fan to the big screen. Old school comic bookies can tell you that special feeling of walking into the shop when the new issues arrived, and that sense of excitement at finding out what was going to happen next.
The MCU aims to do the same thing: construct a huge arc stretching over multiple movies that matches the same feeling as a big arc in comics. The only difference is you're buying a movie ticket once every six months instead of a new issue every four weeks.
The rating is PG-13 because: shirtless Chris Hemsworth (you're welcome, folks).
Oh, and because the fights tend to be kind of pound-y.
That said, the fights are definitely of the comic book variety (we're pretty sure no naïve kids out there are going to try throwing their hammer through a giant ice monster) and most of the hard hitting involves frost giants, space robots and various other Things We'll Never See in Real Life.
And the sex? We got to be honest: there's some heat between Thor and Jane (and Thor and Sif, for that matter.) But it's pretty chaste—beyond some steamy kisses, we stay pretty much in the vicinity of first base.