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.
Call to Adventure
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?
Refusal of 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.
Meeting the Mentor
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.
Crossing The Threshold
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.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
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.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
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.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
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.
The Road Back
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.
Return With The Elixir
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.