On the surface, Thor is exactly, precisely what we think heroes should be. Tall, handsome, impossibly strong, and happy to go out and bash his people's enemies because…well, because bashing them is for fun than a barrel of Nordic ice monkeys.
He's also the son of the King of the Gods, a crown prince with a cosmic throne waiting for him. In short, he's got the whole universe on a string.
But the fact that he's basically what you think of when you close your eyes and think "hero" is actually a bad thing…for a couple of reasons.
Check out his exchange with Odin after he goes into Jotunheim and starts a war…which is pretty much exactly, precisely what Odin tells him not to do.
THOR: The Jotuns must pay for what they have done!
ODIN: They have paid, with their lives. The Destroyer did its work, the Casket is safe, and all is well.
THOR: All is well? They broke into the weapons vault! If the frost giants have stolen even one of these relics...
ODIN: They didn't.
THOR: Well I want to know why!
Simmer down, Thor. It's obvious that his righteous anger is getting in the way of him being an effective ruler…since he's getting hot under the collar about something that didn't even happen.
Thor's journey leads him, not just to save the universe or protect the innocent, but also to lose some of his egotistical jerkbagginess. His isn't a rags-to-riches story: it's a riches-to-rags story. Think of Thor as a superhero version of Scrooge—dude has to be taken down a few pegs to see what makes life worth living.
Thor's a powerful guy, but he's got a lot to learn about being a hero. Early in the film, we don't really like him any more than Loki does, and it's pretty satisfying to watch him get stripped him of all his glory and see this unstoppable deity saddled with some real vulnerabilities.
Because that's the key to Thor's transformation: he goes from being foolish to being wise. He has to learn to look out for others instead of himself and use his powers in the right way instead of just thumping big things that irritate him.
We see that in a big way when he fights his way to his precious hammer…only to find that he can't lift it. Being worthy of the hammer, it seems, doesn't mean just being the toughest dude in Midgard.
As he explains to Erik over a beer:
THOR: You know, I had it all backwards. I had it all wrong.
ERIK: It's not a bad thing finding out that you don't have all the answers. You start asking the right questions.
THOR: For the first time in my life, I have no idea what I'm supposed to do.
ERIK: Anyone who's ever going to find his way in this world, has to start by admitting he doesn't know.
His journey is a spiritual one—though, in keeping with the needs of a summer event picture, it still involves plenty of bashing. (We're not complaining.)
But lest you think that Thor goes from Norse god to sensitive poet-type—he doesn't. He goes from jerky lunkhead to beneficent lunkhead. And we love him for it.
Even when he's accepted the responsibilities of the throne and grown up to be a nice, responsible god of thunder, he prefers bashing his way through a problem than thinking through it. Terrible truth: he's just not all that good at thinking (though he has clever moments).
Most of the time though, he abides by the theory of "hit that thing until it stops." When he wrecks the Bifrost Bridge rather than let Loki destroy Jotunheim, even Loki seems shocked at his lack of forethought:
LOKI: What are you doing? If you destroy the Bridge, you'll never see her again!
But Thor's late-inning bash-fest still reflects his newfound principles. Sure, he's busting up the Bifrost…but his doing so not only saves lives (even frost giant lives), but represents a real sacrifice on his part, since it cuts him off from Jane.
A god's gotta do what a god's gotta do.
And that hundred and eighty degree shift—from selfishness to selflessness—represents the key part of being a hero. Thor's technique hasn't changed, but the way he applies it has. That means from now on he'll do his bashing only for good, and put others ahead of himself when the time to bash arises.
He earns a great deal of humility too: that swagger has been knocked out of his stride, but that's made him a better man-god. In the end, when he hugs it out with Odin, he makes it pretty clear how much he's changed:
ODIN: You will 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. Someday, perhaps, I shall make you proud.
Aww, shucks. That should be on a Father's Day Hallmark card.
Thor doesn't quite take the path that most other heroes take—but that's part of what makes him unique. Thor is an awesome character (he definitely inspires awe) but not because he's made the complicated discovery of his own superpowers, a la Iron Man.
Instead, he's made a different kind of complicated discovery: he's learned that being strong doesn't make you a hero, and that having superpowers means nothing unless you use them the right way.
Oh yeah—and he also learns that smashing your coffee cup on a diner floor and bellowing:
THOR: This drink. I like it. Another!
…is not the way to get a free refill of delicious bean juice. (Always tip your waitress, y'all.)
Oily smile? Check. Restless, conniving eyes? Check. Plans of world domination? Check.
Yup: Loki's our villain.
If you check out Loki in the original comics from the 1960's, he's a supremely boring character—just another powerful villain in a silly suit out to rule the world, because: evil.
But if you read the old Norse myths, he's a lot more interesting than that. And with a Shakespearean actor working under a Shakespearean director, you can rest assured that Loki's warped ways and twisted nuances are front and center in Thor.
We first see Loki as Thor's brother, and the two appear to be the best of buds. Loki's a prince, too, of course, and while he won't ever be king, he's still in the same boat with the powers and the invulnerability and whatnot.
His powers are a little different though—he can cast illusions instead of hitting people with a hammer—and accordingly, he's much more of a sneak.
Turns out, there's a mythological precedent for that. The Norse god Loki was a trickster figure: a kind of deity whose job it was to make things as difficult for the hero as possible. Trickster figures would throw riddles the hero, tempt the hero with visions that never existed, and essentially compounded the difficulty of the whole being-a-hero thing.
And all of this trickiness was designed to help the hero grow. Tricksters weren't evil, exactly. Just difficult.
And by giving the hero such a hard time, they enabled the hero to overcome his limitations and evolve into the person he or she was meant to be. So how do they do this?
Step one in the Trickster Figure Handbook For Schooling Heroes is clear: plotting the heroes' downfall in a slick manner.
Loki's one silver-tongued devil. If he had been born a human instead of a Norse god, we're pretty sure he'd end up following in Saul Goodman's sleazy footsteps.
He's a smart cookie—he knows how to read people's insecurities, and he knows exactly how to get them to do exactly what he wants them to do…while thinking that they've made their own decisions.
Just check out how Loki talks to Thor early on, after Thor's big day is ruined by frost giants:
LOKI: If it's any consolation, I think you're right. About the frost giants, about Laufey, about everything. If they were able to slip past Asgard's defenses once, who's to say they won't try again? Next time with an army.
LOKI: There's nothing you can do without defying Father.
[Thor looks at Loki]
LOKI: No! No, no, no, no! I know that look!
THOR: It's the only way to ensure the safety of our borders!
LOKI: Thor, it's madness!
Loki's so crafty, we want to coo "Clever girl" at him, Jurassic Park -style.
Like a pack of velociraptors, Loki gets Thor in exactly the position he wants him to be. But unlike a velociraptor, Loki essentially signs Thor's death warrant without Thor catching on to his dastardly ways. He manages to do bad while looking good—and we mean "good" as in "virtuous," although articles like "TEXT Tom Hiddelston's Loki Is a Sex Icon For Deathly Pale People Everywhere" and a whole lot of spicy fanfic prove that this trickster figure is also considered a hottie.
But trickster figures are usually born to lose—and to make the heroes stronger. By hustling Thor—and everyone else for that matter—Loki forces the good guys to think outside the box in order to beat him. That helps them grow and change, and eventually learn what they need to in order to become heroes.
THOR: You're a talented liar, brother. Always have been.
Thor is a dude who has always relied on his brawn and not his brain…so Loki's manipulations make Thor strengthen his cerebral muscles in order to best his baby bro. (It's always a good idea to alternate arm day and leg day with some Sudoku.)
But Thor gives us a nuanced take on Loki…maybe because they realized he'd become the most popular character in the Thor-iverse. (Source)
Part of the reason he's so beloved—besides Tom Hiddelston's trademark sassy smirk, of course—is the fact that he's kind of the underdog. After all, he finds himself in a family that he suspects doesn't quite want him. He's an orphaned frost giant, and, in his mind he's never going to quite be accepted.
To pour salt in the wounds of being an orphan, his adopted pops lied to him about his orphanage. That's kind of messed up by any standards…and it's more messed up to realize one day that you're the children of the people your family considers to be mortal enemies:
LOKI: You could have told me what I was from the beginning! Why didn't you?
ODIN: You're my son... I wanted only to protect you from the truth...
LOKI: What, because I... I... I am the monster parents tell their children about at night? […] You know, it all makes sense now, why you favored Thor all these years, because no matter how much you claim to love me, you could never have a frost giant sitting on the throne of Asgard!
We admit it: our hearts go out to poor Loki. If this were a different story, with a different kind of magic, Loki would be Cinderella: the poor, less-loved, less-legitimate heir to a prosperous household.
The realization of his true family background make all of his actions—seizing the throne, keeping Thor banished, even inadvertently sending Odin into his Sleeping Beauty routine—a little more understandable. After all, all he's trying to do is prove that he's worthy of being Odin's son.
LOKI: I never wanted the throne, I only ever wanted to be your equal!
But unfortunately, he decides that total war is the way to go about proving his worth. Come on, Loki—for a guy who's so smart, you must have realized that your dear old adopted dad is big on the whole "self sacrifice" thing.
We give you an "A" for effort, but a big fat "F" for thinking things through (and being a genocidal maniac).
No action movie would be complete without a little romance, right? Meet Jane. Thor is her Tarzan…and she's Thor's none-too-plain Jane.
She's also a physicist, which is the reason she keeps following up on that weird blonde guy with the funny way of talking. (His thirty-six-pack abs probably don't exactly hurt.)
She starts out in New Mexico cataloguing astrological phenomenon, which turns out to be Asgardians zipping around with help from the Bifrost Bridge. She thinks it's an Einstein-Rosen bridge (another way of saying a wormhole) and as it turns out, this is an actual thing. (Source)
Imagine her surprise when her computer imaging spots a man's form in one of those bridges…and imagine her much bigger surprise when that man turns out to be Thor.
JANE: Well, if there's an Einstein-Rosen bridge, then there's something on the other side. And advanced beings could have crossed it!
ERIK: Oh, Jane.
DARCY: A primitive culture like the Vikings might have worshiped them as deities.
JANE: Yes! Yes, exactly. Thank you.
So she's following the leads on her theory, which gives her a good excuse to be around Thor for more of the film.
But there's more to her attraction to the man besides an academic paper (and his muffin-sized pectorals). She gets to see Thor the way no one else does. And no, we're not talking about her scientific studies into whatever shot Thor from Asgard to Earth.
When she first sees Thor, he's just lost everything—his power, his title, his friends—and been chucked out of Asgard like a Hail Mary thrown by Peyton Manning. To top it all, she runs him over with her truck just as he lands. It's pretty much a low point for the god of thunder… and just as he looks up, she sees his face: lost, hurt, frightened and perplexed.
It's a big moment, and it gives her some sympathy for Thor that no one else holds. When added to the mysteries of the cosmos that he promises to reveal, it's no wonder than she ends up sticking to him like glue.
Like Thor, Odin comes from mythology, and a lot of his traits are ported over straight from Norse mythology-land. The OG Odin had one eye, raven spies, and even an eight-legged horse…which is why he gets that weird shot of his horse in Jotunheim.
The movie sticks close to those details, but emphasizes the whole "king" part in the "king of the gods" job description. He's got responsibilities: Asgard depends on him for safety and, while he thrashed those frost giants good back in the day, he's not exactly eager to go to war again.
He's learned what kind of horrors that would unleash, and he's not about to let anyone start that up again…least of all his tantrum-throwing son. We get this early on, when he tells the very young Thor not to get too big for his britches.
THOR: When I am king, I'll hunt the monsters down and slay them all! Just as you did, Father!
ODIN: A wise king never seeks out war. But he must always be ready for it.
Words of wisdom from daddy-o.
And as part of always being prepared, he has to get his son ready to take his place. He may be a god, but he can still be killed (though it's presumably extremely tough), and he may eventually die of old age as well. That means sooner or later, Thor's going to get the big seat, and when he does, it's Odin's job to be sure he's ready for it.
Clearly that's going to take some tough love: Thor's kind of a jerk, and a guy like Odin cannot have jerks taking his place.
ODIN: You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!
THOR: And you are an old man and a fool!
ODIN: Yes... I was a fool, to think you were ready.
So he tosses his first-born to New Mexico to teach him a lesson. He hopes and wishes that Thor will grow up, but realizes that Thor is too much of a lunkhead to do it from the lap of luxury that is Asgard. Unlike Thor, he's not doing it out of anger (okay, not much), but because it's necessary to get Thor ready for grown-up duties.
As Frigga puts it:
FRIGGA: There's always a purpose to everything your father does.
That makes him a mentor similar to Gandalf (he's even got the beard to prove it): an old man weighed by a huge burden. He knows that with great power comes great responsibility…and his main job here is making sure Thor figures that out.
Thor has Odin to mentor him. Loki has his own raging ego to mentor him. And Jane has Erik.
Erik's Jane's father's friend, and he's here to help her with her research…and provide plenty of plot exposition when needed. He's a Swedish scientist, which means that not only that he knows tons about astrophysics, but he can more or less recognize Asgardian gods on site.
A skeptic at first, he wants to protect Jane from Thor, who he views as nuttier than a Snickers bar. Erik's suspicions that Thor has a screw loose start when Thor wanders through town, looking for his hammer:
ERIK: He's delusional! Listen to what he's saying! He's talking about Mjolnir and Thor and Bifrost! These are the stories I grew up with as a child!
That's basic mentor activity right there: protecting Jane from perceived danger, even when she really, really doesn't want to listen.
But Erik eventually acts as a mentor to Thor too: he helps Thor understand the world he's now living in, and he urges him to swallow his pride in order to be a better person. He makes the admission when the two are getting drunk at the local tavern.
THOR: You know, I had it all backwards. I had it all wrong.
ERIK: It's not a bad thing finding out that you don't have all the answers. You start asking the right questions.
While mentoring Thor, Erik's suspicions begin to drop…to the point where he begins to suspect the big guy is more than just a crank. Just listen to him when he gets back to Jane's trailer after the epic drinking.
ERIK: I still don't think you're the god of thunder. But you ought to be!
Even mentors have some things to learn sometimes, and in his efforts to put the young 'uns (even the 5,000-year-old ones) on the right track, he ends up finding out more than he ever could have imagined. Not a bad deal for a scientist.
In some ways, Heimdall's a walking plot device, able to get characters from Point A to Point B with his CGI sword-in-the-stone gizmo. In the myths, Heimdall was the silent guardian of Asgard, keeping perpetual watch it…as well as any villains that might come barreling towards it with pointy teeth bared.
The filmmakers parleyed that job into a viable set of character traits: loyal, duty-bound, soft-spoken and steadfast. He's got skills in the Comic Book-y Throwdown department—that sword of his can do some damage—but he can't top Thor or even the Warriors Three on that front.
No, his real power is being able to see the whole universe in an instant, and pick out the tiniest detail from amid that vast cauldron of Carl Sagan stardust.
That comes in handy when he needs to teleport his buddies into and out of monster-ridden ice balls…as do his sacred vows, his duties, and the fact that he takes them both extremely seriously.
Unfortunately for Thor, that doesn't always mean kow-towing to Thor's wishes. Heimdall does what Thor wants early on—by sending him and his buddies to Jotunheim—but makes it clear that he has his own reasons for wanting to, instead of just saluting to Little Prince Chestbeater and following orders.
HEIMDALL: You think you can deceive me.
LOKI: You must be mistaken...
THOR: Enough! Heimdall, may we pass?
HEIMDALL: Never has an enemy escaped my watch until this day. I want to know how it happened.
Also, check out his adamant refusal to open the Bifrost for Thor until he's sat on Earth for a good long time and thought about what he's done.
Luckily for Thor, that cuts both ways. Heimdall's loyalty and commitment to his guard duty doesn't preclude breaking the rules. Or rather, following the letter of the rules while blithely ignoring the spirit.
Nowhere is that more clear than when Loki's in charge and starts throwing his weight around:
HEIMDALL: Tell me, Loki, how did you lead the Jotuns into Asgard?
LOKI: Do you think the Bifrost is the only way in and out of this realm? There are passages between worlds to which even you, with all your gifts, are blind. But I have need of them no longer, now that I am king. And I say, for your act of treason, you are relieved of your duties as gatekeeper and no longer citizen of Asgard!
HEIMDALL: Then I need no longer obey you!
That puts him in the position of foil: a guy who's ultimately on Thor's side, but has his own way of doing things. He's going to help when it's expedient to do so, but he won't make it easy on Thor.
Thor's got to earn that magic trip over the rainbow, because this Gloomy Gus ain't gonna give it to him.
According to the myths, Lady Sif was Thor's wife, with golden hair and eyes only for him.
The comic book version is a little more complicated. Her hair is black for starters—a trick played on her by Loki—and the love of her (immortal) life has other gals he sees, despite her clear and obvious adoration of him. Fifty years of comics leads to a lot of ups and downs like that.
For the movie, a certain amount of simplification is in order, with a lot of stuff left unsaid. They keep Sif's dark hair by not asking Noted Brunette Jaimie Alexander to get it dyed, and as for her romantic ties with Thor? They're reduced to some longing looks and the implication—never directly stated—that she and Thor once had a thing together. They go deeper into that in the sequel, Thor: The Dark World, but for now, we're left only with hints and suggestions.
We do know that she seems pretty much okay with it all: smiling and laughing with Thor and not letting him get away with taking too much credit while still staying friends. Just look at the first thing she says in the film:
THOR: And who proved wrong all who scoffed at the idea that a young maiden could be one of the fiercest warriors this Realm has ever known?
SIF: I did.
THOR: True, but I supported you!
Loyalty, in fact, is her main motivation here: backing Thor's play, whatever it may be and standing by him even when he gets exiled to Earth. She can spot Loki's jealousy, and smells a rat when he takes over, ensuring that Thor has someone minding the store in Asgard while he's off dealing with the whole "dad's mad at me" thing.
Eventually, she travels to Earth to bring him home, and even stands up to the Destroyer while Thor is still powerless in the big CGI finale:
SIF: No! I will die a warrior's death. Stories will be told of this day!
THOR: Live, and tell those stories yourself.
That makes her something of a sidekick to Thor, able to be there for everyone when he's distracted and lend him a hand when he needs it. Her ferocious loyalty to Thor means that she'll always have his back, and while we like our female characters to be their own heroes instead of playing second fiddle to the boys, we have to admit we're fond of this particular version: tough, brave, standing by her friends, and willing to do the right thing even when it gets you into trouble.
That makes her more of a hero than a sidekick in our book, and we're glad Thor gives her room to show everyone why.
Most heroes have one sidekick, but when you're the god of thunder, you go big or go home.
On top of Sif, he has three other guys who get to be his best bud: Fandral (Josh Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), collectively known as the Warriors Three. They act as a Thor support squad and all-around good buddies, serving as back-up sidekicks in the event the main sidekick goes down.
As such, they're pretty simple personality-wise: there to provide Thor with some hangers on and leaving the depth of personality to figures with more screen time. Like Sif, they're loyal to a fault, ready to join Thor anytime he needs a little back-up.
Fandral's the swashbuckler: the kind of guy who laughs a lot and fences you with one hand while holding a glass of wine in the other (preferably on top of a table in a bar somewhere). Hogun is stoic, refusing to talk much and watching and observing more than speaking (you'll notice he doesn't have much dialogue here; that's not a mistake). And Volstagg…Volstagg likes to eat, though that doesn't stop him from taking down frost giants with the best of them.
Individually, they're not hugely interesting, but put them together, and they've got some pop: proof that three sidekicks can sometimes be a lot cooler than one.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: these guys didn't come from any ancient myths or legends. They were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the course of the Thor comics and belong solely to the Marvel Universe. We actually find that really cool: a sign that Lee and Kirby really were devoted to evoking ancient myths in their modern comic book.
Hey, Thor has loads of sidekicks—why shouldn't his girlfriend have one too?
Darcy is Jane's intern, there to take notes, carry heavy equipment and do all of the other things academic types require. As such she's basically along for the ride, there to provide a few moments of comic relief like when she first spots Thor's overall hunkiness.
DARCY: Does he need CPR? Because I totally know CPR!
It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. And with Jane still not sure whether Thor is barking mad or not – and with Erik far more mentor than friend – she needs a good buddy like Darcy to back her play… just like Thor does.
Do Coulson's scenes feel a little tacked on to you? Like they're coming in from another movie that has nothing to do with kings of Asgard, frost giant stepsons, and "but I want to rule all beneath my iron fist" declarations?
That's partly by design.
Marvel was getting its franchise on with this film, and part of that meant periodically reminding us that Thor occupied a much larger universe with much different heroes running around.
Hence Agent Coulson—Phil to his friends—who showed up not only in both the previous Iron Man movies, but eventually made an appearance in The Avengers (and even scored his own TV series with Agents of SHIELD). He's your basic government drone here: tight-lipped, authoritarian, and inclined to do what he wants regardless of what other people think.
That said, he's not strictly a villain. After all, he says:
AGENT COULSON: I'm sorry Ms. Foster, but we're the good guys.
And he's not lying. The only trouble is, he can't decide which team Thor is batting for, and—with no small amount of evidence suggesting that the god of thunder may just be the local asylum escapee—what he has to do with that hammer that fell out of the sky.
That makes him a bit of a pain in the butt; someone else throwing up obstacles in Thor's way without precisely being a villain. That ends pretty much the moment Thor reveals his true nature.
But, hey: that's also in keeping with a secret agent: a guy interesting in figuring out exactly what's what and using that knowledge to keep the people of his country safe before he chooses sides.
Frigga's Odin's wife, and frankly speaking she doesn't have much to do here…save for one big scene. Most of the rest of the time, she's all 1950's First Lady: she smiles and waves and being seen instead of heard.
Turns out, though, she takes her role as mom very seriously. That applies to Loki as much as Thor, and when the L-Man feels the burn at being the redheaded stepchild, it isn't Odin who can reason with him: it's Frigga.
She finds the words to reach Loki after Odin falls into his enchanted slumber, and lets him know that it really isn't as bad as all that.
FRIGGA: He kept the truth from you so you would never feel different. You are our son, Loki, and we your family.
Aww, shucks. Can you give us a hug too, Frigga?