This is one in a series of posts discussing the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including their narrative strengths and weaknesses.
After the launch of Marvel’s Iron Man, its subsequent attempt at launching a franchise, The Incredible Hulk, was met with relative apathy. While enjoyable, many felt it lacked the same draw that had launched the hero of Iron Man from a single movie into a franchise. Marvel’s second attempt to launch a franchise, Thor, fared better, but it was marred by one truly large narrative problem: it didn’t know what it wanted to be.
It’s important to discuss where Thor went so right to understand how it later went so wrong. The plot of the film began with a focus on the titular hero and his heroic band of companions, including his brother, Loki. The sons of Odin, king of Asgard, the two brothers enter the story by battling the Frost Giants, ancient enemies of the Asgardians. The fight breaks a treat signed between Odin and the Frost Giants, and as punishment, Thor is punished by being banished to Earth. His powerful hammer, Mjolnir, is taken from him, leaving him without the his greatest source of power. Thor is left with the challenge of becoming worthy enough to wield it.
The first half of the film is a wonderful piece of characterization. Thor, as a hero, is one of the most ridiculous heroes in the Marvel pantheon. He fits well enough within the comics, but as a film hero, he’s almost as hard to portray as The Hulk. Thor is saddled with an archaic method of speaking and a rather stuffy, and arrogant, method of presenting himself.
Which is why it’s so interesting and humorous to see him portrayed, deprived of his powers, on Earth. The series of embarrassments he’s forced to endure, including a well deserved tasing, endear the hero to the audience. We’ve just seen him being portrayed as a powerful yet buffoonish and arrogant prince. Putting him into a series of embarrassing situations humanizes and endears him to the audience. It’s effective at creating humor but also at making the character likeable.
The focus of the first half of the film, therefore, is on the humanization of Thor. He engages with local scientist, Jane Foster. What results is a classic formula of an unlikable protagonist slowly endearing him not only to the audience, but to the lead female, resulting in a slow burning romance. Thor slowly becomes more concerned with those around him rather than his own glory.
It’s important to mention here that the problem with Thor isn’t his nobility. Captain America is as noble a character while remaining far more likeable. The problem with Thor is that, from the start of the film, the way he wields his strength. It’s entirely in service to himself without care for the larger consequences. This almost necessitates a storyline that humbles him. The subsequent humor is only one part of the reason that audiences enjoyed the first half of the film so strongly.
Parallel to Thor’s humbling, the narrative in Asgard focused on Loki’s plot to take the throne. Having learned he’s actually the child of a frost giant, Loki goes about unleashing the Destroyer, a devastating robot meant to kill Thor. The action happening in Asgard sets up the action portion of the film, positioning Loki as the film’s antagonist and setting up a confrontation between him and his brother.
Narratively, it makes for interesting parallels. Thor, always considered the bold and heroic member of the pair, slips from arrogance into concern for others. Loki, forever the younger brother working in Thor’s shadow, begins to increasingly disregard the value of life as his own delusions of grandeur increase. They have contrasting character arcs that move opposite directions, a unique parallel that is rarely found in Marvel films.
So why is the last third of the film such a disappointment? For the same reason that the original Transformers film was so jarring between its first and second half. It’s also the same reason that the first half of Batman Begins is so divorced from its second. There’s so much time spent humanizing Thor and giving us a view of his relationship with others that the transition to a traditional hero film almost seems . . . quaint. The last third of the movie devolves into a battle against the Destroy and then, later, Loki himself.
It’s probably best to say that the writers chose the traditional route in ending the film. It also suffers from a two fight conclusion. To be frank, who cares about the Destroyer? It’s Loki and Thor we want to see. The battle with the Destroyer comes across as filler, even if it sets up a chance for Thor to sacrifice himself for Foster, thereby proving himself worthy of Mjolnir’s power. Still, that could have happened between Thor and Loki himself instead of a faceless murder machine that nobody cared about. Moving directly to a confrontation between Loki and Thor would have also given us more of the consistently amazing dynamic between the two brothers.
In the end, Thor completes the narrative arc begun at the start of the movie, destroying the road between Asgard and Earth to save humanity and his love, Jane Foster. Loki continues to be self-deluded, arguing that what he did was for others when it was clear that it was for himself. Narratively, the conclusion is fine. In practice, the writers could have benefited from not choosing such a traditional conclusion, making this a ‘superhero’ movie by choosing to shoehorn in a battle with a giant robot.
Thor could have made the same sacrificed by moving straight to the confrontation between the brothers. Still, despite the film’s dipping into the traditional expectations at the end, Thor succeeds on the strength of its strong opening and middle acts. Thor’s humanization and the deep relationships he forges, relationships that motivate his change into a selfless hero, are worth watching. With a little editing and a bit more boldness in the final act, Thor could have been the equal of Iron Man. Still, it remained a strong first entry into the franchise.
As a sidenote: The film’s sequel, Thor: The Dark World, failed specifically because it doubled down on the stuffy and inhuman elements of the franchise rather than acknowledging the ridiculousness of Thor as a protagonist. Thor: Ragnarok succeeded because it returned to an exploration of Thor’s weaknesses and his relationships while embracing the absurdity of the hero. But those are reviews for another day.
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