Thor was always my favourite Marvel superhero. It was the fact that he was feeble, even crippled, as a mortal man, Dr. Don Blake, but, by striking his walking stick - the symbol of his decrepitude, if you like - on the ground he could become the God of Thunder, majestic and powerful, that appealed to me. I was physically weak as a child, wore glasses, had to be skilful to avoid bullying. The idea that all of this might be circumvented by a bolt of lightning was attractive.
Thor got better as the 60s went along. From being ‘just another super-strong, flying hero who fought bad guys in New York’, he was transformed by the rabid imaginations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others into something unique in comics: a representative of Norse mythology, able to use his mystical hammer Mjolnir to journey across Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge into Asgard itself. The images, the language, the concepts were wild and different. Thor went on cosmic quests, met strange companions, confronted living planets and world-shattering opponents, and spoke in an almost Shakespearian way. It was through Thor that I learned such words as ‘puny’ and ‘omnipotent’ and ‘verily’; it was through Thor that I began to see what comics could really do when they were ‘let off the leash’. Kirby experimented with using photographs as backdrops for drawn scenes, and his costume and city designs were second to none. (I've written about all that here.) Some of the concepts - the Odinsleep, the Odinsword, bottomless abysses, wandering alien civilisations, living robots - were truly ground-breaking at that time, at least to me.
It was with trepidation, then, that I began to view the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of all this. The first Thor movie scored highly with me, though I was disappointed at Don Blake being consigned to the dustbin; the second film was straightforward but lacked real punch. I went to see the third having been intrigued by the trailer, and from loyalty to the God of Thunder.
It turns out that Chris Hemsworth (allegedly) had much to do with the tone of the third film. Apparently, Hemsworth had become ‘a bit bored’ with the character after having appeared as Thor four times in earlier films, and wanted to experiment; director Taika Waititi also wanted to use more of Hemsworth's comedic talents. Thor has shorter hair in the film, wears different clothes and has his hammer Mjolnir destroyed. Later, he loses an eye. From the very first scene, this is not the Thor of the 1960s comics - he speaks in a contemporary fashion and is comedically aware of the various tropes in which he finds himself: trapped in chains in front of a monster, he can poke fun at the way the chains swing him out of view as the monster tries to deliver its dramatic monologue; later, he throws a ball intending to pointedly smash a window and make a break for freedom, but the ball bounces back, hits him in the face and knocks him over. There is a great deal of comic banter between the characters, especially between Hemsworth’s Thor and Ruffalo’s Banner (the Hulk) which has the cumulative effect of jumping us out of the film overall. We know we’re being entertained; these actors are having fun and we are supposed to too.
Early on in the screenplay there is a scene in which Loki, disguised as Odin, watches a play performed by Asgardian actors, which is based roughly on the plot of the second Thor film. Obviously written by Loki, the scene we see shows Loki as the real hero of that drama. The roles in the play are portrayed by Hemsworth’s brother (playing ‘Thor’) and Matt Damon (playing ‘Loki’). Audiences will smile knowingly at Damon appearing in the Marvel Universe in such a minor role - and that brings me to the main point about the film.
This kind of ‘knowing comedy’, with one eye (inference intended) on the vast film-going audiences that Marvel has accumulated, and with its self-referential tropes and controlled comic violation of other tropes is the pervasive tone of the film: battle scenes are not to be taken seriously; heroic figures are to be usurped or undermined (Heimdall is replaced as the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge by Skurge, with a cockney accent, shmoozing two girls as Thor’s cry for help is ignored); villains are melodramatic like Blanchett’s Hela (also played with an English accent) or comically exaggerated like Goldblum’s Grandmaster. We know after a short while that we are watching a comedy - there can be no serious consequences, the premises of the storyline are absurd, the dialogue meant to amuse us rather than move us. Thor, confronted by the Grandmaster’s champion in a duel to the death, recognises the Hulk with the words ‘I know him, he’s a friend from work’. The cosmic challenges faced by the Avengers, as a group or individually, are reduced to jokes, as Thor calls his makeshift team ‘The Revengers’.
It feels as though we are watching a parody. It’s quite a good parody, with some amusing moments and, as we have come to expect, great performances and wonderful special effects - but it isn’t an epic. In an epic, we are convinced that the stakes are high, the players serious and the evolution of the story relevant to us on some level. This is a piece of entertainment: in fact, it is much like the play that Loki has written for himself. The spirit of the God of Mischief has gotten into the story and twisted it to suit different needs.
What makes it worthwhile for me are the scenes with Odin. Thor’s father, the Wise Old Man archetype played by Anthony Hopkins, fulfils the usual role of such archetypes by pointing the character and the plot in the right direction and then disappearing. Later, when Thor is in dire need, we get a brief shot of Odin standing alone on the Norwegian coast; Thor is ‘given’ or ‘granted’ another level of power and summons the lightning, evolving into a true God of Thunder. Then, towards the end of the film, when Thor is being beaten by Hela, having already lost an eye, we cut away to a spiritual conversation between Thor and his father.
‘Even with two eyes, you only ever saw half the picture,’ says Odin, going on to explain that Thor’s hammer was only ever devised as a tool to focus the power he possessed, not as the source of that power. When Thor says that he is not as strong as Odin, the latter replies, ‘No, you were stronger’, and leaves for good. We return to the action, Thor calls upon the lightning and beats off Hela, and the plot enters its final showdown phase. These Odin moments are the bones of an Epic, showing through the skin of the Comedy - without them, the whole thing might collapse into a sham, as the play-within-a-play does in Asgard when Thor returns and exposes his brother Loki.
Most members of the contemporary Marvel film audience have two eyes, but it’s possible that they are only seeing half the picture - they will most likely be bedazzled by the comedy without realising that there is an epic underneath. I hope that the epic elements return, as they are the basis upon which Thor as a character gained his strength: Mjolnir, destroyed in this film, was the focus of that epic power, and I hope that Thor, in regaining his godhood, realises that his true power is godlike, not comic.