I am not a comic book fan, though I read plenty of them as a kid. But I am a fan of Marvel superhero movies. My favorite is Thor, in part because the Thor universe is based on Old Norse myths, which I love, but mostly because I think it’s a very likeable movie. I saw Thor 2 when it came out in November. This essay is going to be about why I dislike it.
I think it could be argued that Hollywood action movies are mostly fairly simple. This could also be argued about much science fiction and fantasy, which I don’t see as a problem. There is no rule that art must be complex and subtle. Folk tales and myths are usually simple and often very powerful. Much of the art of the second half of the twentieth century was very simple—take Mark Rothko’s paintings as an example—but also powerful and evocative.
A story about gods, based in part on myth, and that is what Thor is, is not likely have to have the complexity of a nineteenth-century European novel about bourgeois life. But it has, or ought to have, organization and a plot.
Thor is organized visually into three worlds: Asgard, which looks like a 1940s pulp fiction city of the future, all golden towers and strange machines; Jotunheim, the realm of the frost giants, which is dark and cold and appears to be made of ice; and rural New Mexico, the home of humans.
The plot plays out across these three realms. What was interesting to me, when I began to think about the movie, is that everything begins in Asgard. Loki gets some frost giants into the city as a joke, to ruin his brother Thor’s moment of triumph when Thor becomes the acknowledged heir to the throne of Asgard. In response to the frost giants’ invasion, Thor invades Jotunheim and starts a war, though his father Odin has explicitly ordered him to leave the giants alone. Odin then exiles Thor to Earth, saying he is not worthy to be ruler of Asgard or to be a god.
While he is in Jotunheim with Thor, Loki discovers he is actually a frost giant. He confronts Odin about this and learns he is the son of the frost giant king, rescued and adopted by Odin as an infant. As a result of their confrontation, Odin collapses into the Odinsleep, a kind of suspended animation. Loki uses his adoptive father’s condition to seize the throne.
I’m not going through the rest of plot step by step. Suffice it to say, the action is driven by Loki’s envy of Thor, his horror at finding out he is a frost giant, and his desire to win Odin’s approval. He manages to double-cross everyone, including himself, and finally falls into a black hole. The point is, Loki and Thor generate all the threats and conflicts—along with Odin, who is not a great father. What we have here, along with a story about gods and the conflict of order and chaos, is a domestic tragedy about three very difficult men, who are closely related and all gods. Myths are often about the family fights of gods.
In the course of the drama, Loki descends into being a monster, while Thor—on Earth—learns decency, humanity, humility, and self-sacrifice. So you have the structure of the three realms, the structure of family conflict, and the structure of Thor’s rising arc and Loki’s descending one. This is a good, tight plot. It’s based on character: Thor’s arrogance, Loki’s envy, and Odin’s personality as the Allfather, a person who pays more attention to the fate of the Nine Realms than to what’s happening in his family.
Of course there is violence in Thor. It’s a Hollywood action movie. But the action does not obscure the plot.
Of course the movie is not as subtle and complex as a nineteenth-century bourgeois novel of character.
Still and all, it deals with character, and it gives us morals. Don’t start wars. Don’t be arrogant. Envy is a bad idea.
There are other virtues to the movie. The director, Kenneth Branagh, has acted in and directed Shakespearean movies, and he manages to give Thor something of the dignity and splendor of a Shakespearean play. I thought Tom Hiddleston as Loki skulked like Iago. But it turns out—per Hiddleston—when he and Branagh discussed the role, they talked about Edmund, the evil illegitimate son in King Lear.
Colm Feore, who played the giant king Laufey, said there were so many Shakespearean actors in the movie that Branagh could use a code of Shakespearean references when discussing the characters and action.
Much of the movie is visually handsome: Asgard, especially, but also New Mexico. Jotunheim is as bleak and dark as it needs to be. The frost giants are figures of chaos, of nature at its most frightening—the dark Nordic winter; and they are enemies of humanity. Their realm should be unappealing.
I was not expecting much of Thor 2. It was directed by Alan Taylor, who has made his reputation directing TV. He is best known for episodes of Mad Men and Game of Thrones. I have seen neither series, though I have met people who love both. I don’t see them as training for a superhero movie with a 200 million dollar budget.
I think Taylor was driven crazy by the size of his budget. The movie is nonstop violence: big violence. Taylor takes out large chunks of Asgard and London.
Genuine, wide-screen grandeur dost not consist of blowing up a lot of stuff. Think of panorama shots in classic Westerns or the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey of a spaceship docking at a space station, while a Strauss waltz plays. The panning shots of Asgard in Thor are like these. Thor 2 is merely big and expensive.
Thor does a fair amount of damage to Jotunheim. As I mentioned before, it is an action movie. Asgard remains intact, except for the Bifrost Bridge, which Thor has to break to stop Loki’s attempt to destroy Jotunheim. One small New Mexican town is more or less blown up. But the violence in the Branagh movie does not equal Taylor’s gleeful, almost pornographic destruction. The whole of Thor 2 is stabbing, slashing, hitting, blowing up . . .
The nonstop violence leaves little room for plot or character development. I don’t understand the appeal of nonstop violence. It can produce an amphetamine rush. However, according to what I’ve read and heard, amphetamines do not leave you with a deeper knowledge of the human condition.
Taylor has said that he wanted a grittier Asgard. I find his movie much less visually interesting—darker and more dreary, as well as more violent.
In addition to not understanding the appeal of nonstop violence, I do not understand the appeal of dark and gritty fantasy. I realize that we live in a disturbing era. Governments are corrupt and incompetent. Giant corporations feed like vampires on the wealth of the world. Stupid and out-of-date ideas stalk the land like zombies. (Check out John Quiggan’s book Zombie Economics.) Global warming may destroy human civilization. This is dark stuff.
But that is no reason to make an incoherent, super-violent movie.
To give an example of the plot incoherence . . . Loki is in prison at the start of the movie due to his bad behavior in Thor and The Avengers. But you can’t waste as actor like Tom Hiddleston, so the plot has to find a way to motivate Loki to help Thor. The villains of the movie, the dark elves, attack Asgard and kill Frigga, the wife of Odin, the mother of Thor and the adoptive mother of Loki. She is apparently the only person Loki loves. I don’t approve of killing major characters to solve plot problems. I approve even less when we do not feel the death of a major character. There is an elaborate funeral for Frigga and the other Asgardians killed in the attack, but this is a pageant. For me it had little emotional content.
We do see Loki tossing around the furniture in his prison cell, which seems like a petty response for a god and great magician, and we see him sitting on the cell floor, pale with grief. That last is effective, but I don’t think it’s enough. I don’t even remember how Thor and Odin reacted. The movie was rushing too fast, and all the explosions stunned me to the point where it was difficult to follow what was happening. Frigga is important, the queen of Asgard, the much loved wife of Odin and the much loved mother of Thor. I want to see their reactions. I want to feel her death.
In any case, Frigga’s death gives Loki his motivation. Now he can help Thor destroy the dark elves, though there has to be some double crossing, since Loki is Loki.
Thor was developed and made between 2006 and 2011, while the US was involved in two wars, both of which the US started. The movie says very clearly that you must never start a war. That is an actual comment on real world conditions. Art is supposed to comment on reality.
And it is about a son who wants to finish off a war that his father did not finish. This is the story of Bush 2 and Iraq. And it’s the story of Thor and Jotunheim, also Loki and Jotunheim. (This idea—that the movie reflects Bush 2 and the war in Iraq—comes from my friend Josh Lukin. I thank him for the insight.)
I am unable to find any messages in Thor 2, except bash, crash, bang, ka-pow! This is not useful. My friend Lyda Morehouse, a long time Marvel reader, adds that it is also not very Marvel. Marvel has a long history of adding the human element to the whiz-bang. Marvel comics even have morals. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Though this is Spiderman’s message, it works for Thor.
Mindless violence is very little help in the world. Rather, we need insight and analysis and feeling, which can be provided by myth, even a modern comic book superhero myth. Don’t start wars. Learn your limits. Love other people and protect them. Don’t double-cross them, and don’t be envious.
The big question I have—what will happen to the three men, after they no longer have Frigga to hold them together—is not answered or even raised in the film.
I guess I am arguing three things. It’s possible to make a superhero movie that is good and interesting. A movie can be relevant and useful, without being subtle and complex. And there is no excuse for unclear plotting and murky violence.
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