THOR: It Was Asgard and Its Warriors That Brought Peace to the Universe

Thor (2011) – Directed by Kenneth Branagh – The 4th Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Kat Dennings, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Joshua Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, and Stan Lee.

We don’t watch movies in a vacuum. Even if we literally watched movies in a vacuum, we wouldn’t be watching them in a figurative vacuum. I bring this up because, whenever you read this, I watched this soon after watching Green Lantern, and the difference between the two films could not be more stark: while Green Lantern runs from what it is, THOR embraces it.

As I discussed in the GL review, that film fronts the cosmic angle in its marketing, but then largely fails to deliver on any of it in the actual film. While Hal makes a visit to Oa, nothing that happens there really matters all that much to the film; Hal’s growth is due to Earth-bound concerns and his being Green Lantern doesn’t really mean anything to the film except that it gives Hal a pretty green ring and an ugly mask.

In light of my disappointment with Lantern, THOR comes across like a big breath of fresh Alfheim air.

THOR is a fantastic movie, skillfully blending the dual subplots of Earth and Asgard, and the result is a film that feels like both a superhero movie and a cosmic movie. Unlike the cheap-looking CGI of Green Lantern, THOR’s CGI is gorgeous and natural-looking; instead of looking like some cut-scene in a video game as Oa did, Asgard and Jotunheim feel like real places, thanks in part to the massive Asgardian sets the film makers had built.

THOR was my favorite comic as a kid. I was lucky to start reading comics during the Walt Simonson era and there’s no single author who’s had as much direct influence on my own writing as Simonson; I loved the way he kept his characters human no matter how large the plot or great the threat. I met Simonson and his wife Louise once, at a convention in Boston, and like many of these encounters it was a brief back-and-forth, but unlike many of these chats we have with the people who write and draw our comics, I can still remember both conversation more than two decades later. As Simonson’s THOR was my favorite comic, the one back issue I wanted desperately to buy was a copy of his first issue on the title, THOR 337. In the dealer’s room I stopped at a table, picked up a sealed copy of 337, opened it up and started flipping through it. Next thing I know some old guy (when you’re 13 or so, everyone out of college is an old guy) makes some remark about how he really liked how that issue came out and takes it from me.

The old guy was Walt Simonson and I spent a precious few moments talking with him about the issue.

By talking I mean I stumbled and mumbled a few questions and gushed a bit of praise while he did most of the talking. The one clear thing that I remember saying was, “Can you sign it?” to which the dealer thankfully replied, “You might want to buy it first, because once he does, the price goes up.”

I paid for it and Simonson signed it and I felt like such an incredible loser that I began my lifelong hatred of autographs. I was having a nice chat with the guy who was writing and drawing my favorite comic and I brought the conversation to a crashing halt by asking for his signature. What a noob. As if someone writing their name is more important than the experience of talking with someone. Lesson learned: autographs are stupid. (Well, okay, they’re not stupid but I haven’t tried to acquire one since then; for me, given a choice, experience trumps evidence every single time.) Later, my pals and I had a brief chat with Louise Simonson and she couldn’t have been a nicer person to give a few minutes to three idiot kids, and then we bugged Walt again about one particular cover that looked like he’d drawn a hand with six fingers but hadn’t. Great, great people, and it was nice to see them have a cameo in Branagh’s film.

Oh, right, this is a movie review.

Importantly, THOR begins in Asgard with a Lord of the Rings-esque historical opening: Odin (Anthony Hopkins) narrates a 10th century battle between the Frost Giants and Asgard that ends with Odin claiming the Casket of Ancient Winters, a really powerful device that makes everything really cold. It would have been easy writing a movie that focused on a post-banishment Thor being dropped down onto Earth without a memory of who he was and what he was doing. That would have provided an Earth-centric movie that would have placated the idiot studio execs who think every movie needs to take place in New York City. (No offense, New York.) Instead, we open with a nice balance between the two realms. A quick sequence on Earth in which we’re introduced to Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, and Darcy Lewis (Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings, respectively) ends with Thor falling to Earth. The film then jumps back in time a bit to reveal how Thor came to be cast out of Asgard.

It’s Coronation Day in the Golden Realm, as Odin is ready to hand the reigns of leadership over to Thor. Before Thor can be crowned King, however, some Frost Giants bust into the Weapons Vault and attempt to steal back the Casket of Ancient Winters, and we get out first glimpse of the Destroyer, the biggest, baddest-ass security guard ever built. The Destroyer steps out from behind his protective cage, opens up his front grill, and blasts the life out of the thieving giants.

Nobody is happy about the attack, but Odin takes the long-view, insisting that the Destroyer did its job and the Frost Giants have paid for their transgression with their lives; Thor, on other hand, thinks the thing to do is go to Jotunheim and knock the giants around since they have, in fact, broken the truce. Odin doesn’t budge, however, insisting that taking the war back to Laufey (Colm Feore) and his people will only bring more war.

Which is exactly what Thor wants.

It’s a very compelling conflict between father and son; the father who brought peace to the universe by defeating the Frost Giants now ordering his son to stand down. Thor yearns for the chance to prove himself in battle and his anger is focused on the denial of conflict and not the denial of his ascension to King. Thor is more interested in being a warrior instead of a king, and so he rounds up his allies in order to convince them to go to Jotunheim against Odin’s wishes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Sif (Jaimie Alexander), and the Warriors Three: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Josua Dallas), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Thor’s comrades are less than thrilled with the idea, but Thor convinces them to come along through the force of his adventuresome, contagious personality.

It can be hard to convey camaraderie without seeing the evolution of a relationship, but the actors do a very good job conveying a real sense of history between these characters. You can see how everyone has their place within the group, and their comfort (or, in Loki’s case, discomfort) with one another is palpable. Thor is definitely the ring leader but the rest aren’t afraid to stand up to him and question the wisdom of this move. When Thor reminds them all how they owe him, it’s done with jocularity, not entitlement. And when he asks Sif who was it that made her overcome the Asgardian sexism that said a woman couldn’t be a great warrior, Sif replies with a big smile that, “I did!,” to which Thor smiles back a bit sheepishly, “Aye, but I supported you!”

Let’s be real, here. We’re not going to get a Sif and the Warriors Three movie, but if we did, I’d be there.

All of these actors are well cast to deliver what the film demands of them, but the real star here is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. All I’ve ever seen Hiddleston in before this film were the 6 Wallander BBC movies he’s made with Branagh. In those films, Hiddleston is solid in a small role, but there’s just not enough there to really judge his talents. In hindsight, what we can see of Loki in those Wallander films is a guy who does his job, content to deliver what the limited role needs, with an understanding that his job isn’t to be the center of attention. During the few times when the script requires Hiddleston to step to the fore, he delivers. Hiddleston’s character in Wallander is very much a young cop trying to find his place in the police department, not content to do what he often considers menial or mundane work when what he really wants to be doing is playing a more prominent role – either in Wallander’s investigations or in leading his own.

The same traits apply to Loki, and Hiddleston’s performance is again just what the movie needs: he’s content to sit in the background as Thor and Odin have at one another, stepping in only when his machinations can help push them to the outcome he desires. What’s so darn wonderful about Hiddleston’s performance and this conception of Loki that he, Branagh, and the writers put together is that Loki is the same master manipulator that we know from the comics, but without any of the grandstanding smirkiness that we might expect. This isn’t a Loki that slyly manipulates Thor into going to Jotunheim by providing the right comment at the right time to push his brother past the tipping point and then sits back with a big crap-eating grin on his face. He just manipulates and tags along, content to wear his mask and wait for his opportunity. The great thing is, if you don’t know who Loki is, you really don’t know he’s the guy pulling the strings, and if you do know who he is, you can see the strings being pulled and appreciate that they didn’t cast an actor who would ham everything up. A lot of actors and a lot of directors might want you to know that Loki is wicked right from the start, but luckily, Hiddleston and Branagh have decided to downplay his cleverness and let it unfold naturally.

Chris Hemsworth is also very good as Thor, the brash kid still desperate to prove himself on the field of battle who gets his power taken away from him and cast out of his home. I love that the film shows us what a jerk he is; we don’t just hear Odin telling him he’s a vain, cruel, arrogant boy, we see it. Odin’s condemnation contains lots of delicious adjectives, but it’s that noun at the end, “boy,” that bears the full weight of Odin’s anger. Whatever else Thor is, he’s clearly just a boy and Hopkins delivers the line in such a way that you feel like Odin has known all along that Thor isn’t ready to be king, but has convinced himself otherwise. Now, after Thor leads his pals into Jotunheim to attack Laufey, and after Odin has to step in and save them from being killed by the Frost Giants, Odin is forced to confront the consequences of that bit of self-deception. While it’s Thor who’s cast out, Odin’s anger is directed at himself every bit as much as it’s directed at Thor.

On Earth, Thor literally falls into the lives of Jane, Erik, and Darcy. Jane has been recast for the movies as an astrophysicist studying strange light displays in the New Mexican sky. Erik is her mentor and Darcy is her gopher. Each has a clearly defined role: Jane is the brilliant scientist who’s driven to find the answers she’s looking for, while Erik takes the long view, preaching caution in order to pump the brakes on Jane’s short-term thinking. Darcy is the comedic relief, providing just enough laughs to help keep the film’s momentum going strong.

If there’s a problem with the film, and it’s a bit of a nitpick, it’s Jane Foster. She starts off as a very strong character, but somewhere along the line she becomes a bit too Lovesick Little Girl. Her interest in Thor is initially built on the fact that he can provide answers to her scientific question. She notices his hotness, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but at some point when her interest turns personal, Jane becomes a bit unhinged. The film hints at an emptiness in her life; when Thor is hanging with them, Jane gives him some of her ex-boyfriend’s clothes, which tells us, 1. she’s alone but not moved on, and 2. Dr. Donald Blake must have been a big dude, too.

Almost everything in this film works on multiple levels, which gives THOR a nice sense of depth. Take Darcy’s tazing of Thor – not only is it funny but it gives us an indication of his stripped-down power levels.

On Earth, Thor is coming to grips with his situation and when he learns that Mjolnir has landed in the desert outside of town, he knows that’s where he needs to go. The locals have gathered around the hammer, turning it into a festival atmosphere. Stan Lee gets his requisite guest shot as a guy who tries, and fails, to pull the hammer off the ground with his truck.

Word spreads.

Enter SHIELD.

Enter Agent Phil Coulson.

Clark Gregg is back in the saddle as the confident, quick-witted, middle-management-looking agent, and he continues to make this character the real glue that holds these Marvel films together. What I like about Gregg’s performance is that you always get the sense that he’s the only guy who sees the big picture and that he knows he’s at the center of this story. He also talks differently than everyone else in these movies; it’s like there’s one Aaron Sorkin character walking around in all these decidedly non-Sorkin films. Coulson is quick with a quip and firm with his resolve; he’s also incredibly smart and flexible. When Thor breaks into the SHIELD site that’s been built up around Mjolnir, he kicks the crap out of the SHIELD soldiers but then crumples in anguish when he finds out he can’t lift his hammer, allowing SHIELD to capture him. Coulson interrogates him, wanting to find out where he received his training, but Thor’s not talking. Knowing he’s hit a wall, Coulson allows Dr. Selvig to take him away, when he shows up with a lame story that Thor is actually Donald Blake. Coulson knows Selvig is lying but he also knows it’s the only way he’s going to get any answers, so he lets him go.

Thor’s storming of the SHIELD site also marks the debut of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into the Marvel cinematic universe, and it’s a fantastic debut. As Thor is knocking heads and the rain is pouring down, some half-seen SHIELD agent grabs a bow and gets hoisted above the ground, taking aim. He keeps asking for Coulson’s orders if he should shoot, eventually telling him, “Hurry up, Coulson. I’m starting to root for this guy.”

What a moment. Pure fanboy bliss.

The last few years have seen most of my childhood favorites turned into excellent movies: Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern … even the Silver Surfer made his way to the big screen, though in the daft Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. There was a special kind of thrill seeing Hawkeye pop up in a movie, though. I was a huge West Coast Avengers fan back in the day, having started to read comics right as WCA was beginning. I’ve always felt that the WCA was “my Avengers,” so to see Clint take a bow in THOR (of all places) was pretty darn awesome.

THOR is a wonderfully paced movie, continually shifting emotions between Earth and Asgard. When Thor is captured and sitting in the makeshift SHIELD cell, Loki pops in for a visit and tells Thor that he can never return to Asgard. Sif and the Warriors Three are in Asgard, struggling over what to do; it’s a great bit as you see them struggling to operate without their leader and reacting poorly to Loki’s new leadership role.

Because Loki is now King of Asgard (after Odin falls into the Odinsleep), he’s got the realm to himself, but he’s not done plotting. It was Loki who let the Frost Giants in back at the start of the movie, and Loki who goes to Laufey to make a deal with him that will allow his real father to kill his adoptive father. Ah, but that’s not enough scheming for Loki because he wants to allow Laufey in to kill Odin just so he can kill Laufey and save Odin. It’s just so nice to watch a film where the bad guy thinks long term and doesn’t feel the need to ham it up for 120 minutes until he gets his face pounded in by the hero.

Which, of course, Thor is only happy to do. Sif and the Warriors Three convince Heimdall (Idris Elba) to let them go to Earth. Well, actually, they argue about wanting to go to convince Heimdall to open the Bifrost and let them go when Heimdall sends a messenger to bring them to him. Elba is fantastic as the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, which brings us to this …

Idris Elba is black. And he’s playing a Viking god.

Oh. The. Humanity.

Some wankers on the Nutjob Right were all up in arms about this when it was announced. Can’t have a black Viking god. Or an Asian Viking god. Why? Well, as we all know, Vikings only like white people.

Right here you might be expecting me to lay on the “people are willing to accept a magical hammer that no one can lift so why can’t they handle a black Viking?” routine, but I’m not going to do it. There’s two reasons. The first is that Elba brings a whole damn lot to THOR; in a quiet, small role he still manages to make Heimdall ring with power, torn between his duty to his King, his role as guardian, and doing what’s right. In short, Elba delivers a performance totally worthy of this conception of Heimdall and what I want out of a film is good actors giving good performances. Elba does that.

The second reason I’m okay with it is because I’m not a racist. And if you start hiring actors who only fit the racial and ethnic profile, well, then you’re never going to find enough Viking gods to play all these roles, are you? Why is it any more okay to have a bunch of white Brits running around pretending to be Vikings than it is to have a black Brit?

Because he’s black?

Get off yourself.

Plus, if you take half a second to actually think this “Vikings can’t worship black gods” bit, it completely falls apart. If the idea is that there are this race of gods that make themselves known to Vikings, and the Vikings decide to worship them, then the gods can be anything. The idea that Vikings won’t worship non-white Gods only really makes sense if the gods don’t actually exist, and that the pantheon was created by humans as fictitious magical, lily-white beings who live on the other side of a rainbow.

Though, presumably, not Leprechauns.

That bit of logic might work out here in the real world, but in the world of Marvel Comics, these gods are actual gods. Or aliens, as the film recasts them, and that means they can be whatever the heck you want them to be because the Vikings, in all likelihood, were going to worship whomever showed up to be worshiped. If Odin was worried the human folk wouldn’t take to a black god, well, he could, I don’t know, put him in charge of the Bifrost and tell him he could never leave his station.

Anyways, it’s a tiresome argument and if you’re going to let a bit of racial recasting ruin your appreciation of a film this good, well, you’ll always have Birth a Nation.

When Sif and the Warriors Three arrive on Earth, they find a human Thor hanging with the mortals, which is a problem because Loki has sent the Destroyer down to take care of everyone. The Asgardians look to Thor to join them but he tells them he’s only human and thus can’t help, so he asks them to buy some time so Jane, Erik, and Darcy can help him get the locals out of town. The Destroyer sequence is simply awesome, starting with its initial arrival, where a SHIELD agent asks Coulson, “Is it one of Stark’s?”

“I don’t know,” Coulson replies, “he doesn’t tell me anything.”

The Destroyer does its damage and Thor ends up sacrificing himself to save the others, which leads to him once again being worthy of Mjolnir, which flashes in to give Thor back his Asgardianness. Thor and his Asgardian pals head back to Asgard for the big finish, which sees Thor and Loki throwdown on the Rainbow Bridge. The bridge ends up going kablammo, which prevents Thor from heading back to Earth to continue his romance with Jane, who’s now working for SHIELD. Showing more of his flexibility, Coulson ends up giving her all of her stuff back that he took from her and gives her a job, as Thor is forced to ask Heimdall to spy on her for him.

THOR is a film that proves that superhero movies can take a step off-planet and be successful. More importantly, it proves that superhero movies can stay true to their roots and not only deliver the goods but put people in the seats – THOR took in $450 million worldwide. But really, what it proves is that it’s a damn fine movie. I love everything about this movie apart from Jane’s brief foray as the Lovesick Girl. The scene where Selvig and Thor bond over beer is terrific, and Skarsgard brings a real sense of concern for Jane over his confusion with the appearance of his boyhood myths. The set designs and costumes on Asgard are brilliant, and all of the fight sequences work. Thor’s journey from the desperate-to-fight warrior to the man willing to sacrifice himself for others is played out beautifully, and without any of that, “I have learned my lesson and will now be a different person” mumbo jumbo – his arc simply happens. Branagh doesn’t treat his audience like they’re idiots because there’s a faith in the story he’s telling with the characters and actors he’s using to tell that story.

THOR is, quite simply, an absolutely stunning, wonderful movie.

Unfortunately, Marvel has announced that Branagh isn’t coming back to direct the sequel but may remain in a producer’s role. They’ve hired Patty Jenkins (director of Monster) to handle the sequel and while my preference would be for a more experienced hand, Branagh has built a phenomenal world for the writers to craft a story in and for Jenkins to move the pieces around. Hemsworth, Portman, and Hiddleston will all be back, and one hopes that Jenkins can pull a Branagh and bring in an actor or two she’s worked with in the past to bring into the world of cinematic Marvel.

Or can you actually think of someone better than her to play her?

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4 thoughts on “THOR: It Was Asgard and Its Warriors That Brought Peace to the Universe

  1. No, I can’t. Not right now. But we’ll see how she does as The Wicked Queen in that oncoming train wreck SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

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  2. There’s an agent Coulson short circulating the internet where he runs into some trouble at a service station. I don’t know if its on the DVD as an extra.

    And yeah, the Simonson run on Thor is pure awesome.

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    • I’ve heard about this but I haven’t seen it. I’ll give it an internet search. Thanks for the heads-up, Joel.

      The Simonson run is my favorite run in any comic from anytime. Part of this, I’m sure, is the role it played in my youth, but I just love it. When I wrote ALL GOD’S CHILDREN at MV1 it was basically just one big long ode to Simonson’s Thor.

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