Sunday, 15 May 2011


There are many things that I like in fiction, but two of the things I like most are modern retellings of old myths, legends, fairy tales and stories, and Superheroes. It is hardly surprising, then, that Thor was always going to strike a chord with me. There’s something about figures from ancient mythology re-imagined as superheroes that just sounds awesome. That’s not to say that Thor is actually that good. I mean it’s not bad, but it could have been so much better.

The thing about superhero stories in particular, the thing that draws me to them, is that they are character studies. The superhero is at the centre of the story and his/her development is what drives the plot. This is how I like my stories – character focused and character driven. It’s what makes me such a fan of Christopher Nolan films. It’s why I said The Green Hornet was not a Superhero film.

I said back then to wait for Thor if you want a superhero film. I was not wrong. Thor is, indeed, a very character focused film, with Thor’s development driving the plot. It’s not a character arc typical of superhero films; it involves a fall-from/return-to-grace more typical of heroic fantasy, but then, the mythology which underlies the story makes that inevitable. You see, most superhero stories start with an origin story and the character coming to terms with his new super-ness, Batman Begins a perfect example of this. Thor, on the other hand, does not need to explain how Thor became Thor because he always has been, he’s a God; it’s just what he does.

Instead the film tells the story of an arrogant hero who is banished from his homeland and stripped of his power for doing something monumentally stupid. During his banishment, the hero comes to realise his faults and becomes a better person, returning home to save the day from the consequences of the thing he did to get banished in the first place and regaining his rightful place as a hero to his people. Now, this is all a fairly typical character arc that does not present anything new. I’m sure we could all think of some story that employs essentially the same framework. Assassin’s Creed does it, for example.

Where Assassin’s Creed differs, however, is that Altair does not simply return to becoming a run-of-the-mill Assassin by the end of the story; we do not simply return to the status quo. Thor ends exactly as it begins. Thor is the prince of Asgard, heir to Odin’s throne. The only difference is that he is ready to become king. Unfortunately the Mythology of Asgard means that Thor will never become king. He will continue to wield Mjollnir in the name of Odin until Ragnarök. Of course this mythology is not set in stone – it’s a reimagining, remember, if they wanted, the writers could have had Odin die and Thor take up his throne, but that’s not what happened, so the ending ends up being rather unsatisfactory. Nothing monumental has changed in Thor’s life; things are not vastly different from how they were at the start. If the evens of the film had never happened, life would only be very slightly different for most people.

The only person for whom life has changes is Jane, the woman who Thor fell in love with in his short visit to earth. The problem is that we’re never really made to care about her. She gets some pretty rushed and unconvincing characterisation, which never really fleshes her character out enough for her to really matter. As a result, the romance between her and Thor is equally unconvincing, especially when we consider that they only really knew each other for a very short amount of time.

The disappointing thing is that, although Jane and the rest of the people on earth are fairly poorly characterised, everyone on Asgard is really well characterised. All the way down to the Heimdall, the gatekeeper. The focus of the film is clearly Asgard and the politics going on there. This is a problem, because the focus really should be on Thor, given that the film is all about him. It makes the development of the character seem to play second fiddle to the other things in the story. All the shadow-play between Loki and the Frost Giants, the conflict of Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral and Frigga between obedience to their king and support for Thor is very interesting, but it was overplayed in comparison to the really rather uninspiring scenes on earth. Thor really didn’t seem to go through very much personal torture or great soul searching to resolve his eternal conflict, nor did he and Jane really have enough screen time together to really make their love anything more than a typically tacked-on Hollywood romance.

Thor, then, suffers primarily from a misdirection of focus. It is a character driven story in which the character is not the focus of the story, making it difficult to really find him convincing. It spreads itself too thinly over ground that is perfectly good. While the character arc is fairly typical, there is no reason why that should make it inherently bad. In fact it would be a perfectly good basis upon which to build a very interesting story.

Where Thor does triumph, however, is the setting. Credit should probably go more to the original creators of the story at Marvel, rather than the makers of this adaptation, but to be fair to the latter, they do a fantastic job of portraying the universe in which Thor is set without falling into the obvious trap of simply telling us. Through the film we find out about Asgard and how it links with the world we live in a very natural way. There is some narration near the beginning, but this is only to set a bit of back-story in place and actually works because it’s supposed to be Odin telling his sons all about the war between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants.

Likewise the aesthetic is fantastic. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are combined really well to make it seem very believable and natural. Asgard feels simultaneously like the citadel of a highly advanced civilisation and the home of a bunch of Norse Gods. The film very much feels like a mixture between Fantasy and Sci-Fi, between science and magic.

Indeed the way in which Thor and Jane approach things is very interesting. Jane is striving to find the scientific explanation for the way in which Thor and co are able to travel between worlds and looks at everything from a rigidly scientific perspective. By contrast, Thor explains things very much in terms of magic and mythology. His explanation of the way the worlds are linked in terms of a tree, a motif from Norse Mythology is a typical example of this. It’s an interesting contrast, but in some ways a missed opportunity as it wasn’t really explored terribly well.

As I said earlier, the credit for the setting itself must go to the folks at Marvel, rather than the film makers, but even so, the idea that the Gods of Norse Mythology are actually other-worldly being of great power is simply incredible. The good thing is that Norse Mythology is not simply taken whole and unaltered. It is changed and switched around to fit the purpose of the story. For example Loki’s role is dramatically altered. This is a good thing; to simply take Norse Mythology and plant it into a sci-fi setting would be somewhat lacking in originality. The best reimaginings use the original as a basis and create from that, rather than simple taking from the original without adding to it at all.

Thor is most certainly a triumph of aesthetic and setting. It looks great. The problem is that it focuses too much on the setting of Asgard and everything happening therein to the detriment of the character at the heart of the story. While Thor and his actions ultimately drive the story, the focus seems to be more on what Loki does in his absence. Had the focus been on Thor and his relationship with Jane, the film would have been far, far better. Similarly, the ending should have been somewhat different – something should have changed by the end, rather than the status quo being returned.

Despite all my criticisms, Thor is actually a pretty solid film. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of either superheroes or Norse Mythology. There are a number of other superhero films upcoming from Marvel in the next few moths, all leading up to The Avengers in 2012. I think it will be really interesting to see how Marvel knits together a number of different films and characters in a way that has not really been done on the silver screen before. We had a bit of a cross-over in Thor with a mention of Tony Stark. I think it will be great to see a superhero universe developing in film as it has done in comic books and, to a lesser extent, other mediums for a while now.

Incidentally, if you do like modern reimaginings of Norse Mythology, I encourage you to check out a short story on Pod Castle called Wolves ‘till the Wold Goes Down, by Greg van Eekhout. If you like that, then you’ll probably also like his novel based on the same sort of thing, called Norse Code.

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