Judging solely from box office receipts in excess of $360 million by mid-May, more than double what it cost to make, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is a resounding success, easily good enough for the Paramount/Marvel Studios team to justify the sequel hinted at in the film’s closing scene. For the vast majority of film-goers, seeking their fix of CGI-ed thrills and spills, Thor will have delivered. Two other camps, however, may be less than awed. Firstly, there will be the Old Norse mythology pedants who will mutter through clenched teeth that Thor is a travesty of the Icelandic eddas. Secondly, there will be the die-hard fans of Marvel’s The Mighty Thor, who will have noted a good number of deviations from Marvel’s comic-book plot history, as it has somewhat messily evolved over the last fifty years. As regards the eddic pedants, no-one will listen or care, for such nit-picking is beside the point, and, in any case, Marvel’s relationship with mythological niceties was only ever an opportunistic one. As regards the die-hards (the geeks, that is), they have a point. Sort of.
As a superhero, Thor presented problems from the outset. The intention of the creators of The Mighty Thor, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, was clearly to capitalise on the Superman dual or hidden identity formula. So, the outcast god is Don Blake on Earth, a half-crippled medic who has taken a shine to his nurse assistant, Jane Foster, an attraction that his alter-ego is more successful is pursuing. While this worked fine for Superman, in Thor’s case it simply could not, for Thor has another life in Asgard, which simply cannot be reconciled with his Earthbound selves. Aware of this awkwardness, Marvel’s solution was to write Jane out of the series, so that Thor can be with his actual mythological wife, Sif, and gradually to drop the Don Blake device. Thor thus became Thor on earth as he is in heaven. One consequence of this was that Thor-the-protector-of-mankind (his unique role in the eddas, by the way, so no problem for the pedants there) had a rather limited role on Earth. Of course, the fallout from the family drama in Asgard, notably involving his dad, Odin, and his jealous sibling, Loki, provided a fair amount of Earthly tribulations but inevitably ones that soon exhausted themselves. Rule number one of the comic book is that the storyline must constantly reinvent itself and the chances of doing this with Thor lay in the cosmos not on Earth, which has also featured less and less in Thor’s comic-book adventures.
Fully aware of all this, the movie’s scriptwriters have gone back to the drawing board and started again. The fundamental scheme of the film is the two worlds scenario of all fantasy fiction, in which the hero moves from one world to another and in so doing learns some fundamental truth about him/herself and life in general. This is the ‘maturation fable’ whose roots in folktale are as old as the hills. Usually, this learning process entails a shift from a banal world (typically home) to a hyperbolic world (everything home is not) of mind-boggling beings; for example, Luke Skywalker leaves the farm and discovers the galaxy, or Bilbo/Frodo Baggins quits the Shire and undergoes world-changing adventures in Middle Earth. In Thor, somewhat ingeniously, it’s the other way round, for it is on Earth, without recourse to magic weaponry or any superpowers, other than those possessed by a body-building kung-fu fighter, that Thor gets in touch with his inner self and so finds a more subtle response to events, rather than just bashing people with his hammer. Thanks for this are due solely to his chance encounter and subsequent embroilment with a radical astrophysicist, a certain Jane Foster (an ex, she says at one point, of Don Blake).
Yet, while Thor, the exiled god, slowly comes to see that the common ground between high politics (for which read both his dysfunctional family in Asgard and the looming threat of the Frost Giants) and love (for which read the starry-eyed Jane) is duty and responsibility, Thor, the movie, hints at a much wider concern than mere personal salvation. In this case, the issue is national salvation or, to put it another way, the problems of twenty-first century American foreign policy.
The premise of the film is that the Frost Giants, once vanquished in 965 AD (for some reason) when they tried to conquer Earth, are set on reviving their ambitions for cosmic domination. For this they need the Casket of Ancient Winters, an ecological Pandora’s Box currently housed in the vaults of Asgard. At the very moment that Odin is about relinquish the throne to Thor, a handful of them enter Asgard in an attempt to retrieve it. They fail but, despite Odin’s caution, Thor and his chums decide to take the war to the Giants. They fail too but the consequence is that the gods who ‘brought peace to the universe’ have now brought war to it. It may be fatuous to spell this out but I’ll risk it: the most powerful realm around is violated by its ancient enemies and then launches an ill-advised war, one, it seems, that it cannot win. And so the trouble starts, not so much with the Frost Giants, whose leader, Laufey, lives in a cave in a faraway place, but inside Asgard. What should be done? How can this be settled? Odin favours diplomacy. Loki, the enemy within, whose double dealing is only explained in Oedipal terms, favours cunning. Thor, who peaked too early with the wrong answer, is packed off to Earth to learn the lessons of good governance. This, in a place where the national context is Iraq and Afghanistan, which are mentioned several times, and homeland security, or S.H.I.E.LD., is very nervous of people and things that clearly aren’t normal, like Thor, his hammer and meddlesome astrophysicists.
It doesn’t pay to push the analogies too far, although they are clearly meant, especially in the vexed case of Loki, for whom the accommodating strategies of multiculturalism would not go amiss, suggests Odin and, eventually, the more dovish Thor. Yet whatever all this navel-gazing about the role of being top dog might signify, the film resists any gung-ho or feelgood solutions. The Giants may be thwarted for now but the cost, it seems, is a deeply uncomfortable isolationism, particularly so for the future prospects of Thor and Jane. The course of high politics - like families, like sexual passion – does not run smooth. In this respect, Thor is an honest film. Just how much fun it is has already been decided by the queues at the box office.
-- Martin Arnold, May 2011