This is the thought that kept going through my head while revisiting Thor on this runup to Infinity War. Back in 2011 I hated this movie, thought it was just simply the worst of the worst and a huge, boring misstep for Marvel Studios. Today I look at it and see that it’s a movie developed in a world where comic book movies hadn’t yet entered their modern age, and the film has echoes of a landscape where David Hasselhoff played Nick Fury and where superheroes and their enemies usually had their final battle in a warehouse, or on docks, or on a bridge. Marvel knew how to make more grounded characters like Iron Man or more familiar characters like the Hulk work, but Asgardian gods? Space cities? Magic and high weirdness? They weren’t quite ready to commit just yet. Looking back from the post-Thor: Ragnarok vantage point how can we say anything but “How quaint”?
It isn’t that Thor avoids weirdness. There’s weirdness there. But it’s more of a transitional form of weirdness, the in-between stage that proves the evolution of the comic book movie. It’s a film where weirdness lives side-by-side with numbingly mundane earthbound stuff, and where the weirdness is perhaps a touch mundane itself.
But I’m biased. I read Mark Protosevitch’s original script for the movie, one that was going to cost $300 million and was more Lord of the Rings than Hercules in New York. I understand why, at the time, Marvel couldn’t make that film, but I also wish that they had given it some sort of shot, because it was epic and awesome… and did not end with a fight in a deserted desert town.
One of the most glaring things about revisiting Thor today is how little it feels like a modern Marvel movie, especially in the Asgard scenes. Loki is almost unrecognizable, and most of the characters are endlessly serious and dour. The hiring of Kenneth Branagh to direct was supposed to highlight the “Shakespearean” aspects of the original Jack Kirby/Stan Lee comics, but surely Branagh knows that Shakespeare is often funny and bawdy. The big empty halls of Asgard feel lifeless; all the Asgard scenes are stiff as hell. The joy, the fun of the MCU is not to be found in sight of Odin’s throne.
Which makes the Midgard (ie, Earth for all you squares) stuff feel lopsided. I understand that Branagh is going for a tonal contrast here, and maybe I’m just too fond of the future MCU tone, but Thor feels hopelessly bifurcated, as if the God of Thunder is operating in two different movies here. Every character who crosses over to Midgard becomes a bit more buffoonish as soon as they leave the Rainbow Bridge; even the Warriors Three and Lady Sif look cheaper and crummier when they are shot in the New Mexico sun.
Still, for all the film’s problems (the script is really bad), and given how lame the battle with the Destroyer feels, and despite how much I hated the film on initial release, in 2018 Thor feels like a trifle. It, like the planet Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is Mostly Harmless. The movie is a puff of dandelion feathers in the wind, a story whose stakes are middling and are diminished in retrospect (Ragnarok shows us what happens when Loki spends time on the throne of Asgard and… it’s no big deal, really). The rest of the MCU films – hell, the rest of the Thor films – make this movie less and less important as time goes on. Characters like Sif disappear from the narrative, the Warriors Three get snuffed unceremoniously, Jane Foster fucks off to some observatory, never to be seen again. So little of what occurs in this film really matters, and that makes it hard to have any strong feelings about the movie. Even the preponderance of Dr. Pepper in a movie about Norse gods didn’t bother me on a rewatch.
This time I found myself alternating between bored and intrigued by how different Thor and Loki were from the characters we have come to love. I always thought that at least Loki walked into the MCU fully formed, but Tom Hiddleston is so restrained through most of the movie. In many ways Thor is more of a Loki origin movie than a Thor story; we get more beats in Loki’s growth and transformation than we do Thor’s. That’s a script problem – the movie is written so that Thor becomes worthy of his hammer after hanging around for a couple of days – but it’s so close to being a script perk. Loki’s journey, on paper, reflects Thor’s in that both characters become disillusioned, unmoored and have to rebuild themselves in an effort to please their impossibly difficult father. But Loki’s story, in which he discovers his true heritage and comes into his own as a scheming villain, is so much richer than Thor’s, in which he hangs around a small town and then fights some goons.
Hiddleston really is one of the remarkable bits of MCU casting; he was originally in the running for the role of Thor, and I think he actually could have pulled it off (when you meet this guy in real life you realize he’s just giant sized), but his Loki is phenomenal. Less so in Thor, but the groundwork is laid. Hiddleston’s Loki is constantly bruised, trapped between being dismissive of the other Asgardians and desperately wanting their validation. He hates Odin and wants Odin to love him. His relationship with Thor is equally complicated, and Loki, through all the Thor films, seems legitimately torn. He harbors a jealous hatred of his brother but also has a heroic love for him. Hiddleston plays all of these emotions as they flicker behind Loki’s eyes, and even as he’s being vulnerable you’re not sure whether or not he’s just playing you.
(By the way, I am putting money on Loki dying in Infinity War)
Chris Hemsworth is, it turns out, magnificent as Thor… but not quite so much in Thor. I think Iron Man has the most interested, nuanced and subtle arc in the MCU, and Thor has the most extreme. The character in Ragnarok is simply not the same character as in Thor, but I like the course correction that was done. Quite frankly the original Thor sucks.
It’s not Hemsworth’s fault. Or at least not totally. It’s that script again, a script that truly underserves its main character. In the beginning Thor isn’t brash or egotistical or unruly – he’s a child. He’s an enormous, petulant child, and he’s incredibly unlikable. Again, that’s sort of purposeful, but the Thor at the beginning of this movie is so unlikable it’s not even clear why his friends hang out with him. Believe me, I get that – I look back at my own self three or four years ago and I can’t believe people put up with me – but I don’t know if Thor was going for that kind of gritty emotional realism. I think the script was just poor and Chris Hemsworth, even with all his charisma, couldn’t elevate early Thor above being a grumbly jock.
But once he comes to Midgard Hemsworth’s Thor really takes off. This is some of the dumbest stuff in the movie, but it’s also the most human and the most fun. Thor learning how to enjoy coffee is perhaps the highlight of the film, and the movie needed more of this. It needed more de-powered* Thor interacting with our world, and learning how to be a hero within our world.
This is maybe the worst choice the film makes. Look, I get that Thor being depowered but still helping the locals is so corny it could be the premise of a 1980s ABC weekly TV version of the character, but it’s corny in a way that works. In the film Thor comes to Earth, hangs out with Jane Foster and Dr. Selvig, and then goes off to get his hammer and fights guys so that he can get his hammer. All of this would be fine in act one of the movie, but it’s happening in act two, which is when Thor needs to learn his lessons.
What lessons does Thor learn? It’s not really clear to me. It’s supposed to be humility, but Thor sacrificing his life in battle with a giant robot isn’t humble, because Thor is a warrior. Thor’s just doing what Thor does and what his culture glorifies. The movie seems to argue that because Thor is doing it for the love of Jane Foster, as opposed to his own glory, it’s humble. That feels stupid to me – he’s being selfish. He’s sacrificing himself, a potentially important figure in the world, to save one woman because he loves her. A more humble action for Thor would have been leaving the fighting to the Warriors Three and helping evacuate the town. Fighting the Destroyer is so un-humble that it makes the film’s entire philosophical premise fall apart.
In fact the film’s philosophical premises are already on shaky ground. There’s a prologue that establishes Odin as a great warrior, but also a great king who forges a peace. We never see Thor as a great warrior; his excursion to Jotunheim is not only foolish, it’s poorly planned. If we had seen Thor be great, and if we had seen his brashness be a part of that greatness, I think the Jotunheim sequence, in which our heroes are stranded in an icy world of green screen, would have more weight. But we never see Thor actually be excellent at what he does, we only see him be very, very bad at it. Losing Mjolnir feels less like a fall from grace and more like a much-needed course correction. It’s worth noting that we DO get a scene like this in Thor: The Dark World, which many people incorrectly (IMO) believe is worse than this film.
The reason this is important is that Thor’s sin is one of arrogance, and there are two kinds of arrogance. There’s the arrogance that is unearned – think white supremacists, or MRAs. These people feel they’re better than others despite having no evidence to support that. Then there’s the arrogance of the truly great, the people who actually are better than others and will never stop letting them know about it. Humility is a more powerful lesson for that second group, because it’s a real change in their perspective. Those who have an unearned arrogance get HUMILIATED, which is not the same as humility (although in our society we think they’re connected). Humiliation requires the continuation of ego and arrogance – humiliation is the wounding of these things.
But the humility of someone with earned arrogance is different. It’s real, because they tend to have concrete proof of their exceptionalism. Yet they understand the world enough to understand that exceptionalism in one area is not exceptionalism in all, that it isn’t infallibility, that no one is actually better than anyone else, and that all beings are equal. It’s inspiring to see someone who is clearly talented interact with others as equals, and we love hearing stories about celebrities who are just ‘regular people,’ or who are kind to their fans. That’s humility in action.
That’s the humility Thor needs to learn, but because Thor’s greatness is never established onscreen (it’s a big case of telling, not showing), his lesson in humility (which is, by the way, unlearned onscreen. He is humiliated, twice, but that’s not the same as becoming humble) doesn’t land. I think it might have helped if the film had spent a bit more time in the New Mexico town and with the locals, people who Thor could have learned about, come to love, and finally come to feel a connection with, as opposed to feeling like a literal god above them. Knowing more about the town would have also stopped the Destroyer fight from having all the impact of blowing up the fake Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles.
Perhaps spending more time with the townsfolk could have deepened the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster, and perhaps it could have helped up some of the chemistry between Hemsworth and Natalie Portman. Portman’s pretty good as Jane, who has been changed from the RN of the comics into an astrophysicist, and she brings the right combo of smarts and humanity to the role. It’s a bummer that things didn’t work out between Marvel and Portman, because I think she’s a highlight of these movies, and I would love to see a future where, as in the comics, Jane Foster becomes Thor.
Over them all is Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin, the Allfather who goes into a coma to escape an argument with Loki that he can’t win (this is seriously one of the great cinematic wiener moves, and it feels consistent with the tone of man’s earliest myths, where the gods were often jerks and dopes). Hopkins is pretty great, all presence and authority, but it’s sad that he never seems to have fun in the role until Ragnarok.
There’s some fun in Thor. I think Kat Dennings is a delight in the film, a position that is controversial. If Midgard and Asgard are two different movies than she’s coming in from a third, from the wacky romcom where a buttoned-up scientist meets a buff prince, and Dennings’ Darcy is the batty best friend. She’s the right vehicle to poke fun at the Asgard stuff, and her calling Mjolnir “Meowmeow” is great. Less great is the scene where the Feds see the Warriors Three and ask if the Ren Faire is in town; this only underlines how hokey they look because the joke is coming from authority figures. When Dennings makes jokes like that they’re tempered by her own silliness, but that silliness doesn’t preclude her from being right. She’s the jester character, allowed to speak truths.
But the fun is too little. There’s some okay action (the assault on the hammer is pretty good, if a little WWE for a movie about a thunder god. And the inclusion of Hawkeye, so clearly showing up in reshoots, is a joke), and there are moments of inspired strangeness in Asgard, but the film never gets up to the speed it needs to actually be a blast. What’s more, the Phase One cheapness is on full display here, and the movie looks like a TV pilot a lot of the time. And I mean network TV, not a big spendy HBO show.
Still, Thor gets the casting right and opens the door for magic and high weirdness in an MCU that was previously just science fictional, and barely even that. I think I hated THOR on release for the same reason I hated bad music in the 90s when it was released – it felt like the battle for the culture was being waged, and every battle was important. I didn’t want Marvel to be making movies as lame and empty as this one, and I feared what it meant for the future of the MCU. But now that we live in the future of the MCU I see how unimportant it all was. What had seemed like an alarming development turned out to be nothing, a passing bubble in the MCU that barely generated any turbulence and yet somehow contributed two great characters who were central to the whole thing and who, by the time we got to Ragnarok, had become their best selves.
Maybe there’s a lesson there about the arrogance of thinking you know best, and the humility of coming to understand that we just don’t know, and that things that are outside of our control can stay outside of our control.
*speaking of de-powered Thor: this movie makes it seem like Thor’s armor and strength are magical gifts from Odin. I think it’s safe to say that this concept has been quietly forgotten; all Asgardians have immense strength and endurance, and Asgardian armor seems to be just armor.