Yesterday, I ended up watching Thor with a friend, since neither of us had seen it before.
Now Thor is among my least favourite Marvel heroes along with Captain America and the Punisher. My initial introduction to the character was the 1960s cartoon series with its corny music and very limited animation. Now the Thor cartoon was neither better nor worse than similar Marvel cartoons from the era based on Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man and the Submariner. Nonetheless, Thor immediately rubbed me the wrong way because of what we would now call cultural appropriation. Basically, what happened is that my teenaged self sat in front of the TV and thought, “Wait a minute. Thor existed since long before there was a Marvel Comics. He’s a legendary figure and a god, to whom my ancestors probably prayed. And it’s kind of disrespectful to turn him into a silly superhero for some corny cartoon, especially since they get the story all wrong anyway. They wouldn’t do this to Jesus, so why is it okay to do it to Thor?” Of course, Richard Wagner used the Norse myths as a source text, too (and my teenaged self was already familiar with Wagner, though not a fan), but then Wagner at least stayed respectful to the originals. The Mighty Thor not so much.
As a result, I never bothered with Thor during my comic reading days. I may own one or two issues of The Mighty Thor, probably because they were part of a crossover, but I never regularly read the comic or liked the character. Indeed, I never cared for the Avengers either. The Avengers were the establishment’s superheroes, whereas I preferred heroic outlaws like the X-Men.
The Mighty Thor comic faded away sometime during the 1990s and with good reason, too. Because whether the aspects of cultural appropriation inherent in the character of Thor bother you or not, there is no escaping the fact that as a superhero, Thor is pretty damn corny. I mean, Thor and his friends and enemies stalk about looking like escapees from a particularly bad production of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs. Thor was probably difficult to take seriously even back in 1964 and he sure as hell is impossible to take seriously these days.
Of course, new film adaptions have managed to make many a corny superhero with a dated and/or just plain silly origin story viable again. Iron Man is a case in point. Now there is a character who was never particularly likable in the comics with an origin story that is so dated to be offensive these days and they still managed to make two (three, if you include The Avengers) very entertaining films about him which actually redeemed the character for me.
But Thor is no Iron Man. And while Iron Man’s origin story and rogue’s gallery were problematic because of their ties to the Cold War and outdated stereotypes, Thor is problematic because of his corny faux Wagnerian background and overblown cod-Shakespearian dialogue. So what do you do with a character like that?
Director Kenneth Branagh’s response was to embrace the inherent ridiculousness and corniness of the character and run with it. Branagh’s Asgard, where much of the film is set, is Bayreuth on crack, the unholy love child of Metropolis, the Emerald City from Wizard of Oz and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs the way you always expected it to look, even though Bayreuth did away with the chainmail and the winged helmets in the 1950s. “Oh please, invite Branagh to Bayreuth and let him take a crack at the Ring“, I said to my friend during the Asgard scenes, “He’d be so bloody marvelous at it.” Interestingly, Branagh’s Asgard looks also suprisingly similar to the way Jack Kirby drew Asgard back in the 1960s. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Kirby had been inspired by Metropolis, the Emerald City and Wagner operas.
Branagh even retains the melodramatic faux Shakespearian dialogue for Thor and his fellow Asgardians, but contrasts it with the 21st century speech of Jane, Darcy, Dr. Selvik and the other characters in the real world scenes to show how faintly ridiculous it all is. And so Thor gets only blank looks, when he walks into a pet store and demanding a horse (the German dub is particularly good here, since it uses “Ross”, an old-fashioned term for “horse”), his overblown ranting that he is the son of Odin and will not be treated thus only gets him first tasered by Darcy and then tranquilized with an injection into the butt by the ER doctors, his kissing Jane’s hand and calling her “fair maid” only seems charmingly old-fashioned (Jane does seem to like it, though) and Jane quickly informs him that smashing mugs on the floor is not how one orders a refill on planet Earth.
The Earth scenes with its neon signs, retro diners, pick-up driving rednecks, the vintage drive-in/diner/gas station that Jane and pals have converted into their HQ and Agent Coulson and SHIELD doing their best X-Files/Men in Black impression are as mythological in their own way as the Asgard scenes. For the small town in the American Southwest where the other half of Thor is set is not the real Southwest but the way we imagine a small town in the Southwest to be like, complete with neon signs and retro diners, UFO sightings and Men in Black trying to explain it all away as a downed weatherballoon.
Thor also has the requisite references to obscure comic continuity that usually delight die-hard comic fans. The brilliant gamma ray researcher who vanished one day, as mentioned by Dr. Selvik in one scene, is clearly a reference to Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk. SHIELD is not just mentioned, but actually appears, headed by Agent Coulson, who also pops up in Iron Man and The Avengers. Nick Fury and future Avenger Hawkeye get a cameo appearance and various supporting characters from the Thor comics such as the Warriors Three and Sif the Valkyrie show up as well. Thor’s old alter ego Dr. Donald Blake from the comics appears briefly first as a name tag on the clothes Jane lends Thor and then as a fake identity Dr. Selvik makes up to rescue Thor from SHIELD custody. Meanwhile, Thor’s earthly love interest Jane Foster has been transformed from the nurse/doctor she was in the original comics into an astrophysicist, a profession that’s more conductive to the plot of the film. Not that I doubt anybody minds much, for honestly, Jane Foster was always something of a cypher in the comics to the point that I couldn’t even have told you what her original profession was without looking it up. And talking of Jane, her romance with Thor seems like something of an afterthought to the plot. They obviously liked each other and Jane was quite impressed by Thor’s physique (who wouldn’t be?), but I never got the vibe of lost love that Thor projected at the end.
Because so much of the film is set in Asgard, Brannagh gets to play up the conflict between Thor and Loki (though the villain at the climax is the Destroyer rather than Loki, who gets his turn in The Avengers) as well as the conflict between both Thor and Loki and their father Odin. Loki is a pleasantly nuanced villain. He starts out as more of a mischief maker, which fits his trickster persona from the original Norse myths, and only turns full-out villainous once he finds out the truth about his birth. And even then, what Loki basically wants is his Dad’s approval. Plus, the brothers actually are fond of each other in some way (and Thor grieves for Loki at the end), even though they are rivals. Of course, it helps that Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, though both unknowns at the time, both manage to turn their respective characters into more than corny stereotypes. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor tempers the character’s initial arrogance and foolhardiness with a lot of natural charm and vulnerability in the emotional scenes with Odin, Loki or Jane. And Tom Hiddleston’s Loki nicely portrays the confused kid who only wants to be loved and accepted, the jealous younger brother and the shifty villain.
Of course, Thor still plays as fast and loose with Norse mythology as the comic did, e.g. mythological Odin did not lose his eye during a fight with the forst giants, but in exchange for a look into the well of knowledge (he probably made up the whole frost giant thing to impress Thor and Loki, because it sounds so much cooler). Yggdrasil, the world ash tree, gets conflated with the Tree of Life from the Kabbalah. In that context, reinterpreting the mythological rainbow bridge leading to Asgard as wormholes and Einstein-Rosen bridges doesn’t really require any more suspension of disbelief.
What is more, there are a handful of Asgardians of colour, something that seems rather unlikely, given that the myths originated in a part of the world that was and still is overwhelmingly white. Now I’ve never heard any complaints about the Asian member of the Warriors Three. And since the Warriors Three do not have counterparts in Norse mythology, but were instead invented by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, they can look however Lee and Kirby wanted them to look, since there is nothing in the myths to contradict them. However, Heimdall the watcher is an established figure of Norse mythology, one who is played by a black man, British actor Idris Elba, in the film. However, if one actually looks at the myths, Heimdall is usually described rather vaguely as “dark and swarthy”, so there’s nothing to say that he couldn’t be black. Besides, with actors as fabulous as Idris Elba or Samuel L. Jackson (who has a cameo as Nick Fury of SHIELD, a character who was white in the comics), who cares if their skin colour doesn’t quite match the usual portrayal of the characters they play?
Actually, when Idris Elba first showed up at Heimdall (“Wow, that’s the bloke from Luther!”), I said to my friend, “Do you hear that whirring sound? That’s the sound of Hitler’s ashes rotating wherever they were dumped, because a black man is playing a Norse God.”
“And on his birthday, too”, my friend said, because April 20 happens to be Hitler’s birthday (which neither of us had thought about when sitting down to watch the film), “What a lovely present to piss him off.” And of course, towards the end, Thor kissed Jane Foster, who is played by Nathalie Portman, a Jewish actress. So here we have a black actor playing a Norse god and another Norse god kissing a Jewish woman in the movie adaption of a comic based on Norse mythology and created by two Jewish men. That should send those ashes rotating into overdrive.
Come to think of it, Marvel’s superhero comics basically have only three plots: There is the story of the arrogant arsehole with superpowers, often but not always from a privileged background, who learns humility, true heroism and that “with great power comes great responsibility” after a series of personal tragedies. This is the story of Iron Man, Spiderman, Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four and Thor (and the film brought out this core story very well). The second Marvel stock plot is the story of the outcast who is feared and hated for being different, even though he or she uses his powers to help the very humanity that despises him or her. This is the story of the X-Men and Hulk and the Thing from the Fantastic Four. Some characters like Namor and Spiderman or a series like the Fantastic Four mix both aspects. Finally, there also is a third Marvel story, that of the physically weak and/or disabled person who gets powers. This is the story of Daredevil, Captain America, Professor X of the X-Men, Spiderman to some degree (Peter Parker is not physically impressive) and also shows up in the Thor comics of the 1960s, for Dr. Donald Blake had a limp and needed a stick to walk.
Of course, these three core stories are not just timeless and transcend the corny trappings of dated comics, they also appeal to the overhwelmingly young audience that the superhero comics originally had. Which teenager hasn’t felt like an outcast, who hasn’t wished for some way to overcome real or perceived physical limitations, who hasn’t struggled with trying to be a good person? And indeed, film adaptions of comics tend to wrok best when they bring out those core stories. The recent Iron Man films starring Robert Downey Jr. have done so marvelously for a character who was somewhat problematic to begin with. Thor is no Iron Man, but nonetheless Kenneth Branagh has managed to bring out the core story and make a surprisingly entertaining film based on a source material that, to be perfectly honest, wasn’t very good.