Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thor review

Steve just posted a link to Lars Walker's review of Thor.

Coincidentally, I saw Thor two days ago. What follows are a few disjointed thoughts. Warning: spoilers ahead!

1. I really appreciated Walker's main point:
The difference between these two Odins, I think, is suggestive of important—and generally unrecognized—elements in western culture. The script writers have confused Odin with the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians. It doesn't even occur to them that a high god could be anything but kind and peace-loving, since we all have so thoroughly internalized Christian suppositions that even people who reject the Christian religion—and I assume that a large proportion of the people who made this movie do—can't conceive of a religion founded on darkness and brute force and the domination of the weak by the strong.

In an odd plot element (I'll try not to spoil it) Thor submits to a Christ-like humiliation for the sake of others. This is something that would have never been said of him in the old religion, except as a joke. Even Thor has grown richer through acquaintance with Jesus.
2. I think Loki in the movie likewise benefits from our culture which has absorbed Christian moral values to one degree or another. Loki in the film plays Thor's envious brother. He has "daddy issues" and wants to win his father Odin's respect over and against Thor. As such, he's more of a sympathetic character inasmuch as some otherwise normal people with siblings who were more esteemed by their parents would be able to relate to Loki.

Although I think the actor who played Loki made Loki more sympathetic than he might've been had another actor played Loki.

But Loki in the Norse myths was a nefarious character, to put it mildly. I don't think any normal person would be able to relate or identify with him! He's so immoral that even the Norse gods who are already quite immoral - as we know and as I suppose the pagan Norse knew - distanced themselves from him. Loki was sexually promiscuous. He fathered a brood of vicious animals including the wolf Fenrir that would slay Odin during Ragnarok, the serpent Jormungandr that would slay Thor during Ragnarok, etc. Loki kills the beloved Baldr out of mischief by hurling a spear tipped with a mistletoe at Baldr (since Baldr's mother had asked everything on earth to promise not to harm Baldr except the mistletoe). At least as I recall, Baldr is closer to having what we'd consider a saintly character than the other Norse gods. (I seem to remember reading C.S. Lewis feeling a deep, piercing sense of Sehnsucht over Baldr's death when he first read it.) Loki betrays the Norse gods not only by bringing about the events which lead to Ragnarok but also by fighting alongside the frost giants during Ragnarok.

Since Loki is meant to represent a sort of Satanic character, I think, his portrayal in the movie could be instructive about how our culture views evil too. For one thing, the movie's version of Loki teaches us someone isn't immoral because he's sinful at heart, but because he has daddy issues. It's not directly his fault. Hence all the soft headed stuff in our society about focusing on reforming criminals through remediation (e.g. psychiatric therapy) rather than focusing on justice and punishment.

Or the rise even among supposedly evangelical Christians of people like Rob Bell questioning hell, espousing hopeful universalism, etc.

Not only is Odin seen as more of a wise, just fatherly figure, and Thor a god on earth who has to learn Christ-like humility, but Loki also isn't really all that bad in comparison to his character in the Norse myths. It's a watered-down version of the Norse gods.

Likewise, Asgard as depicted in the film would seem to have more in common with someplace like Camelot than with, well, Asgard. A noble place rather than a bloodthirsty place.

3. Overall I liked it though. But I don't think I liked it as much as Walker liked it.
  • I didn't think the CGI and stuff like that was as cool as in other superhero comic book type movies.

  • Although I enjoyed the sheer grandeur and magnificence of Asgard. I think Branagh probably sunk a lot of money in developing this bit. It's light-years from Peter Jackson's Minas Tirith, but nevertheless I detect a like-minded aspiration toward such a sweeping spectacle when we first look upon Asgard from a bird's eye view.

  • The action scenes were fine but they weren't as exciting as in previous comic book movies (e.g. Spider-Man 2).

  • Also, Thor's friends were more or less meaningless. They didn't contribute much to the film. Maybe some comic relief. At best, they filled perfunctory roles.

  • As we'd probably expect, there were a couple of oddities which I take it were made in the interest of political correctness or somesuch. For instance, I noticed several African-Americans in some scenes involving Asgard. Of course, Heimdallr stands out. Also, an Asian guy as one of Thor's close friends. While I, for one, have no quarrel with any of this, it is jarring given what we know about the ethnic makeup of the Nordic peoples. Although maybe this reflects the comic book Thor more than the Norse myths. I've never read the comic books.

  • I thought the romance between Thor and Jane Foster was underdeveloped.

  • Like several other recent Marvel Comics movies (e.g. Iron Man 2, The Hulk), I suppose Branagh was required to include a sub-plot involving the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in anticipation of the upcoming Avengers film. Branagh did a fine job incorporating this aspect into the movie. But I wonder if he couldn't have made an even better film if he hadn't had his hands tied, as it were?

  • I appreciated that J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) was in part responsible for the story. I think he's one of the best comic book writers working today (e.g. Rising Stars, his run on The Amazing Spider-Man). He's also written lots of scifi and for scifi TV shows and movies (e.g. Babylon 5).

  • The storyline and themes were meatier than what I'd have expected in a comic book movie. I think Thor benefited from having Kenneth Branagh who is known for his Shakespearean film adaptations direct it. While it's still very much a comic book movie, there's a deeper, perhaps even tragic sense about it as well. Again, I think it reflects a little bit of Branagh's appreciation for Shakespeare.

  • Branagh certainly borrowed from Shakespeare (e.g. Loki seemed to be channeling Iago at times).

  • I think Branagh may have likewise borrowed from the Arthurian tales by having Thor's hammer embedded in the earth and no one able to lift it except one worthy of it. Near the end of the movie, Thor sacrifices his life for his friends. Thus he demonstrates his worth to wield Mjolnir.

  • This in turn echoes Christ's sacrifice for his people, and Christ's right to rule and reign over all. For example, see Phil 2:5-11:
    Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
  • The central theme was Thor learning humility by becoming a mere mortal. That has obvious Christian parallels. I doubt the pagan Norse would've valued humility as a virtue!
Again, overall, I think Branagh did a pretty good job. I enjoyed the movie. As far as comic book superheroes go, my (Spidey) sense is Thor isn't as popular as, say, Superman or Batman. Or if we stick to Marvel, he's still not as popular as Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and a couple of others. I think even Daredevil might be more popular than Thor. Yet it looks like Thor is a box office hit. So I think it says something about Branagh and his movie that he was able to take a less appreciated comic book character and make an overall enjoyable, successful, and popular movie. Or, well, it could be that there's nothing else better out there at the moment!


  1. Patrick, what book do you recommend getting to read about the norse gods and their exploits?

  2. Hm, I guess it'd depend on what you're looking for (e.g. original source documents, scholarly criticism, modern renditions). For a scholarly overview I've heard Hilda Davidson's Gods and Myths of Northern Europe is supposedly a classic. But I can't vouch for it since I've never read it.

    I believe my first foray into Norse mythology was by way of Edith Hamilton's Mythology and Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths as well as a couple of other children's books which I no longer remember. Also, as I recall, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had some interesting literary criticism with regard to Norse myths (among other myths). Their friend Roger Lancelyn Green has written children's versions of various myths including Norse myths.

    I think Padraic Colum's Nordic Gods and Heroes is a good buy both for its low price (since it's published by Dover) as well as evocative retelling of the myths.

    It might be worth asking someone like Lars Walker for more info about any and all things Norse. He'd certainly know far more than I do.