...shining light on the media, one review at a time
With the recent string of disappointing superhero films, in which the heroism is ironically missing, I knew I shouldn’t hold my breath for Thor to be any better. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in this action-packed story of a mythological Norse god and comic-book character, there is much of value to be found—even refreshing examples of more than one true hero.
The promise of heroism in this film is not obvious in the beginning. Instead, we see Thor start as an ambitious youngster and grow into an arrogant warrior who beats down anyone who crosses him with his fighting prowess and famed, magically empowered hammer. Thor thinks only of making war and acceding to the throne of Asgard to rule in his father’s stead. Completely self-obsessed, Thor is carelessly unaware of the resentment building in his brother, Loki, who sees the favoritism their father, King Odin, bestows on cocky Thor.
Despite Thor’s clear immaturity and self-centered ways, Odin is reluctantly about to appoint Thor as king when the ceremony is interrupted by a surprise attack from the frost giants—long the enemies of Asgard. Demonstrating the many reasons why he should not be king, Thor flies off to take revenge, dismissing the council of his friends and Loki. In the process, Thor also disobeys his father, who has tried to teach his son the value of mercy, forgiveness, and the preservation of peace.
Thor’s actions prove to be a mistake of epic proportions as he endangers not only the lives of his friends and brother, who accompany him into the frost giants’ lair, but also the entire kingdom of Asgard, as his actions prompt the frost giants to declare war. Furious with his son, and realizing that Thor lacks the wisdom and compassion necessary to be king, Odin strips Thor of his power (taking his hammer) and banishes him to a distant realm—Earth.
From that point on, we are treated to a more complicated plot than usually seen in superhero flicks, as director Kenneth Branagh deftly weaves together the compelling story lines in the two worlds of Asgard and Earth. In the earthly realm, Thor meets love, injustice, and his own shortcomings head-on, while Loki grapples with resentment, hatred, and evil in Asgard. Perhaps thanks to his experience with Shakespearian material, Branagh’s take on the superhero genre is filled with fascinating, realistic characters, and, in Loki, an antagonist with a level of complexity worthy of Shakespeare himself.
Early in the film, Loki’s destiny as a villainous character seems almost boringly predictable. Odin sets up a conflict between his two sons in their childhood, telling them that they were both born to be kings, but only one of them will rule Asgard. All predictability ends there, however, as Loki’s motivations and actions continue to surprise throughout the rest of the film. Loki is no one-dimensional villain, and, by the end of the movie, it’s difficult to conclude whether he’s even a villain at all.
Loki is at once both a victim and someone who is capable of great cruelty, making his actions as complicated and unpredictable as his motivations. In taking the time to fully develop Loki’s character, Branagh gives us a potent example of the emotional destruction that occurs when a person feels unloved. It is evident by the end of the film that there is much love in the royal family of Asgard, but it was clearly never sufficiently expressed to Loki.
The complexity of Loki’s character and journey, enhanced by an excellent performance from Tom Hiddleston, is so compelling that he actually steals the limelight from Thor for much of the film. Thor, however, is also a well-rounded character who goes through a life-changing journey of his own.
As a result of the severe lesson he receives from his father (who one could argue is the real superhero of this film), Thor comes face-to-face with his unworthiness, and the boasting warrior learns to become the humble servant—both to humanity on Earth and to the people of Asgard. So complete is Thor’s transformation that he is willing to turn away from a fight and risk his life when he realizes that to do so will save the lives of others.
In a final test of Thor’s character, he must choose between his own happiness in the romantic love usually glorified in modern films, and the safety of Asgard. His choice is that of a king and a hero, as is the humility he continually demonstrates even after he has proven his worthiness. Thor’s personal development in this film is ultimately a powerful story of redemption—fallen from grace, he is restored only through a changed heart and life. Only then does he truly become a superhero.
Along with this redemptive message—which emphasizes love, humility, and self-sacrifice—this film has other positive elements that buck the trends of the genre. The romance between Thor and an American scientist, Jane Foster, suffers a bit from lack of substance, but the comparatively little attention given to this aspect of the plot also results in no time for the sexual content such films usually include.
Even the wardrobe for the characters is remarkably modest, with the muscle-bound Thor appearing shirtless only once and the Xena-like Sif wearing clothing she can actually fight in, rather than the scant, sensual outfits usually paraded by such women warriors. As the primary female character and Thor’s love interest in the film, Jane furthers this counter-cultural pattern of modesty by wearing a realistic wardrobe for a beautiful and fashionable, yet practical, field scientist, who has more important issues on her mind than seducing men.
With all the positive elements of this film, it would be misleading to indicate that it is thoroughly clean or appropriate for young children. Thor is neither, as it contains an unfortunate amount of violence and language (the commonly accepted misuse of God’s name in “Oh, my g--” is prominently featured). However, when measured against the other recent films of this genre, even these areas show vast improvement. The most graphic violence is primarily against non-human creatures (the frost giants and machines), and the bad language is kept to a lower frequency and, by most standards, less offensive category of words.
These improvements make the movie more watchable for mature teens and adults—good news, since Thor is an unequivocal winner from a filmmaking perspective. In addition to the skilled direction already mentioned, Thor is filled with an impressive cast. Veteran actors and Oscar-winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins (as Jane and Odin, respectively) show why they’re considered among the best, while newcomer Chris Hemsworth as Thor captivates with a magnetic screen-presence that allows him to hold his own against Hiddleston’s riveting portrayal of Loki.
And in an age of filmmaking when seamless special effects are the norm, Thor still manages to astound with new heights of imaginative and flawlessly rendered computer graphics.
Thor is by no means perfect. But, like the redemption of its central character, the plethora of positive content in this film works a redemption of its own, going a long way in making up for the negative elements. Hopefully, other filmmakers will take a hint from Thor and its box-office success. Then, just maybe, this film will mark the redemption of the superhero genre.
Hear that? It’s me, letting out that breath with a smile.
Check out these similar titles:
Spider-Man (Columbia Pictures, 2002)
Spider-Man 2 (Columbia Pictures, 2004)
Batman Begins (Warner Bros., 2005)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!