The shape of Kevin Feige’s Marvel universe is now becoming clear. It’s an audacious and ambitious attempt to bring a mythology from print to screen. It’s a pity that Harry Potter has already done it with nine interlocking films, or it might be more noteworthy. What is novel is that, if a character as silly as Thor can succeed with mass audiences, there is probably no limit to the amount of movies that can be used to print money under the Marvel banner. Disney’s $4B purchase of Marvel is looking very astute.
Not following? Let’s visit Wikipedia for a moment:
March 2007, David Maisel was named Chairman [of Marvel Studios] and Kevin Feige was named President of Production as Iron Man began filming.
In 2009, Marvel attempted to hire a team of writers to help come up with creative ways to launch its lesser-known properties, such as Black Panther, Cable, Iron Fist, Nighthawk, and Vision.
On December 31, 2009, The Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.
But What about the Movie?
What Thor demonstrates is that the Marvel mythos is so grand, it contains all of Norse myth within it as a mere sub-mythology. It’s also, on balance, despite some satisfying moments of royal succession drama, a silly silly film. The breezy tone of Iron Man is not successfully replicated by director Kenneth Branagh and writers J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich (story) and Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne (screenplay, ampersand indicates a writing team). I am not familiar with the comic book Thor, only his inspiration from Norse mythology. And while I have the word of two fans of the Thor comics that the movie satisfied them, I can’t guarantee that it will satisfy the average non-comics reader who loved Iron Man. It certainly seemed an inferior film to me.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t fun. Certainly as fun as the remake of Clash of the Titans, which also featured gods and heroes doing battle with tusked monsters. (Why does every monster in movies these days have that tusk design, anyway? Did Cloverfield start the trend?)
If you judge Thor not on its own merits, but as a warm-up to an Avengers movie — just as Captain America will be, I presume — then it succeeds admirably. In case you missed it, the film contains a reference to “one of Stark’s” creations — as in Tony Stark, Iron Man, Robert Downey, Jr. And Jeremy Renner makes an appearance as a dude with a crossbow — Hawkeye, another member of The Avengers. I did not see Iron Man 2, but I understand it also laid some groundwork for The Avengers film scheduled to be written and directed by geek king Joss Whedon. All I have to say is, this better be the Citizen Kane of comic book films. There’s only so much groundwork laying I’ll tolerate without a payoff. The Jungian archetypes that are these superheroes better join together to become a map of the human mind or something.
The Trouble with Gods
Which brings me to what I was thinking about while the relationship between Natalie Portman’s character and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor wasn’t being properly established… the trouble with gods is how do you put them in jeopardy?
We all know the protagonist in any mainstream movie is not going to die. No, this is not because Hollywood wants to placate the bourgeois tastes of Multiplex Mike. It’s because they need to make sequels, dammit! But it’s a funny thing about drama — a hero still needs obstacles. If you’re Superman, your obstacles are few. Basically, you can do whatever you want, as long as kryptonite isn’t around. Sometimes you’ll be forced to choose between saving a bunch of people, and saving the love of your life, Lois Lane. But actually, it’s not really a choice, because you can just fly around the Earth really fast and turn time backwards and save everyone and Lois.
The temptation for writers is to keep escalating the impossibility of the obstacles, but it just makes the audience not trust the storyteller. In the early Superman comics his skills were defined — he could run only so fast, jump only so high. By Superman Returns, even an island made of kryptonite, a substance that one small crystal used to almost kill him from just being near it for a moment, isn’t enough to stop him. There are no longer any stakes.
The opposite tack is Dr. Manhattan, the naked blue dude from Watchmen. As a god, he is so detached from human experience that the real obstacle is working up the will to bother to save such a puny and misguided race. Very few comics seem to take this approach with the god-like superheroes, although it has a long and storied tradition in Greek & Roman mythology, not to mention Judeo-Christian traditions of the absent father.
Thor is squarely on the Superman end of the spectrum. The screenwriters wisely strip him of his powers so that he can face some actual jeopardy. Unfortunately, while he’s mortal he can’t kick ass in the same way. But they make him super-strong anyway, as sort of a cheat around it and they put in some fish-out-of-water scenes that don’t really add up to much. They especially do not add up to a convincing reason for Natalie Portman’s character to be in love with him.
(As a side note, I’d wager good money there’s a deleted scene on the DVD where Natalie Portman’s character talks Stellan Skarsgård’s character into going in to get Thor when he’s captured. That character motivation came from so far out of left field…)
But anyway, back to the godlike superhero paradox. To be interesting, the hero must face the possibility of defeat. To face the possibility of defeat means removing the interesting abilities of the hero. Thor doesn’t fully solve this paradox, but it does tie the loss of powers into the character’s journey. Thor must learn humility, and he does so quickly and easily — no anguished Hamlet monologues, even though I was promised Shakespearean dimensions by the full court PR campaign — by being physically humbled. Yawn.
Meanwhile, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has a much more satisfying arc with much less screen time. We think he means to betray his father, but really he means, in his own twisted way, to make his father proud. If Shakespeare was writing this story, Loki would be Iago or Richard III — a villain-hero. So it was with The Dark Knight, which barely seemed to have Batman in it at all, so mesmerizing was Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The missed opportunities are legion, but this may have been the biggest. But if it wasn’t intentionally missed, it was a convenient omission. The first priority is clearly to establish Thor to establish the Avengers to establish the grand tapestry of the Marvel universe. I wish the first priority had been to tell a great story.
Amazingly detailed and perceptive analysis of the film from John Jansen and Andy Siems at the Hollywood Saloon.