Some superheroes are clearly more powerful than others, and as such, lend themselves to different kinds of stories that reflect different kinds of challenges. Marvel comics feature a wide power scale, from street-level folks to those whose powers can shape the very fabric of the universe. That upper range of the scale can be tricky to cover, since such powerful characters can lose touch with their humanity, and by extension, their relatability. That’s why I have always enjoyed the character of Thor, Asgardian god of thunder, easily one of the most powerful heroes of the entire Marvel canon. Nearly unstoppable? Sure. But when done properly, he is as relatable and compelling as he is epic and heroic. So when it came time to bring him to the big screen, Marvel took note and allowed Kenneth Branagh of all people to tell the tale in a way that draws as much inspiration—if not more—from the pages of Shakespeare as from of Stan Lee. The result is an unlikely but most welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Our story begins in Asgard, an alien realm of the Aesir, a people whose advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic and whose individual power inspires divine comparison. Thor Odinson, next in line to inherit the throne of Asgard, leads a charmed life. Beautiful, valorous and magnificent, he is also vainglorious and headstrong. When a plot against Thor’s father Odin is foiled, Thor rallies his friends to exact terrible—and unsanctioned–vengeance upon the frost giant realm of Jotunheim, shattering the age-old peace between it and Asgard. Furious, Odin expels Thor from Asgard, along with Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir, to a mortal realm where he might learn to live without his powers and discover some badly needed humility. Thor lands in New Mexico and must resign himself to a life as a normal man. He meets astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster and the two fall in love, leading Thor to think maybe the simple life on Earth ain’t so bad. But when news arrives that Odin is near death and that Thor’s treacherous half-brother Loki has usurped the throne of Asgard, Thor must prove himself worthy not just of the right to lift his hammer, but to claim his standing as the son of Odin, and to live up to his duty as the protector of Asgard…and Earth.
For a movie with big helpings of high drama and emotion, this is one heck of a superhero film. Branagh’s deft narrative touch and deep understanding of the pathos that drives each of these characters enables him to take what could have been a thin and superficial story and turns it into a terrific meditation on the struggle and obligation of family, the importance of humility, and the satisfaction of redemption. The MCU is filled with jaw-dropping spectacle and terrific, compelling stories, but in Thor, we hit something a bit different. It is the closest we’re likely to get to a literary superhero movie. And its notes resound with great tone and clarity.
There are a lot of great individual elements here. The presentation of Asgard is especially interesting, rendering a realm of mythological gods into something that maintains their superiority yet puts them in a context that feels a whole lot more approachable than it ever did in the comics. The movie also took the bold step of making the Aesir as diverse in appearance as we humans are ourselves. This caused no small stir among certain individuals whose worldview cannot allow for such an interpretation of Asgard. That’s too bad. The rest of us had a lot of fun with this movie while they were off pouting.
This movie also pulled off a really neat trick wherein we see Thor enter not just a state of exile, but a humble, mortal parallel of his life in Asgard. Back home, he was mentored by Odin and backed up by his friends Sif and the Warriors Three—Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. On Earth, he must make sense of his new life, and of Earth’s strange connection to Asgard, by way of his budding romance with Dr. Foster, and with help from her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig, and her snarky assistant, Darcy Lewis. On Asgard, the warrior Heimdall guarded the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard to the rest of the universe. In New Mexico, Thor must content with SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson who stands between him and his hammer. The more time Thor spends on Earth, the more he realizes that what makes him a hero stems not from the world into which he was born, but his acceptance of the man he knows he must become.
The big dramatic payoff here is when Thor does one of the greatest hero walks of MCU history and confronts an indestructible Asgardian automaton aptly named the Destroyer. He has not his strength, invincibility, or his hammer…just an obligation to defend his friends, both old and new. It is a signature moment that brings Thor’s redemption full circle, but it’s not the moment of truth. No, that comes earlier in the movie when Thor finds himself wandering around the hospital where he was taken upon crash-landing in the desert. Not yet aware of his powerlessness, he suffers multiple humiliations as he is jabbed in the butt with sedatives and backed over by Foster’s van. It’s an extended moment of unexpected physical comedy that is hilarious in its own right, and illustrates how much Thor has to do before reclaiming his heroic mantle. But it also is one of my favorite examples of the MCU mission to take itself seriously, but not too seriously. That’s a big part of what makes this movie and the entire MCU so enjoyable. And it’s a point a lot of superhero movies would do well to remember, even if most of them don’t. Thor himself committed that sin, and look where it got him.