In the year 965 A.D., a fierce battle was waged between Odin, the king of Asgard, and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. The Frost Giants’ leader, Laufey, would stop at nothing to conquer the nine realms, intending to start with Earth. Before his ambitions came to pass, the Asgardian warriors defeated the Frost Giants in in Tønsberg, Norway. In doing so, they seized the source of the Frost Giants’ power: the Casket of Ancient Winters. It is now the year 2011 and Odin’s son, Thor is prepared to ascend to the throne of Asgard. However, after hearing about the Frost Giants’ desire to reclaim the Casket, he, without Odin’s knowledge, travels to Jotunheim to confront Laufey. Assisting him are his brother, Loki, childhood friend, Sif, and the Warriors Three: Fandral, Volstagg, and Hogun. Though he is doubtlessly brave for his efforts, Thor may suffer a dire consequence for his rash actions.
Thor leaves behind the land of technology and science in favor of a world where magic reigns supreme. The realm of Asgard and its inhabitants are very heavily inspired by Norse mythology, including a majority of the central figures along with myriad important concepts. The opening battle sequence does an excellent job establishing who these people are and what powers they possess. One would be forgiven for believing this to be standalone film given how different it is in both tone and setting from Iron Man, its sequel, or The Incredible Hulk. Even so, fans wouldn’t have to wait long to see what kind of connection it shares with its three predecessors.
The battle between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants comes to an abrupt end when Odin intervenes to save his subjects. In doing so, the already tenuous truce between them and the Frost Giants is shattered. Infuriated at his son’s insubordination, Odin strips him of his powers, exiling him to Earth to live the rest of his days a mere mortal. As a reminder of his failure, Thor is banished alongside his hammer, Mjölnir, which is now protected by an enchantment only the worthy can break. He lands in New Mexico whereupon he is discovered by Dr. Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis, and mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig.
With this plot development, Kenneth Branagh had his work cut out for him. The idea of a character from a fantasy setting being transplanted into present-day Earth was not new by 2011. However, the most famous examples of this plot in action included Sylvio Tabet’s Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, Willard Huyck’s Howard the Duck, and Gary Goddard’s Masters of the Universe. However, the astute cinephile may notice one common thread between these three films: none of them are highly regarded. In fact, they’re often considered some of the worst films of their respective decades.
It’s not as though the idea itself is flawed; there were plenty of good fish-out-of-water stories prior to 2011. However, a majority of them had characters leaving their comfort zone into a situation still of their world. A good example would by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s story, The Hobbit. Going from a fantasy world to the present day is often too great of a leap for audiences to handle. The latter realm is one of which we are quite familiar. While we cannot grasp the subtle intricacies of a fantasy realm, anything set in real life is usually subject to the limitations thereof – and we are naturally quite familiar with those.
However, with Thor, Mr. Branagh could very well have set an understated precedent because he managed to succeed where countless other directors failed. Even after observing it in action, it is a little difficult to say for certain why Thor works as well as it does. I think what helps is that the Marvel universe is inherently fantastical. Sure, it’s a world that looks like ours and shares the real-life Earth’s history in broad strokes, but it manifestly isn’t. This is a world in which a billionaire has invented a flying metal suit for himself, allowing him to perform many impressive feats of heroism and a scientist becomes an enraged beast when his heart rate accelerates – and this is just within the last three years. Indeed, it’s very telling that once the local populace discovers the Mjölnir, a secret government organization, S.H.I.E.L.D., arrives on the scene to study the artifact.
Nonetheless, Thor is in a world completely detached from his own, so much of the humor is derived from his utter cluelessness when it comes to Earth customs. Upon meeting Jane Foster, they go to a diner whereupon he devours substantial amounts of food and smashes a mug filled with coffee on the floor. Amusingly, the reason he smashed the mug is because he enjoyed the drink and wanted another. This ties into what I think allows the admittedly bizarre premise to work; when told he is acting out of line, Thor just goes along with the customs of the new land rather than cause a scene. On a more basic level, Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman have an excellent chemistry. At times, it resembles a classic comedy routine involving a straight person and a fool, though the exact reasoning why that’s the case is quite unique.
This film’s most significant reveal is when Loki discovers his true parentage. His father is Laufey. He was adopted by Odin after the war ended and kept in the dark this entire time. Shortly thereafter, Odin falls into a deep sleep. Outraged that his father lied to him this entire time, Loki seizes the throne and offers Laufey the chance to kill Odin and retrieve the casket. The Warriors Three don’t take long to deem Loki an unfit king, and seek to return Thor from exile, convincing Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifröst to take them to Earth. This prompts Loki into sending an automaton called the Destroyer to pursue them. The Destroyer fatally wounds Thor when he sacrifices his life to save his comrades. This allows him to prove himself worthy to the Mjölnir, and when he regains control of it, his powers are restored.
What I feel to be the film’s greatest strength is that it’s willing to play with the audience’s expectations. Loki seems fairly amiable at first, but once he feels slighted, he immediately turns on his family. The film builds up an epic fight between Thor and Laufey. It’s easy to get the impression that Loki is a minor threat destined to be pushed out of the way for the real villain. That doesn’t occur in this film; Loki kills Laufey, explaining to Thor he used his biological father to have him attack Odin. In doing so, he would prove himself a worthier successor to the throne than Thor. He seeks to destroy Jotunheim with the Bifröst, but Thor, realizing he can never see Jane again, destroys the bridge first, foiling his brother’s mad aspirations. As a final part of his arc, Thor reconciles with Odin, but realizes he is not ready to be king.
Admittedly, while the film does play with the audience’s expectations, it goes a little too far in the final sequences. As the Bifröst collapses, a black abyss emerges in its stead, and Loki appears to commit suicide by falling into it. The Asgardians believe it impossible to survive, yet Loki appears in the post-credits sequences unharmed. I don’t really have a problem with Loki surviving, but it’s never explained how he managed to emerge from the ostensibly inescapable black hole unharmed. Merely being a master trickster isn’t enough of a justification for this last-minute twist.
Tony Stark showing up at the end of The Incredible Hulk was the audience’s first clue that the writers had bigger plans behind the scenes. However, its comparatively modest box office performance compared to Iron Man meant not everyone was aware of this. As there were only two films in the franchise by the end of the 2000s, it was easy to write off Tony Stark’s scene as a throwaway cameo. When Iron Man 2 premiered in 2010, it alluded to the events of Thor, which would debut a year later – but only in a post-credits sequence. In 2010, audiences were not accustomed to sticking around in theaters to watch an extra scene, so this too went largely unnoticed. Most people were therefore under the impression that Iron Man was part of a standalone series akin to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.
This all changed when Thor debuted in 2011. Suddenly, people were beginning to realize something was a bit off. To wit, one prominent Marvel character, Clint Barton, better known as Hawkeye, was introduced in this film. However, his role was minimal, being wholly unimportant to the plot. It would seem a bit strange for a film to introduce such an important character only for him to do nothing. It wouldn’t be as unusual if, for example, Thor was a television series and the writers wanted to foreshadow the character’s later importance. This completely flew in the face of how film franchises usually worked. With the odd exception here and there, films were written as singular experiences. Sequels built upon their predecessors using hitherto undiscussed plot points, though whether or not the approach worked depended on the circumstances.
With Thor, on the other hand, the writers knew there would be sequels, and crafted the story accordingly. Just like life itself, the story of a comic book never really ends. There’s always a loose end that allows the saga to continue, and the fans will just have to buy the next issue to see what happens next – or in the case of this Marvel Cinematic Universe, get a ticket for the following film’s screening. Unfortunately, while I give credit to Thor for introducing a lot of important characters and plot points, it is made a little weaker by the fact that it has trouble standing on its own. This by itself isn’t a dire weakness, but it does seem a little more interested in setting up plot points than telling its own story at times. Nonetheless, while Thor isn’t exactly one of the stronger entries the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer, its success was instrumental for ensuring the series’ continued existence.
Final Score: 6/10