I’ve always been a fan of Norse mythology. As many great writers have recognized for generations (Tolkien and Lewis among them) there’s something fundamentally compelling about the Norse mythological ethos: gods and monsters locked in an epic, virtually unending struggle which will result in total destruction. The Norse deities fight not for their own gain, but rather for the dream of a new world to come. As Christianity spread throughout Scandinavia, a unique cultural melding occurred: pagans familiar with themes of sacrifice and resurrection found the Christian faith particularly resonant, and later myths reflect these influences.
Going into “Thor,” the latest big-budget, CGI-laden blockbuster from Marvel Studios, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t familiar with Thor as a comic-book character, and hoped that some of the rich mythology underlying Thor’s origins would make its way onto the big screen. I was very pleasantly surprised: not only does “Thor” work as an exciting summer movie, it contains a surprisingly deep and complex story.
The film begins in Asgard, land of the gods (much like Mount Olympus). Impetuous Thor (Chris Hemsworth) prepares to take up the crown of his aging father Odin (a fantastic Anthony Hopkins). It is a time of peace and prosperity for the residents of Asgard: the evil jotuns (demonic-looking frost giants) have been quiet for many years, ensuring relative tranquility for the Asgardians. However, Thor’s jealous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) envies Thor’s imminent accession to the throne. He subtly channels Thor’s militant brashness into antagonism against the frost giants, leading to a brutal battle on the ice world of Jotunheim. Infuriated that his son has reignited the ancient war, Odin banishes Thor to Earth and strips him of his magical hammer (the source of his power).
Enter Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her crew of scientific researchers. They discover Thor after his expulsion from Asgard, and (through a series of very funny scenes) teach him how to behave in 21st-century Earth culture. The group soon learns that Thor’s hammer has fallen into the keeping of S.H.I.E.L.D., a mysterious paramilitary organization with a particular interest in superheroes. As if that weren’t enough, still-vengeful Loki unleashes the Destroyer (a colossal, fire-spewing automaton) to dispatch the powerless Thor on Earth. From then on, the film builds to a thunderous climax that does justice to its mythological source material.
In the hands of anyone less skilled than director Kenneth Branagh, “Thor” might very well have been a disaster. This is the kind of story that depends on outstanding execution, and Branagh fully delivers. Deftly interweaving modernity with mythology (and incorporating Christian themes into the mix), “Thor” soars high above its less sophisticated Marvel siblings. The computer effects – while pervasive – are not garish or out of place. Asgard looks like a real (albeit mythological) city…unlike the bling-filled version of Mount Olympus offered up in last year’s “Clash of the Titans.” Battles with the frost giants feel appropriately intense and concussive. And the climactic duel between Thor and Loki – fought on a rainbow bridge under a star-filled sky – is simply astounding.
The actors also shine in their roles – especially Hiddleston, who portrays Loki. Loki succeeds as a nuanced character, not a myopically evil monster. Although misguided, his actions are understandable, and his motivations are complex. He inspires both anger and genuine pity – a difficult feat indeed for a summer movie supervillain. Leads Hemsworth and Portman are also effective in their roles, and, as expected, Hopkins brings immense gravitas to his role as Odin.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of “Thor,” however – and the one that surprised me the most – is the complexity of its worldview. Throughout the film, I found myself noticing a variety of Christian parallels. Though the film doesn’t work perfectly as an allegory (Thor is cast out of heaven through his own misguided ambition, and endures humiliation on his own account) themes of humble submission, divine justice, sacrifice, and resurrection pervade the movie. I was glad to see that these elements of Norse mythology had also been incorporated into the film – and even though the movie isn’t intended as an apologetic device, it’s rare that a secular, big-budget movie depicts Christian themes in a positive light.
(It is also worth noting here that the film’s seeming “paganism” is really nothing of the sort. Although it does employ Norse gods and goddesses, they are treated more as super-powered alien beings than as “deities” to be worshiped by humans. Sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is even mentioned, removing any problematic spiritual veneer from the film.)
Objectionable content comes down, in a nutshell, to violence. I’m honestly surprised the film earned a PG-13 rating – there’s no innuendo and virtually no profanity, and the combat scenes are heavily stylized. While some of the monsters could be frightening to younger viewers, “Thor” contains nothing seriously objectionable for teenage viewers.
Overall, “Thor” is a fun, thrilling summer blockbuster that should be required viewing for any fans of superhero films. Those not partial to effects-heavy, combat-filled movies won’t enjoy “Thor”…but those who enjoy their action flicks loud and explosive will find much to like here. What’s more, it contains some interesting elements for discussion that elevate it above its less-intelligent brethren. Definitely recommended.
It’s not “Citizen Kane,” but “Thor” shines as one of the best superhero movies since “The Dark Knight.”
Normalized Score: 7.9