The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Part 4: ‘Thor’
In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.
Chapter 4: Thor
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne
Release Date: May 6, 2011
U.S. box office: $181 million
Worldwide box office: $449.3 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 77 percent
Metacritic score: 57
Letterboxd average grade: 6.2
What Holds Up
If you would have told me when I was a 12-year-old kid reading Thunderstrike that some day there would be a big-screen version of Thor, where the God of Thunder would throw Mjolnir and it would soar through the air and then gracefully return to his hand just like it did in the comics, I would have spit out my retainer, straightened my pocket protector, verified the security of the tape on my glasses, reinserted my retainer, and told you “LEAVE ME ALONE I CAN’T BEAR ANOTHER WEDGIE!” And then I would have said I didn’t believe you.
But here is Thor, a movie where Thor somehow looks even cooler than he did when drawn by Jack Kirby, and Walter Simonson, and Ron Frenz. All the stuff where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) swings his hammer, throws it, twirls it, and flies with it is so incredible — at least from a comic-book dork’s perspective. The opening battle with the Frost Giants shows off all this stuff, and the movie’s barely even 15 minutes old at that point. (The scene is so dark it’s borderline invisible, but that’s another issue.)
The world of Asgard is impressive. The actual place itself is beautiful and majestic, and the sets are opulent and alien. The costumes are faithful to the spirit of the comics but believable in three dimensions, and the stuff Thor does with Mjolnir is so cool; the gag at the end when he just lays the hammer on Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) chest because an unworthy god could never lift it is ingenious. Even the sound design is impressive; the uncanny whoosh as Mjolnir pierces the sky, or the inhuman vooom when the Destroyer, Odin’s mindless monster, emits a deadly energy beam from his face are like a comic come to life.
What Doesn’t Hold Up
Okay, so you know how I said the world of Asgard is impressive and beautiful? The world of man is the exact opposite. It’s small, phony, and cheap-looking.
To some degree, that may be by design. It does make it clear just how far Thor has fallen when he was cast out of Asgard by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). He’s gone from the most glorious realm in the universe to East Bumbleville, a town populated by 35 movie extras in the middle of the New Mexico desert. (Technically the place is called Puente Antiguo.)
But even if that was the filmmakers’ intention, they overdid it. Puente Antiguo is way too tiny to play a believable community; it’s just one perfectly groomed drag in the middle of the desert. It looks like the fake city on the backlot tour at the old Disney MGM Studios; you keep waiting for an earthquake to hit and then a tanker to spill a bunch of water out in the street. The only plausible explanation is that director Kenneth Branagh ran out of money midway through building Puente Antiguo and then went, “Eh, it’ll have to do.”
Some of the residents of Puente Antiguo are as flimsy as its storefronts. The primary human hero in the film is Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist who stumbles onto Thor after he’s expelled by Odin. Everywhere Jane goes, she’s trailed by Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), another scientist, and Darcy (Kat Dennings), their intern. Darcy’s role is comic relief, but Thor provides his own comic relief when he gets amusingly confused by the customs of Earth. (The best is when Thor eats pancakes and then orders more coffee by smashing his cup on the ground.) So it’s a lot of jokes on top of jokes, and instead of making things funnier, they make a lot of the interactions feel forced and written.
Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events
Can I say none? I’m going to go with none.
There are two big teases in Thor; one is pointless, the other is downright confusing. The first is the Marvel Cinematic Universe debut of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who appears, extremely briefly, as a guy with a bow and arrow waiting to shoot Thor while he tries to lift Mjolnir, which SHIELD has locked down in a secure government facility. Renner appears, aims, does absolutely nothing, and then leaves. He doesn’t even show up with the rest of SHIELD at the end of the film when Puente Antiguo is under attack from the Destroyer. What’s the opposite of auspicious debut? Right, a Hawkeye debut. There we go.
The post-credit scene at the end of the film is frustrating as well. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Dr. Selvig are in an undisclosed location, looking at the Tesseract, the MacGuffin of the next Marvel movie, Captain America: The First Avenger. Fury shows Selvig a briefcase, and Loki appears over Selvig’s shoulder prompting him to respond, apparently controlling his mind. But not five minutes before, we saw Loki “die,” falling from Asgard into a black hole. Selvig and Loki don’t even have any scenes together; when did he find time to infect his brain?
Best Marvel Easter Egg
The first Thor comics Marvel produced were by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In their conception, Thor was the alter ego of a mortal man; a doctor with a bum leg named Donald Blake. Blake discovered a walking stick in a cave, and when he struck it against the ground, he transformed into Thor and the cane became Mjolnir.
Later, we learned that Odin had turned Thor into Donald Blake, erased his memory, and put him on Earth to learn humility, which is not unlike the events of this movie. So it’s clever how Marvel Studios worked Donald Blake into Thor; when Dr. Selvig bails Thor out of SHIELD custody, he claims Thor is a troubled colleague named ... you guessed it: Donald Blake.
There’s a weird contradiction at the heart of Thor: It’s a pretty good Marvel movie, but also it would be a much better movie if it wasn’t part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The whole film builds to this grand sacrifice by Thor; he has fallen in love with Jane but he has to return to Asgard to defeat Loki, and then he has to destroy the Bifrost (the rainbow bridge that connects their worlds) to stop an invasion. Doing so, we’re told several times, would cut Asgard off from Earth forever. Thor would never see Jane again.
This is a very noble gesture, and an important one in proving Thor’s growth as a character over the course of the film, from selfish child to mature leader. But any emotional impact this act might have is completely blunted by the fact that the very last credit in the film is “Thor will return in The Avengers.” Plus, a second later, there’s Loki, defying death and influencing events on Earth. Why did we go through all of that stuff? The film is its own worst spoiler.
This is the downside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s wonderful the way that characters can crossover and interact, but its episodic nature sometimes means endings don’t have nearly the finality they should. Otherwise, Thor is slightly better than I remembered. It has an assured sense of self; Branagh brings a Shakespearean grandiosity to the battle for the throne of Asgard, and Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Hopkins all deliver confident, convincing performances. (One hallmark of Marvel, then and now: Their films are always extremely well-cast.) Hemsworth’s Thor voice is a little more mannered than in later films — he over-enunciates at times — but that works for the character; the longer he stays on Earth among humans, the more he loosens up and adopts their speech patterns. The score, by Patrick Doyle, is lush and romantic; it’s one of the better pieces of music in the MCU.
It’s fun to look back at Thor now and compare it to the just-released Black Panther, another film about one family’s struggle for control of a fantastically advanced kingdom. There are a lot of parallels between T’Challa and Thor as men, and between Black Panther and Thor as movies; with 800 other Marvel characters to service as well, it might be hard, but I hope Infinity War finds some time for those two to exchange notes. (“Oh, your brother’s a jerkhole? My cousin’s a jerkhole!”)
Speaking of jerkholes: Next time on the History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Nazi stand-ins!
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