In 2011, Marvel’s crossover film project was not in full swing just yet, but the studio was definitely gearing up for it. By this point, they had released two films featuring Iron Man, a cybernetically enhanced hero, and one starring The Hulk, the product of a radiation experiment gone wrong. For all their disparities in style, both were relatively down-to-earth takes on the superhero genre.
However, the MCU would not limit itself like that. For their next feature, they merged science fiction with ancient mythology, a potent fusion that would carry the nascent saga to its endgame. The introduction of magic did not come with Doctor Strange, nor was Guardians of the Galaxy the first to take the franchise off-Earth. The film that arguably demonstrated the sheer possibilities of the MCU more than any other was 2011’s Thor.
Thor may have been obscure compared to, say, Spider-Man, and he may have seemed like a bizarre fit with the more grounded sci-fi of Iron Man, The Hulk, and other superhero movies of the time. However, he was a founding member of the Avengers’ first incarnation in the comics. In fact, he was the hero who needed the help of other heroes. Once his conflict with Loki lands on Earth (as it also does in the first Avengers movie), other superheroes rally to Thor’s aid. There was no way that the character could not be among the first to appear in the MCU.
Marvel Studios just had to find a way to bring the God of Thunder to life in a way that would not seriously clash with their other plans. Somehow, they managed to almost literally bridge the sci-fi side with the fantasy side. The Asgardians and the Frost Giants are aliens, and the realms are connected by Einstein-Rosen bridges.
Thor states as much to astrophysicist Jane Foster as they stargaze: “Your ancestors called it magic and you call it science. Well, I come from a place where they’re one and the same thing.”
Thor is bizarre in its construction, and likely intentionally so. It contains parallel plots of Shakespearean palace intrigue (courtesy of veteran Shakespeare actor/director Kenneth Branagh) and fish-out-of-water comedy. Thor is initially part of the former, but his boneheaded warmongering results in his father, the Asgardian king Odin, stripping him of his power and banishing him from his home (to a desert, no less — a fitting punishment for a former storm god). This leaves an opening for Loki, Thor’s brother and God of Mischief, to manipulate kingdoms without interference. For his sins, Thor repeatedly embarrasses himself on Earth, where he’s viewed as foolish and delusional (if likable).
This also causes the film to break from the standard superhero origin formula. Tony Stark creates his own powers for survival and then for fun, while Bruce Banner’s powers are unintended and unwanted. Neither hero gains them as a result of being good people.
In contrast, Thor already has his incredible abilities at the start but loses them because his acts of malice (though somewhat instigated by Loki) bring two kingdoms to the brink of war. Under Odin’s secret terms, he can only regain his godhood by learning to be selfless. This is the tale of a superhero earning his gifts as a result of being heroic, rather than learning to be heroic after receiving his powers.
Thor proves this to Odin by sacrificing himself for love interest Foster and the people of Earth. He truly proves this to the audience by destroying the Bifrost to prevent Loki’s destruction of Jotunheim, the very kingdom he wanted to destroy out of hatred at the film’s start — despite knowing that it would sever his connection to Foster. In this regard, Thor lays the groundwork for Captain America (who similarly receives his powers because of his perceived innate goodness) and other Marvel heroes to come.
Worth a Look
Like much of the Phase 1 MCU movies, Thor stands out from later films in its tone, style, and story. However, this unevenness makes for a fun and interesting experience. Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s performances as Thor and Loki would become lynchpins for future movies, especially Thor: Ragnarok, and you can see hints of their future excellence here.
Branagh also brings out the full drama of their conflicts to surprisingly strong effect. Any fan of the modern incarnation of the God of Thunder should rewatch this one, at least to see where it all began.
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