MCU Rewind: Thor, Marvel’s Make-It or Break-It Moment, Worked Because of Its Shakespearean Street Cred
Every Phase 1 Marvel film represents a huge gamble by the studio, but if they were ever going to fall flat on their faces, it would have been with Thor. (Arguably they did, but we’ll talk about The Dark World later.) What makes this film the linchpin for Phase 1 is that it was the first time that the newly-formed Marvel Studios had to embrace some truly wacky comic book elements. By 2011, the modern superhero genre had been around for a decade. Part of what made these films work so well is that the filmmakers grounded them in reality. Yes, they were fantastical stories about beings with incredible powers, but they still felt real. Masks and tights and capes work great on the pages of a comic, but don’t translate well to live-action human bodies. Yet, because of director Kenneth Branagh’s great respect for the source material, both comic and mythological, the movie we ended up with was one that took itself seriously. And that makes all the difference.
Thor, especially the early runs of the series, was always a weird book. Yes, the series was myth-based and grounded in the “real” world. Thor even had a secret identity, Donald Blake. However, it also was a realm-spanning epic that featured villains both mythical and cosmic. Dressing up grown adults in flamboyant armor, horned headpieces, and flowing capes seems like the perfect recipe for a farce. In the wrong hands, this movie would have been ridiculous and could have sapped all enthusiasm for the burgeoning MCU. Luckily, as a boy growing up in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh had more than a passing fascination with the Norse god-turned-superhero. After a three-month audition process, he signed on to direct the film, and his vision for it was precisely what saved it from being a kitschy camp-fest like the Joel Schumacher Batman films.
During an interview at the San Diego Comic-Con before the film’s release, Branagh bristled at the idea that his Shakespearean experience placed him “above” the comic genre. To him, despite the differences in medium, comic book stories and Shakespearean epics are two sides of the same coin. To this very day, there are supposedly smart people who firmly believe that just because a story has its origins in comic books it is automatically unserious kids’ stuff. Branagh rightly points out that even though Shakespeare is considered the height of literary and theater excellence, at the time he was active his art was the lowest of the low-brow. Still, even if you discount that the two are similar in quality, you have to admit the other similarities. In Shakespeare serious actors wear ridiculous clothes, affect old-timey accents, fight battles, and use magic. What helped make Thor a successful film is that Branagh saw neither difference or distinction, which set the tone for a movie that did not shy away from the more ostentatious visuals from the comics.
Interestingly, this film borrows from the first Iron Man film, at least with respect to the structure of its first act. We first meet Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, Kat Dennings’s charming Darcy, and Dr. Erik Selvig portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård. They are rushing out to check out what is Thor’s arrival on the planet Earth, which apparently affects the weather. The short drive to the site of the event is enough for these characters to establish both what they are doing and their relationships. I think it works very well, though an argument could be made that it’s a little clunky. The exposition lines are distinct from the characterization lines, exposing the hands of the writers more than it should. It’s also not all that exciting. Whereas the attack on Tony Stark’s convoy had clear stakes and compelling action, this first scene is essentially Twister but with space-lights. Still, it cuts away after Foster strikes a recently-made-mortal Thor with her strangely militaristic van.
The deleted scenes on the home release of the movie show us what the actual first introduction of (the adult) Thor could have been. He walks into a hall of some kind in Asgard, slamming a cup of wine into a fire and shouting “Another!” He then finds Loki, in full horn-head regalia, and they have a chat about Thor’s big day. Honestly, this scene should not have been cut. It’s a great performance from Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth that really drives home the affection and connection these two feel. Especially because it’s no secret that Loki is guaranteed to betray his brother, better showcasing their initial bond would have really helped. It sets up the relationship and Loki’s sensitivity to being mocked. There are moments throughout the film that still do this. But that first scene would have established a high baseline, so that when their compatriots mock Loki or Thor tells him to “know his place,” audiences would really feel the sting.
One of the great elements added by either the screenwriters or Branagh is how the film treats Loki. It’s very subtle, but it’s clear that at the beginning he is the god of “mischief” and not evil. (Though, his version of mischief cost two Aesir guards their lives, lol I guess?) He’s not trying to take over Asgard or murder his family, he just wants to ruin the day that Thor is officially named heir to his father’s throne. So when the group of frost giants break into the vault to steal back their precious glowy thing, it’s really just a troll on Loki’s part. We like to think of Loki as a master strategist, and an argument can be made that the events of the film were all due to his machinations. However, on this latest rewatch, I believe that he’s actually just making it all up as he goes. He’s smart enough to perfectly manipulate people at the right moment, but it’s not some grand scheme. Because in that deleted first scene, it’s clear that Loki does, in fact, love his brother despite his desire to make trouble for him.
For example, when he tells their compatriots that he set it up so his father would be informed, Hiddleston plays it that he’s truly cross they weren’t stopped before they left Asgard. This also explains why he wanted to “handle” Idris Elba’s menacing Heimdall, but appeared to take the wrong approach. He was stalling, but Thor stepped on that plan. (Which leads to a slight from Ray Stevenson’s Volstagg, that clearly annoys Loki.) Yet, in that same scene, Loki’s assessment of his brother’s character is accurate. In the beginning of the film Thor is a rage-filled meathead who wants to smash every problem he has with his magic hammer. He’s entitled and over-confident. All of this is established in the scene we get of Thor and Loki as children while Anthony Hopkins’s Odin tells them (and us) the history of Asgard and Midgard. Loki’s correct when he says that Thor’s rule would bring war and chaos. Yet, if we consider that this is a result Loki did not anticipate, we can read his anger in this moment as anger not just at Thor but also himself.
Of course, the revelation at the end of the first act of Loki’s true lineage changes all this. Here is where Loki takes the turn from troubled hero to full-on villain. Angry that the throne — which he claims to have never wanted — is not actually his birthright, he launches a plan to take it for himself. Whether or not he actually wanted to kill Odin is debateable, since the double cross of Colm Feorte’s King Laufey seems to have been baked into his plan all along. He does try to kill Thor and their fellow warriors (as well as an entire town of mortals), but by then was too deep in his plan to quit. Had he simply surrendered and confessed when Thor returns in the third act, he’d likely still have ended up imprisoned in the Asgardian dungeons we see in the sequel. Loki’s sense of privilege and entitlement meant he usually got out of trouble, but there was no smiling and apologizing on the other side of a coup for the throne.
Privilege and entitlement are key themes in this movie, because they are central to Thor’s character arc. The Thor we meet is almost unrecognizable from the Thor from later films. Sure, the Thunder God has his swagger and powerful outbursts. But Hemsworth’s portrayal of Thor in the first act is filled with a level of rage that he may not have even matched in Avengers: Infinity War. After being scolded by Odin about his desire to go to war (and reminded that he’s not the king yet), Thor flips a fully-set banquet table in anger. When he first lands on Earth, he bellows and threatens Foster, Darcy, and Selvig. In an extended version of the hospital scene he knows the people he attacks in the hospital are “healers.” He calls them “savages” for taking his blood and not simply bringing “a healing stone.” Thor respects nothing and no one, including the people who fight side-by-side with him. All of his compatriots warn him about defying his father to go kick some frost giant ass, but he dismisses them all. He also manipulates them into joining his quest.
His time with the mortals, of course, is meant to civilize him. Even without the callback from that earlier deleted scene, him smashing the coffee cup on the floor and shouting “Another!” works on its own. Basically, Thor is the worst. Still, his time on Earth shows him both humility and the dignity of service (as evidenced when he serves food to Erik after their night of drunken revelry). Yet, its other purpose is to teach him about limitations and humility. During the entire second act, Thor has no powers. He’s still himself, both a very capable fighter and drinker. Yet, he can no longer just barrel into a situation with no plan and except his hammer or father to bail him out of trouble.
In Iron Man 2 the subplot involving S.H.I.E.L.D. felt a little shoehorned into the narrative. One reason was because, out of nowhere, Clark Greggson’s Agent Coulson just up-and-left to New Mexico. In Thor the S.H.I.E.L.D. subplot is a little more natural, because an immovable alien object fell out of the sky and landed in the desert. It’s also the first time we see a different side of S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead of Nick Fury showing up bearing gifts of exposition and solutions, they are antagonists, if only briefly. They aren’t played as villainous, of course. Thor assaults the base in a futile attempt to reclaim the power that he sees as his identity and his birthright in a fantastic action sequence. His eventual Avengers teammate Clint Barton, a brief cameo by Jeremy Renner, even says he’s “rooting” for Thor. They are so clearly on the side of the angels in this one, that the culmination of their plot amounts to about five lines of dialogue in the final act. Still, this was an organic way to world-build for the Avengers while not departing from the central narrative of the film. In fairness to critics of the movie, at the time Coulson’s laid back approach could seem forced. However, with what we know about the character from his continued appearances in the MCU, it is consistent with his character. He is willing to trust in the fantastic.
There is also a turning point for Thor’s arc in the S.H.I.E.L.D. base. Loki appears to Thor to tell him that Odin has died and that his mother Frigga, played by Rene Russo, blames him. At this point in the story, Thor is deep in the inmost cave, so the only place for him to go is up. His redemption doesn’t begin when he sacrifices himself to save the town in the third act, it starts here when he apologizes to Loki. Despite his penchant for chaos, Thor trusts Loki and doesn’t doubt what he says for a moment. Instead of raging or shouting to Heimdall in the sky, he accepts the blame. He recognizes his flaws after being rejected by Mjolnir and apologizes for them. Ironically, Loki saved his brother in this moment, which supports the idea that he’s making it up as he goes along. The smarter play would have been to let Thor think Odin still wanted him gone, thereby keeping his brother obstinate and angry. In telling Thor he’d truly lost both of his parents, he had nothing left to lose (or so he thought). Then he turned to the only family he had left, the goofy humans he’s been hanging out with for two days.
After Selvig “bails” Thor out of S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, the two bond over booze and song. (Another fun deleted scene, but a good cut because the bit works better when what happens is left to audiences’ imaginations.) He then also bonds/flirts with Jane, god-splaining the cosmos to her. It’s a bit rushed, but Thor accepts that there is dignity in these short, silly mortal lives we lead. Another quick example of this is how when the Asgardian death ‘bot comes to raze the town, Thor’s primary concern is not “doing glorious battle” but rescuing innocents. His compatriots from Asgard, sans Loki of course, arrived on Earth, and Thor tells them to fight without him. Later, he tells them to flee as well, not wanting them to sacrifice their lives for nothing. Again, this represents that he’s aware of his limitations and has refocused his priorities. Finally, he accepts that the only way to save both the town and his friends is to lay himself at his brother’s mercy.
Some people say that the early MCU had “a third-act problem.” This movie is almost certainly one of their examples. The two-stage climactic fight — first on Earth, then in Asgard — ate up too much time. They breeze over the emotional climax in order to get back to kicking ass with capes and hammers. Unfortunately, the (literal) battle royal between Thor and Loki, complete with world-ending genocide threat, feels a little extraneous. Similarly, the destruction of the bi-frost was good storytelling, but feels unnecessary since both Loki and Thor make their way to Earth by the time Avengers happens. In fact, the only important story work done here is in service of Loki’s character arc.
The most important moment is when Loki “saves” his father from being killed by King Laufey. His plan was never to allow his parents to be killed, but rather to prove himself to his father by destroying their enemy in a less direct way than Thor would have. Hiddleston plays this so well during his final scene in the movie. You can see Loki’s pain on his face, and we hear it when he tells his father he “could have done it.” Odin could have said anything to save his adopted son, but he simply dismissed him. That’s when Loki lets go and falls into the void of the collapsing bi-frost (arguably creating the wormhole from the third Thor film). Only Thor seems to be truly upset in the moment at the loss of his brother. This film is as much Loki’s story as it is Thor’s. It saw the latter go from a spoiled brawler to a hero, and the former go from a troubled little brother to a full-blown super-villain. It’s only because Loki loses everything, including his chance to win his father’s favor, that he goes on to ally himself with Marvel’s chief bad guy: Thanos.
Even with the cluttered final act (a problem that could likely have been solved with an extra 15 minutes or so of movie), Thor is a fantastic entry in the MCU canon. Branagh’s deep respect for the story and the source material is evident in the execution. This silly cape movie about aliens who dress like vikings has heart and gravitas, proving that it’s possible to embrace certain “comic book elements” in a serious picture. In a way, Thor suggested the most strongly that Marvel Studios could make anything work. If this movie didn’t work, there wouldn’t have been a Guardians of the Galaxy or, maybe, Captain Marvel. When talking about the people who helped cement the reputation of Marvel Studios, we often mention the obvious ones like Robert Downey, Jr. or Kevin Feige. But fans of the MCU owe a great debt to what Kenneth Branagh accomplished with this movie.
Even the post-credits scene is masterful, though there were likely many more hands on that piece of the movie than just the director’s. In it, Selvig meets Nick Fury, again played by Samuel L. Jackson, in a creepy basement. He then shows him yet another glowy thing that he wants them to work on. This does double duty teasing both Avengers and Captain America: First Avenger because both films involve the Tesseract, our first Infinity Stone. Cap’s first movie was also a risk, but a different one than previous installments. The risk in that film was with the character himself, because Steve Rogers doesn’t really have any flaws. Put another way, if it was Stefanie Rogers instead of Steve, Cap would have been called a “Mary Sue.” This term is often misused, and doesn’t apply here regardless of Cap’s gender. Still, a pure-as-the-driven-snow protagonist is risky storytelling and hadn’t been done in the hero genre since Christopher Reeve made the world believe a man could fly.