Thor is director Kenneth Branagh’s sweeping fantasy film and character epic. It’s a superhero movie focused on the truest form of heroism: selflessness. Thor is a literal god, played by hyper-masculine and disarmingly handsome Chris Hemsworth. We know he can throw down with the best of them. However, he lacks humility. The first lines we hear from a young Thor are him as a child, mistaking power for worthiness. “When I’m king, I’ll hunt the monsters down and slay them all!” To which Odin, father and king replies, “A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it.” Of course Thor plows through countless enemies, even gigantic beings of frost and war. It’s all he understands. Thor’s journey isn’t one of achieving physical strength, but one of embracing humility.
Thor’s actions are predicated by his desire to fight. His physical might drives him to prove his worthiness. The film, while sporadically inciting fun action beats, never once plays it for anything positive. A friend is stabbed, Loki comes across an upsetting revelation, Thor starts a war. Action is the emotional low point. From the perspective of Thor’s character, it’s a triumphant battle against monstrous beings. To Odin and Laufey, king of Jotunheim, Thor has merely called for war. As a child, he said he would slay them all. As a young man, Thor says the same. Along with the love and admiration of his world, wielding Mjolnir comes with great power and great responsibility. Thor is unworthy so he is cast out, literally being brought down to earth.
Currently the last Marvel Studios production shot on film, Thor brings heightened fantasy realms to tangible humanity. Even the CG creations like the Frost Giants and Destroyer have life to them, each feeling distinct and large in their own ways. Jack Kirby style designs superimposed with classical fantasy aesthetics. Colors pop off the rainbow bridge, golden structures comprise the MCU equivalent of heaven: Gaudy and with nary a mortal element in sight. Nebulas of the cosmos surround the Bifrost, images inspired from the Hubble Telescope. It’s an appropriately awkward transition then when the scenes on Earth are filmed in a desolate New Mexico landscape, with a town so small it could be part of an Old West production. They’re filmed in the same manner, bringing a connectivity to the disparate elements along with the much discussed Dutch Angles. Love ’em or hate ’em, they add a distinct flavor.
For all the desire to have superhero films feel “different”, nobody ever talks about just how bizarre Thor is. We hop from cold open Twister style scenario straight into a flashback filled with fantasy and cosmic entities. Then, back to the present, we throw Thor Odinson into fish out of water shenanigans, juxtaposed against Asgard scenes where Loki plans an inter-planetary coup. So how do the wildly disparate tones even begin to connect?
In many ways, Thor shouldn’t work as a movie. Branagh juggles a variety of tones and emotions, mixing the fantastical with the theoretical, and over half an hour of the film devoted to people just talking. This is a movie about the God of Thunder and his new friends, where audiences are merely treated to characters meeting and discussing their world views. Perfect. It’s the secret to any massive genre effort like this. Attention to detail in scope and wonder is more than welcome for a movie of this size, and although the shifting tones do not always transition fluidly, I would rather see a film confident enough in its material to explore character and grander themes.
While Loki schemes away on Asgard with a maniacal plot to destroy a world, the Earth portions of the film detail Thor’s struggle with banishment. It’s a bold move to revolve a film around the God of Thunder and minimal action scenes; there are only one or two extended action sequences for roughly half the film’s run time. And hardly any of it is actually set up for future MCU movies.
For a franchise with the constant complaint of inter-connectivity, Thor’s only connection to the MCU is in S.H.I.E.L.D. which screenwriters Zack Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller actually had to convince Marvel Studios to use as to give Thor further conflict once he was on our planet. S.H.I.E.L.D are not his enemies, nor are they puzzle pieces to a larger picture. They’re small potatoes stumbling upon a fantasy epic confined to a small town. Yet, while they provide minor conflict for even a de-powered Thor, they’re utilized in a way to show how unimportant physical strength is when Thor is using it out of self-interest. He can plow through puny humans but he has yet to learn what it means to be a good man. What good is strength when it’s driven by vanity?
The humans Jane Foster, Erik Selvig and Darcy Lewis give Thor insight into their world while each having their own perspective. Darcy, plucky young college student with a penchant for social media and recording events. Erik Selvig, the oldest of the group, held a special place in his heart for Norse folklore as a child, is now a renowned scientist forced to confront the possibility of magic and science being one and the same. Jane Foster, an astrophysicist whose connection with the God of Thunder doesn’t require a romance to be interesting. The two communicate the difference and similarities between perceptions of science and magic, how their worlds connect, fantasy made tangible. Three generations of humans approach the events of the film on differing spectrums before culminating in an oddball family of sorts. However, it’s the connection between Jane Foster and Thor that nurtures an understated but effective romance. Literal star-crossed lovers, Jane and Thor’s connection speaks to the bigger impetus of connecting the two worlds, grounding fantasy with science fiction. Thor is Jane’s answer to the grand cosmic questions, Jane is Thor’s guide to understanding empathy. Yet the two can exist without one another, Jane in particular has her own life. They both maintain individual agency. Their connections make them stronger as characters, not weaker.
Opposing Thor’s growth, Loki loses any semblance of humility. As Thor learns to rise above his former self, Loki descends, the madness of the adopted Odinson blinding him to empathetic connections and familial ties. He has no place in his adoptive home of Asgard and he nearly committed genocide against his home realm. Torn between two worlds, two people, succumbing to anguish and rage, Loki lets go and falls into a cosmic abyss.
Where Thor once saw violence as the only means to greatness, he has now been shown the wonders of human connection outside the battlefield. Thor’s physical strength ultimately saves Jotunheim by destroying the Bifrost but only at the cost of the relationships he has spent the entire movie building. Thor doesn’t sacrifice a physical life, but it closes off the emotional connections that helped him grow to be the hero his parents saw in him.
All the wondrous fantasy elements are set to a score by Patrick Doyle, inspiring a Lord of the Rings level of unabashed commitment to genre. Rousing and epic throughout, there are moments where the score retains an undercurrent of melancholy moods. The final moments after the destruction of the Bifrost reiterate previous blaring moments into a more subdued, respectful rhythm. There’s a sadness to the fate of Loki and Thor sacrificing the connections he’s made. All he hopes now is to continue learning to be a better man, hoping to make his family proud of the man he could be. Odin simply tells him, “You already have.”
After the destruction of the Bifrost, Thor no longer relishes the festivities of Asgard. He walks to the edge of a shattered Rainbow Bridge with the ever-vigilant Heimdall. With no way to bring the two worlds together again, Thor looks down, hopeless and longing for the people he left behind on Earth. Heimdall simply affirms to Thor she searches for him. There was always hope for Thor and his family to be better, to do better. And there always will be.