Welcome back, True Believers! To mark the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, join us as we rewatch the entire series, one film at a time.
This time, we leave Midgard and learn that god is real – and he’s handsome as hell. How does the MCU balance fantasy with traditional superheroics, how much of the film is shot at a 45° angle, and which actor isn’t the way we remembered them?
Tim: Thor is our first move beyond the strict boundaries of ‘grounded’ modern sci-fi and our first trip off Earth. How do we think it holds up?
Alex: You’re right that this is where we first visit the MCU’s cosmic side, but Thor always has one foot in the real world – or at least the Marvel version of it. This is pretty clearly a film of two halves, and I reckon one of those halves works a lot better than the other.
The film begins with Jane Foster and her science squad, grounding us in relatively familiar territory, before it begins journeying into mystery. And for me, the film is always best when it’s on home turf.
Tim: I think much of that is down to plotting – both our story and our hero are rooted in New Mexico for most of the narrative, so it’s only natural they function better there.
For me, the true miracle of this film is how deftly it manages to hop from one place to the other, striking different tones without ever feeling too jarring. Compare it to Green Lantern, which came out the same year and also split its time between ‘grounded’ Earth action and big cosmic space stuff, and it’s easy to see how badly that can go.
In fact, the way the film starts off with Earth and Asgard profoundly separate, and then brings them closer and closer together until we literally have Loki turning around in Odin’s throne room and the Destroyer mirroring him in New Mexico… that’s a beautiful use of plotting and imagery to sell theme.
Alex: It’s not so much the contrast or balance that bothers me – I agree that’s all well-handled – but Asgard itself. Marvel isn’t willing to commit to sci-fi, fantasy or mythology, and so we end up with a setting that feels a little too familiar, only occasionally delivering the awe-inspiring visuals you’d want from the home of the gods.
But there is plenty to love here. Which, actually, brings us swiftly onto our next section.
Alex: It’s notable that, although the MCU is now four films deep, this is only the second time we’ve been introduced to a future Avenger in their own headline movie. At least, one played by the same actor we’ll be seeing later on. The same dreamy, charming, beautifully-maned actor.
I think my crush on Chris Hemsworth is well documented at this point, but I will attempt to maintain some level of objectivity, and say that it’s remarkable how immediately charismatic he is as Thor. From his introduction, strolling triumphantly into the halls of Asgard to be crowned king, he’s so obviously the roguish confident jock we’d all come to love.
Tim: With Ghostbusters, Ragnarok and Infinity War, we’re now well used to praising Hemsworth’s comedy chops, but you can see them on display almost immediately here. The unwritten rule seems to be ‘when in doubt, put Thor in some pain or a moment of physical comedy’. Just him getting hit by cars or carrying Eric Selvig home turn into wonderful character moments.
Alex: It’s interesting to note that those slapstick moments never really happen to Thor in Asgard. You can read it two ways, I think. Either that high fantasy is a genre too straight-faced for pratfalls, or it’s because Asgard is Thor’s domain, a place that he doesn’t just call home but will one day rule over.
Tim: It’s interesting how one-note he feels in those early scenes in Asgard, especially compared to his characterisation when he returns. Rewatching Thor, Hemsworth gives a far more nuanced performance than we often give him credit for, especially in terms of his character arc.
Those light-hearted, fish-out-of-water moments can be read as Thor still not fully coming to terms with his own banishment. For him, it’s just a temporary jolly on Earth while his dad cools down. His failed quest for Mjolnir, followed by his meeting with Loki, are his real low points, but they lead him to the very sweet conversation with Jane on the rooftop.
Alex: That arc is actually not too dissimilar to Tony Stark’s. He’s an over-confident character – the kind you’d probably hate in real life, but sold through the sheer power of the performance – who, through unexpected circumstances, has to learn to be a little more humble.
Tim: Talking of people who should learn some humility – let’s move onto Loki, who in many ways is both the antagonist and co-protagonist of the film, especially when it comes to the scenes in Asgard.
Alex: Revisiting this film now, Loki is absolutely the part that is furthest from how I remembered it. He gets plenty of screen time, but doesn’t make the immediate splash I was expecting.
Tim: Yeah – he’s still definitely the most interesting villain we’ve had in a Marvel film, but I think that maybe speaks more to the relatively poor showings we’ve seen in that department so far. Back when Thor came out, I remember people going wild for Loki, and Hiddleston’s portrayal, and rewatching it, it doesn’t feel extraordinary enough to merit that kind of attention.
Alex: I think it’s partly because we now have the weight of everything that has come since with Loki piled onto our expectations. At the time, maybe this stuff felt newer, rather than a prototype for what was to come.
On the other hand, ‘everything that’s come since’ is actually part of what makes Loki, as you say, the most interesting villain yet. Because he’s the first created to be a serialised character, not a done-in-one antagonist. That means he’s more than just a mirror for the hero, and also that space can be left to explore him more fully later. Functionally, Loki’s role here is closer to someone like Black Widow in Iron Man 2 than a traditional villain – a supporting character we’re getting a first taste of here, which will be expanded on later.
Taking this film on its own, Loki’s motivations are a little elusive. Does he want to save the kingdom, or just rule it? Given his devious machinations at the start of the film, how does finding out the truth about his heritage change him?
That’s kind of frustrating, if appropriate for a trickster god. But as we see more of him, we can re-examine those motives and plans with more context and get a different picture of what he was up to.
Tim: It’s interesting that Loki and Thor are separated for as long a period as they are. If they were your standard hero-and-enemy it wouldn’t feel odd, but given the fact they are brothers and, at the start of the film, ostensibly on the same side, they spend relatively little time interacting. Both of them tend to be framed in terms of their relationship with Odin, rather than each other – but like you say, they are both built for serialisation, and the way they interact is more thoroughly examined further into the series.
Alex: One of the things that is sorely lacking – and probably contributes to our disappointment with Loki here – is brotherly banter between the two, something that really came to the fore in Ragnarok. There’s a deleted scene that would have been our introduction to Thor and Loki as adults, where they rib each other – playfully, but with a hint of real sharpness underneath. I can see why it had to go, for pacing reasons, but it’s a real shame.
GET CAPE. WEAR CAPE. FLY?
Tim: I think by the end, Thor is the most obviously a ‘superhero’ film yet. We have multiple characters clearly set up for serialisation, a villain who survives past the end of the film to return later, and a solid focus on saving people.
In the Destroyer attack on Puente Antiguo, he’s willing to sacrifice his life to save others, rather than directly attacking the problem like a traditional action hero – which is also the moment he’s deemed ‘worthy’. Similarly, Thor’s final fight with Loki is all about saving the Frost Giants from destruction, the people he considered enemies at the start of the film. Also, he’s flying around with a bright red cape on.
Alex: That’s interesting given that on the surface, Thor is the MCU’s most obvious pivot from traditional superhero fare. There are all sorts of other genres running through it. Fantasy and sci-fi… and it really is both simultaneously, with Jotunheim being equal parts Lord of the Rings‘ Moria and the H.R. Giger egg planet from Alien. There’s even a pinch of Shakespearean courtly drama in there.
That influence, I think, helps make sense of the divide we’ve mentioned between the Asgard and Earth segments. It’s a classic Shakespeare plot structure: the hero exiled from his rightful court and making his way around the wilderness, while we see everything that happens in his absence. His return being delayed by the trickery of a deceiver, until he eventually sees through it and makes his way home.
So it’s probably apt that the lion’s share of Shakespearean syntax ends up in the mouth of Loki. And Tom Hiddleston really goes for it. I think he’s the one actor giving a trad RSC performance in this movie, as Thor slips increasingly into modernity. He’s a bro, a jock, a chill dude. Loki is an Iago, always.
Tim: I think bringing Branagh on to amp up the Shakespeare was a clever move, although different people approach it in different ways. Sir Anthony, bless him, is going ham Shakespeare (or should that be going HAM on Shakespeare?), aiming for the people at the back who might not be picking up that he’s a Serious Actor. The Warriors Three, especially Volstagg, are sort of classic Shakespearean comedy sidekicks, which makes them a fun contrast to Darby, who feels like she dropped out of an NBC sitcom.
Alex: Of course, there’s another genre at work here, one that is just being forged as Thor comes out: the Marvel Movie. How well do you think it fits that mould?
Tim: As we’ve mentioned, there are a lot of genre trappings swirling around in the mix, but we can certainly pick out some threads here, especially looking back to the first Iron Man. Both of them cut straight to the defining moment for the character straight away – Iron Man trapped in the cave, Thor exiled to Earth – then flashback to see how they got there.
The two have similar character arcs, as we’ve mentioned, and they also both discard with the idea of the secret identity. There’s no Donald Blake beyond a brief nod for the comic readers – Thor is Thor, wherever he is.
Alex: Those are all good decisions, which help the film stay rooted in a familiar world even as it starts to venture outside of it. So, what about stylistically? The thing everyone remembers about Thor is all the Dutch angles, and for good reason. Seemingly every other shot is tilted over on its side a little. It’s like the whole thing was filmed during one of Thor’s legendary drinking sessions. But, drunk camera crew aside, does this look like a Marvel movie?
Tim: Asgard and Earth obviously feel very different stylistically, but Jane Foster’s homemade quantum phenomena-tracking equipment certainly feels in line with the portrayal of science in the MCU so far.
Beyond that, it’s interesting to note that when the film is on Earth, it’s a lot more willing to go handheld, compared to stately fixed shots on Asgard. Handheld isn’t something I can remember a lot of from previous films either (except perhaps Tony’s escape from the cave?) so add that to Dutch angles in terms of Branagh bringing his own vision to the developing ‘Marvel house style’.
One final thing that distinguishes this film, not from what’s come before but from the ongoing MCU – it’s the last to be shot on actual film. From Captain America: The First Avenger onwards, the MCU is digital. It’ll be interesting to note if we can spot the difference.
Alex: Captain America is certainly a very strange choice for the move to digital, thematically speaking.
One last bit of structural talk, though, and returning to my favourite rant… Thor does a better job of breaking up its action than most Marvel movies. There’s not an inexorable build to a huge climax, but a few well-placed setpieces, all of which are interesting in different ways.
We start with the Warriors Three (or Warriors Six, including Thor, Loki and Sif) in Jotunheim, which does a great job of quickly establishing a half-dozen distinct fighting styles. It also sets up Loki’s bait-and-switch disappearing act, which we’ll be seeing much, much more of in future films.
Around the halfway point, you get Thor versus SHIELD, which definitely feels like the weakest point, but does showcase a more physical style of action – and establishes Thor as a fearsome brawler, even without his powers. Squint a little, and it’s also another prototypical example of the Marvel Corridor Fight™.
And then, in line with the film’s split identity, we get two different climactic battles. The Destroyer in Puente Antiguo, which by the standards of most of Thor‘s peers is incredibly small-scale and low-stakes, in a really good way. And then there’s the emotional climax, as Thor and Loki come face-to-face on the rainbow bridge, which is fairly short and sweet.
Tim: For all his strengths as Loki, they never seem to have settled on a good fighting style for Tom Hiddleston outside of his familiar doppelgänger routine. In a way it makes sense – he’s a schemer, not a fighter – but in both the final fight here and throughout his appearances, his physical confrontations tend to fall a bit flat. Having him defeated not by power or skill but by simply having Mjolnir sat on him feels strangely apt.
BUILDING A UNIVERSE
Tim: We mentioned right at the outset that this is the MCU’s first big leap away from comic book science into fantasy trappings, with giants, gods and magic, but it’s interesting that it still attempts to root it all in science.
Jane Foster and her team are our entry point, and Thor’s explanations of Asgard take a very ‘magic is just crazy science’ approach. Even stuff like the Bifrost sounds a lot more mechanical than I remember, and puts me in mind of stuff like Stargate, which took a similar approach (albeit with Egyptian mythology).
Alex: Jane and the Fosterettes absolutely feel like they’re working in the same world as Stark and Banner. They’re DIY action-scientists.
So, yeah, science is a common thread between these movies, but the dominant power – and a theme we’ve been tracking throughout – is still the military. Though it’s notable that this is the first MCU film where they aren’t foregrounded.
The main manifestation of military might (how’s that for a bit of proper Stan Lee narration, true believers?) in Thor is SHIELD. And their presentation is fascinating because it’s so ambiguous. Coulson insists “we’re the good guys”, but they certainly don’t feel like it – swooping in and confiscating scientific research for ill-defined purposes. Honestly, I’m a little more inclined to agree with Selvig when he calls them “jackbooted thugs”. The most generous interpretation is that SHIELD are like the Men in Black of this universe, appearing whenever something strange happens and covering it up.
Tim: It’s interesting that, beyond acting as an obstacle between Thor and Mjolnir, SHIELD barely do anything in this film. They lock Thor up, sure, but that’s basically just an excuse to have him alone when Loki shows up for his “this is what I look like in Earth clothes btw Dad’s dead” talk.
That’s doubly true for Hawkeye, who readers would be forgiven for forgetting shows up briefly, to get in a lift and say that he likes Thor. Every frame he’s in sings “we added this in reshoots when we realised he’d be brainwashed for most of Avengers”.
Alex: I’m that rarest of things: a stan for MCU Hawkeye. But even I was underwhelmed by this introduction.
Tim: We have some interesting discussions ahead of us.
Alex: We certainly do. We’ll save that for a couple of films down the line, but for now I’ll just say that one of the things I like about his presence brings us back to a question that I’ve raised in a couple of our previous discussions. When does the balance of power in the MCU start to tip, away from the military and towards the superbeings?
You might expect it to be here, as a literal god manifests on Earth and we discover there are all-powerful beings out in space. But from the perspective of anyone living in that world, nothing has really changed. There were a couple of unexplained events out in the desert, but not anything beyond SHIELD’s paygrade. The US military remains the daddy of the MCU. For now.
Alex: As ever, let’s wrap up our discussion with a couple of our favourite moments and aspects of the film – or at least, those which are most representative of it as a whole.
Tim: I know the MCU soundtracks get a lot of criticism for failing to produce iconic themes to stand alongside John Williams’ Superman or Danny Elfman’s Batman, but, while it’s not exactly memorable, I really enjoy the Thor score. (The… Thore?)
It’s particularly effective in the film’s end credits sequence, which again ties back to the ‘magic as science’ idea by taking us rocketing through space, showing off nebulae, galaxies and more before bringing us home to Asgard.
Alex: I’ve said that I think the Asgard stuff is the weaker half of this film for me, and a large part of that is the way it all looks. But I have to admit, every time we pull up dramatically up on Asgard from below, I do get those cosmic butterflies in my tummy.
The other reason has nothing to do with that half’s weakness, and everything to do with the other’s strength. Thor does a remarkable job of building supporting casts – plural – and that’s especially true on Earth, with the gang I like to call The Scientists Three. They’re such a warm and funny presence, bringing the same flavour of back-and-forth squabbling that makes Tony and Pepper work. I also love how thirsty these bitches are when Thor takes his shirt off. It’s always good to see female desire not being treated as something alien, and frankly, who could blame them?
I really hope the recent rumours about Natalie Portman settling her differences with Marvel, and a potential return for Jane Foster, end up panning out.
Tim: With you tackling the Scientists Three, it seems only fair for me to highlight Sif and the Warriors Three, and while I don’t think they bring as much to the film as Foster et al, the moment of them showing up on Earth to wave at Thor through the window is one of such pure joy that it makes me smile every time I see it.
In the midst of royal intrigue, betrayal and danger, they’re all so happy to see their unfairly-banished friend. Coupled with their outlandish presence on Earth, and their reunion becomes a brief oasis of fantastical happiness just before the Destroyer shows up to plunge us back into drama and sacrifice
Alex: My final pick is really just underlining how fond I am of the earthbound stuff in this film. Specifically, love the cookout that forms around the fallen Mjolnir. It’s got that perfect MCU realism to it. Not in the sense of grittiness or elaborate explanations, but rather these very human – and in this case, particularly local – reactions to fantastical situations.
The fantasy of Asgard feels most potent to me when it’s glimpsed from that on-the-ground perspective. There’s something genuinely mystical about seeing the hammer fall from the clouds, from a distance. It’s an effective reminder that the Asgardians are someone we once worshipped.
And the cookout feels like the flip of that awed reaction. The hammer is quickly treated as something mundane, and society grows around it. That’s the Marvel Universe, to me.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
- Puente Antiguo, our New Mexico town setting, translates as ‘ancient bridge’, hinting that the Bifrost may have stopped off here before.
- Speaking of which, it’s interesting to see how casual the gods are about visiting Midgard. I get the impression this is Thor’s first time, but from the way Fandral talks about it, he probably took his gap yah there.
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: Loki’s Midgard-casual look – sharp-cut suit set off with a houndstooth scarf – is pitch perfect.
- The first flashback battle scene, featuring the Asgardians routing the Frost Giants from Earth, is pretty messy, with only Odin’s action clearly visible. While Thor: The Dark World receives (and will be receiving, in these very pages) a lot of criticism, the similar battle between the Asgardians and the Dark Elves is much better.
- The look of the Destroyer is right out of the comics, and the sound design is perfect. I can remember tweeting at the time that Destroyer-noise should be the new Inception-bwaaarmp.
- Faring less well are the Frost Giants, whose blue-facepaint-and-contacts look never quite gels. Their size is also incredibly inconsistent, although – as per Infinity War – it seems the MCU’s Giants are actually smaller than its Dwarves.
- Avenger Fuckability Scale: The next movie will introduce fierce competition for Tim’s heart (and pants), but Hemsworth’s Thor is the example Alex thinks of whenever people talk about sexuality being a spectrum. (God I just think you’d feel so safe in those big arms.)
- We didn’t really touch on Idris Elba’s Heimdall in our coverage. It’s great colour-blind casting, and he’s terrific. Heimdall so clearly knows what’s up from the jump, but is sworn to his duty not to intervene.
- The phrase “Odinsleep” will never not be funny. Occasionally one of us (who will remain nameless) will declare, at naptime, “I am taking the Alexsleep” – and that’s why they are a treat to live with.
- There’s a really nice match-cut from the photo of Thor in the Bifrost that Darcy finds to him waking up strapped to the hospital bed. Nice work, editor!
- Kyle the Pet Store Guy who doesn’t have any horses is one of my favourite one-line MCU characters.
- People talk about the Easter eggs (fake Infinity Gauntlet and Eye of Agamotto) in Odin’s treasure vault but, as Loki highlights in his “another stolen relic” line, it’s also an early indication of the colonialism that will be explored more fully in Ragnarok.
- Selvig’s face when he’s thrown onto his bunk by Thor is one of pure delight. Then again, who isn’t gonna be happy with Chris Hemsworth slinging them onto a bed?
- Odin’s bed includes an integrated sword holder. I want one.
- The frozen lightning of the Bifrost is a wonderfully comic-booky image.
- Obligatory Post-Credits Sequence post-credits sequence recap: Joss Whedon first gets his mucky paws on the MCU, as Selvig meets Fury and we meet Phase One’s MacGuffin of choice, the Tesseract. Oh, and Selvig is under Loki’s thrall. Surprise!
If you enjoyed this piece, and want to support the site, please visit patreon.com/timplusalex to help us make more stuff.