Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the Norse God of Thunder, sure. But if you were to believe his self-titled Marvel Cinematic Universe debut from 2011, he is the ultimate ineffectual millennial, at least by the standards of the thinkpieces that dominated glossy magazines at the time.
Take this evidence into account:
- He was raised by a “you can do anything you want if you really put your mind to it” father who never really took the time to show how that process works.
- His mom (played by Rene Russo) smiles silently in the background, but with a look in her eyes that says, “I’m not actually happy to be here, but I guess I love that charming screwup who lived inside me for nine months or however long it takes for magical people to gestate. I don’t have any lines until the denouement and I’ve been famous for decades anyway, who cares?”
- He tries to sound authoritative when speaking to those he would rule — like Heimdall (Idris Elba), his kingdom’s version of a transportation secretary. Heimdall simply dresses him down instead.
- He drinks boilermakers the boring way (the shot glass goes into the beer stein, you amateurs) with a European professor who is nicer to him than he deserves.
- He loves to rope his best pals into fucking shit up with weirdo townies in locations as varied as:
- an opulent rainbow space palace they didn’t do anything to earn;
- a New Mexico college-looking town with nothing in it besides a gas station and a diner and a fawning Natalie Portman;
- and a realm of evil ice people who have seen some stuff that makes them much tougher than what the overconfident Thor and company can handle.
That last one prompts papa Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to swoop in to fix things before Thor can start a war. That would be rather inconvenient for Odin to deal with when he’s ready to chill on a beach and cash in his 401k, if only his ne’er do well offspring would get his life together and take over the family business (intergalactic imperialism). This is a man whose go-to move to resolve conflict with his other son is to go to sleep for the rest of the movie – that’s some bonkers boomer energy right there, folks.
Oh, right, one last piece of this case: Thor’s rich as hell and everything works out okay for him once he takes the tiniest amount of personal responsibility when daddy can’t save him.
Director Kenneth Branagh and Thor’s small army of credited screenwriters definitely read a lot of The Atlantic’s “helicopter parent” drum beating when they were making this movie. They also spent a lot of time following the nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe bible for how to make a functionally entertaining, if often inert, pop culture confection. As The Spool’s own Jonah Koslofsky wrote of the MCU’s initial offering, 2008’s Iron Man, “In the end, character is king.”
Thor’s rich as hell and everything works out okay for him once he takes the tiniest amount of personal responsibility when daddy can’t save him.
This serves Thor the character well enough. This is especially true when the man portraying him, Chris Hemsworth, can lean on his superior comic timing in the fish-out-of-water sections set in New Mexico. He’s a perfect foil alongside a trio of scientists (Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kat Dennings) who do a lot of heavy lifting to onboard the audience to the idea that magical weather gods from the cosmos exist in the same universe as a billionaire playboy war profiteer who makes suits that are also flying hot rods with laser cannons on the hands. Because verisimilitude matters.
Hemsworth nails the comedy of this absurdly immature character (though nowhere close to the degree he would under the guidance of future MCU filmmakers like Taika Waititi and Joss Whedon), but Branagh and Marvel have a hero’s journey and action-adventure story to tell, too. That’s where things get a lot shakier in Thor.
When tasked with the more serious aspects of Thor owning up to his responsibilities, the filmmakers get about 65% of the way there. Thor and his villainous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) trade barbs that are clever and entertaining, full of smirks and sideways glances and playful-but-seething jocularity. These back-and-forths are even moving in a way, as they cite their youthful traumas and jealousies to explain why they are in such conflict with each other.
Each signpost of Thor’s journey toward maturity is marked at algorithmically optimal points in the script, with clear cause and effect. But it often fails to register on screen as anything more than “off-putting 70-degree canted angle holds upwards on Thor as he makes a determined face.” Branagh and those canted angles, sheesh. You don’t need to hold the camera nearly sideways for an establishing shot of a hospital, Kenneth. That’s not very Shakespearean of you.
The budgetary seams show early and often, as the MCU had yet to become the box office behemoth it is now. When Thor and friends fight the Frost Giants early in the movie, you can practically hear the echoes bouncing around the soundstage as the production’s color correction artists do their damnedest to make it look like these actors are not lit by overhead fluorescents.
When shooting night scenes that were clearly done around lunchtime, Branagh and director of photography Haris Zambarloukos prove that they are no John Ford at day-for-night filmmaking. Shading never looks right; you can see sunlight hitting actors’ eyes. It’s a mess. That’s to say nothing of the seeming total lack of set dressing. Practically zero percent of Thor’s homeworld of Asgard is made of physical material, except for a throne that was plopped onto a green screen stage.
And yet, when Thor takes hold of his hammer, Mjolnir, to that point in the picture embedded into a desert rock in an Arthurian homage, and the lightning strikes amid a cascade of rain, these annoyances melt away for a minute. When Hemsworth gets Thor’s mindset to click into place, when he realizes he needs to protect humanity because his irresponsibility led threatening monsters to cause a ruckus for people who did nothing to deserve it, you believe him when he says, “I am truly sorry, but these people are innocent. Taking their lives will gain you nothing. So take mine and end this.”
As Thor gets backhanded in the face the very next moment by a giant suit of fire-breathing armor, you feel for this hapless, pampered millennial who got his ass handed to him by life.