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Stark’s Metamorphosis (an Unbiased Review of Iron Man 3)

iron-man-3(NOTE: This post is a continuation of my earlier “unbiased” reviews of the Marvel Thor and Avengers movies, in which I presented a reading of the films positing that Loki’s apparent ‘defeats’ in both movies were intentional parts of an extremely long-term plan, and that in The Avengers, when Loki zapped Tony Stark with his mind-control rod and it seemed not to work, it actually did work, but he made Stark pretend it didn’t so that after Loki allowed himself to be ‘defeated’ and ‘captured’ no one would realize Stark was still his agent on the outside.  Do I sincerely believe this is how the films are meant to be read?  No.  Do I enjoy them a heck of a lot more by reading them this way?  Absolutely.   This review is full of spoilers for the ‘plot’ of Iron Man 3.)

Character over plot has been a signature of these Marvel films, as the main events grind on in the background and we focus instead on the small, human experiences of side characters like Tony Stark, which a less subtle writing team would leave undeveloped and unexplored.  While Iron Man 3 offers no direct glimpse of the massing invasion which Loki is masterminding, it offers instead a detailed case study of an issue too frequently glossed over in such stories: the psychological effects of long-term mind control. Instead of seeing only the use Loki makes of his new servant, we are presented with a sensitive examination of the process of surrender and conversion.

The first quarter of the film establishes that the long-term domination of an intellect like Stark’s is far from simple.  Loki’s control is not weakening, but the unwilling mind is in turmoil, and breaking down.  The directors use no ham handed cliches, like a sinister Loki voice-over in Stark’s head, but show the realistically imagined symptoms of such a mental battle: sleeplessness, hyperactivity, memory loss, breakdowns in social interaction, eventually panic attacks, which trigger especially when those around Stark bring up New York, the aliens and the Avengers, topics which require him to directly lie to conceal the control, putting the most pressure on his deception.  If this continues, Stark will break down.  If he is to be useful to his new master, the former self sleeping inside him must succumb, accepting his new identity as a servant of Loki.  It is this process we watch as the film unfolds, starting from Stark’s opening line about how we “make our own demons,” referring, of course, to his fear that he is becoming a demon as he gives in.

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On his knees, amid fire and icy water. Quite as it should be.

The initial flashback to 1999 shows how early Loki sowed the seeds we will see blossom.  We instantly recognize that the regenerating plant effect, which mad science botanist Dr. Hansen is researching, cannot be human technology, and must be based on the effects of the Well of Urd which the Aesir use to regenerate Yggdrasil every day, though the exploding side-effect is clearly an enhancement by our favorite Jotun.  This event is years before Loki’s mind control took hold, so the audience is left guessing from the start: who is Loki watching here?  Stark, the conspicuous genius?  Or this woman Hansen, to whom he gave this power?  Does she know?  The answers come only toward the end of the film, when we come to understand the real import of the name tag reading “You Know Who I Am” – a message for the audience more than the characters that the true, hidden protagonist of these films is with us.

The main plot sparks when Stark, and the greater intellect which watches through him, encounters the completed form of the Well-of-Urd-based regeneration formula.  Obviously-corrupt mad scientist Aldrich Killian (a colleague of Hansen) enters Stark’s headquarters and shows Pepper Potts a holographic demonstration of the work his group AIM has done inserting Well-of-Urd regeneration into humans, and thereby creating precisely the effect that the hosts of Valhalla are supposed to enjoy: fighting, hacking off limbs and rising to fight and feast again (hereafter I shall refer to this by its obvious true name, the “Valhalla Serum”).  Loki’s hand is clear in the beautiful irony of the “Valhalla Serum” offering the same bribe Odin gives his chosen (with a super bonus heat-generating power added).

But, we realize, this research has matured while Loki is imprisoned in Asgard, an inconvenient necessity serving his larger goals, which means he does not actually have access to the finished Valhalla Serum formula, nor access to AIM’s current plans.  He seeded the research, but could not guide it further–at least not until it crossed his new servant’s path.  This happens when Stark’s security chief and friend Happy Hogan shows Stark the scene of Killian showing his holographic data display to Pepper Potts.  The data display, which Loki-through-Stark glimpses through Hogan’s tablet camera, is enough to confirm that what Killian has must be the mature form of the Valhalla Serum.  In an elegant moment of planning for deniability, Loki has Stark pretend that Hogan fails in his attempts to re-orient the camera toward Killian’s display, convincing Hogan that Stark never even saw Killian’s data, so he can thereafter claim not to know about it.  This is one of a number of steps Loki has Stark take to alienate Hogan, who, of course, as an old friend is the most likely person to notice Stark’s changed behavior and suspect mind-control, so Hogan is systematically pushed away until he can be conveniently left in a coma.  The explosion which leaves Hogan incapacitated also gives Stark and Loki their first glimpse of the delicious power of the mature Valhalla Serum.  From this point, gaining AIM’s finished Valhalla Serum (and other research) becomes Loki’s secondary goal, the primary, of course, being breaking Stark to his control.

Home: an easy thing for a stubborn psyche to cling to.
Home: easy for a stubborn psyche to cling to.

Loki then has Stark publicly challenge this infamous terrorist “The Mandarin” and invite him to attack Stark at his home.  The viewer is left wondering: does Loki know at this point that the Mandarin was a puppet of Killian and AIM, or did he, like Stark and the viewer, discover it when Hansen revealed it?  After all, the Mandarin plan was Killian’s, presumably developed quite recently, while Loki was imprisoned in Asgard.  Is it a plan he seeded before he let himself be captured?  Can we believe that his command that Stark challenge the Mandarin was mere chance?  Or did he know?  The idea that he might not know, that he might be improvising, is an entertaining one, and the authors let us believe it for a while, since there are three direct benefits to challenging the Mandarin which Loki could easily have seen even if he did not realize the connection between the Mandarin and his Valhalla Serum:

First, the destruction of Stark’s house (the inevitable consequence of the challenge) provides a powerful psychological marker for the internal destruction of his past self, making it easier for Stark to think of his past free self as a lost self, and his new self as having no home to return to other than that provided by service to his new master.  This destruction of the past is completed at the film’s end when all the old suits are destroyed – a new beginning for a creature with a new purpose.

Good service merits a reward.
Good service merits a reward.

Second, by putting Pepper Potts in danger, the attack sets up for the first of the great carrots Loki offers Stark as a reward for his surrender.  Stark can easily see that a superhero’s girlfriend will constantly be in mortal peril, but if Loki can give him a complete and stabilized Valhalla Serum then Potts can be made indestructible and therefore safe, a fit reward for a loyal servant.  Loki dangles this danger, and his offer, before Stark through the whole latter two-thirds of the film, when he guides Stark’s actions toward ensuring that Potts is kidnapped by Killian.  Loki and, presumably, Stark as well already know that a regeneration serum is the heart of this scheme, and knowing how mad scientists always like to turn the “girl” into “their creature” it is obvious that Killian will give Potts the serum.  Of course, Killian’s version is unstable – only Loki can grant Stark the final steps necessary to make a perfected version, which he does at the end of the film.

Third, and most obvious, Stark’s challenge brings the focus of the Mandarin, the US government and the world upon Stark, setting up a fresh opportunity for “Iron Man” to save the world (and especially America) from a great threat.  This wins Stark greater trust and security clearances, which we saw Loki already make such great use of in the Avengers film, where he used Stark to gained access to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Enterprises’ security systems.  Stark’s flashy digital review of data on the Mandarin reminds the viewer that he has already given his new master access to Police, CIA, FBI records etc., but more trust is always worth winning, and taking down this great terrorist threat is an easy and fun opportunity to gain further inroads into human governments.  When Stark convinces James Rhodes (the pilot of War Machine) to give him his access password, on the excuse of helping thwart AIM and the Mandarin, Loki gains full access to AIM’s plans and research, as well as to new levels of NSA clearance.  Thus, during the hilarious scene in the tech van where Stark meets his obsessive fanboy, Loki is obtaining all data on the Valhalla Serum, as well as many other secrets of AIM and the US government, while in the fanboy Stark faces a reminder of how ridiculous his narcissism is, another hint of how much he will benefit if he lets Loki help him mature into something new.

Baptism by ice: another playful stage in Stark's progress.
Baptism by ice: another playful stage in Stark’s progress.

The maturation of the AIM/Mandarin plan has several small but commendable boons for Loki’s side.  War Machine, the only Iron Man suit not under Stark’s direct control, is hijacked by the enemy and thereby discredited in the eyes of a trusting government, which is led thereby to rely even more on Stark’s personal reliability.  The US president is kidnapped and personally rescued by Stark, engendering gratitude which will lead to even blinder future trust, and the Vice President is removed and replaced, presumably, with a figure Loki prefers.  The final battle is also an excellent opportunity to test the full range of Stark’s autonomous armor, though the suits deployed there must all be destroyed afterwards, since presumably S.H.I.E.L.D. and other Earth forces were watching the battle closely, and will develop counters for any suit deployed there – best to scrap them and trust to the new, superior ones which the newly-reborn Stark, Servant of Loki, will create (we have already had hints of stealth gear in planning).  (We can only imagine what delightful distraction Loki cooked up to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the Avengers busy while he is playing with Stark and the Mandarin–perhaps we can hope to see that in another film.)

It is, incidentally, during the final rescue of the President that Stark makes his one slip and shows how much his mind is being taken over by the Norse worldview, when he realizes they intend to burn the President and instantly calls it “A Viking funeral.”  He tries to cover, overcompensating with the wildly out-of-character Christian blessing gesture and the line, “It’s Christmas.  Take ’em to church,” line.  Naturally War Machine is too thick to spot the slip, but it is a fun touch, and proof of how excited Stark is to get to see Potts after her Valhalla Serum transformation.

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The true battlefield: Stark’s mind.

The Mandarin is, of course, secondary.  The true conquest occurs within Stark himself.  I called this a game of carrot, stick and mirror.  We had the carrot in granting the Valhalla serum to Pepper.  A second carrot is revealed at the end when suddenly, out of nowhere, Stark figures out how to remove the shrapnel from his heart, an impossible medical feat which he himself is, as we know, incapable of, so it must be a boon from a superior intelligence.  We had the stick in the destruction of Stark’s house, and other points at which his master forced him to endure hardships, though, as the film matures, it becomes clear (to the viewer and to Stark) that most of Stark’s pain is being brought on, not by his master, but by his own resistance.

The mirror is a special touch, supplied by figures of Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian, both genius scientists like Stark, who have themselves gone through a process of corruption and surrender.  In them Stark sees what he thinks he will become if he succumbs, the “demon” he fears.  Their example makes him more determined to resist.  Yet, as he confronts them (in the scene where they have captured him and tied him to a bedframe) he realizes they are not what his master would have him become.  They are weak and petty, fractious, self-absorbed, serving no greater plan.  Fools.  Fools who failed the test, and we see now there was a test, as we realize at last what really happened in 2009 when Loki seeded the Valhalla serum to Hansen.  Hansen shows Stark the old name tag he left with her in 2009, with “You Know Who I Am” on the front, and on the reverse the formula for the next stage of the Valhalla Serum.  Hansen thinks Stark wrote it, but Stark says he does not remember writing it.  The truth is obvious: Loki left the formula, as he must have left other seeds for Hansen before, testing to see if she was smart enough to realize these were not human achievements but products of an inhuman genius.  By leaving the formula on a paper connected to a famous genius, Loki tests Hansen: is she foolish enough to believe Stark wrote this, or will she realize there is something greater reaching out to her?  Hansen failed the test, so Loki abandons her.

Stark passes.  He says nothing, but he realizes when he sees that formula that it is no work of his.  It is this that shows him just how much smarter he is than these other “fallen geniuses” he had thought were mirrors of himself.  He realizes now that the transformation he is undergoing is entirely different from their weak corruption.  The determination to “not be like them” vanishes, replaced by fresh awe for the scope of intellect, both his own intellect, for passing the test, and his master’s, for weaving such wonders.  In that moment Stark realizes how much greater he can become, how much more he can accomplish, if he throws away the flash and brawn of Iron Man and allows his new master to guide him toward his true calling: the full exercise of his intellect.  This is one central step in his metamorphosis.

A very special visitor.
A very special visitor.

The other, of course, is contact.  Stranded by his suit’s malfunction, Stark just “happens” to come across the convenient little boy genius “Harley Keener”, who has been active in the area near the first successful Valhalla Serum blast.  “Harley” has a shed full of equipment, a conspicuous lack of interfering parents, in-depth knowledge of the blast zone where the Valhalla Serum activated, and an uncanny ability to poke at Stark’s weak spots (New York, aliens), egging on his transformation.  The boy tells a story about being abandoned by his father, a story which is a little too… familiar.  Even his potato gun is a very familiar shade of green.  It is this “Harley” who pushes the change, who urges Stark to stop thinking of himself as a fighter and think of himself as a smith (“mechanic”) again, who makes him realize his mind, not his suit, is his true weapon.    A second test unfolds here: will Stark recognize his master?    Will he realize the great honor he has been granted, being invited to work side-by-side with the Great Intellect in this dwarf-like improvised smithy?  The worthy outpouring of gifts and tribute which Stark sends to the “child” at the end of the film confirms that he passes this test too.

Our patient mastermind.
Our patient mastermind.

We do not yet get to know how Loki is able to manifest while still in prison.  Did he slip out and take this form?  Is this a boy priest he is possessing?  Is this an illusory projection?  The possibilities are thrilling, and Loki’s presence on the scene of the first Valhalla Serum blast confirms to us at last that he must indeed have known about the AIM Mandarin scheme from its inception, since it was conceived to cover up these blasts and make them seem like the work of a terrorist instead of scientific accidents.  If Loki was there from blast one, we can easily assume he was watching Hansen, Killian and AIM as the Well-of-Urd seeds he planted bore their sweet, explosive fruits.

“My armor was never a distraction or hobby it was a cocoon, and now I’m a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away.  I am Iron Man.”   This conclusion, from Stark’s own mouth, marks the end of his transformation, and confirms that this was always about his rebirth as Loki’s servant.  He receives his rewards–the perfected Valhalla Serum for Potts, the healing of his heart–but the greatest reward is self-discovery.  Genius is stronger than iron.  Brains over brawn, Loki’s subtlety over Thor’s force, smithcraft over hack and slash.  That is what Iron Man is, and always should have been.  Stark is ready now to become greater than he has ever been, and serve something greater than any human has ever served: his master’s Plan.

Where, then, does this sideline character sketch leave our central protagonist Loki?  We know he remains physically in his Asgardian prison, but this film reassures those of us who were worried that he might be suffering in the boredom of such confinement.  We had assumed he had plans for his months of imprisonment, but it is comforting to have this confirmation that his reach remains long, and his plans active.  And we have uncovered new facets of his character: generosity, and delight in intelligence in all its forms.  He watched Stark for years, long enough to recognize not only the potential utility of this human genius but also the flaws preventing him from achieving his full potential.  Given power over Stark, Loki could break him viciously, but instead he breaks him kindly, helping him to actualize his hitherto stunted potential.  Our prince of intellect, it seems, loves intellect in others, even in humans, enough to cultivate it when he can reach it.  Certainly Stark will make a more valuable servant this way than if he were simply broken, but the patience, the rewards, and the hands-on touch of a personal visit all establish this as more than mere utility.  We have been shown a rare glimpse of the kinder face of our mastermind.  Months of prison have not made him bitter; they have made him subtler.

Click here to read the next installment in the series.

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You Can Shoot a Laser THROUGH a Clear Blimp! (Skyfall movie review)

(No very specific spoilers for Skyfall appear in this post, just comments on the overall structure & mood).

“Why did no one mention this before!”  My shriek ricocheted among the fluorescent wooden parrots of the Tex Mex restaurant.  “You can shoot a laser through a clear blimp!  Now–Yes!–now all the clear blimps that are anchored on top of the villian’s giant high-tech white & chrome treehouse complex can have goons shooting lasers from them!  And they can shoot at the little helicopter that has James Bond in it!  Oh!  And the two little helicopters can weave all around the blimps trying to shoot at each other with the machine guns, but they don’t dare shoot through the blimps in case they explode!  But the blimps are clear so Bond and the bad guy can see each other through the blimps, and they can zoom up and around trying to get a clear shot, and all the time all the minions are shooting at Bond with lasers through the blimps!”

“But before or after the helicopter bit there has to be a fight on top of the interconnecting corridors of the treehouse base,” my Dad contributed, “in some kind of vehicle.”

Roommate: “Like a Smart Car!”

Dad: “Or a Segway!”

This climactic battle (and the subsequent debate over the relative merits of a man in bullet-proof armor riding a Segway vs. a Segway with a bullet-proof armored chariot casing built in) was the peak of our post-movie cathartic deconstruction of why Skyfall had been an unsatisfying Bond movie while undeniably being a perfectly respectable movie in the broader sense.

“What should our villain be after?  How about a continent?”  “Yeah!”  “Australia.”  “What does he want it for?”  “To experiment.  Remember, he’s a geneticist, so he wants to create his own biosphere.  With mammoths.”  “And condors.  Shouldn’t he put condors?”  “And he’ll use the global electromagnetic field manipulator to increase the temperature so rainfall increases in Australia and it becomes a fertile rain forest.”  “Yes, by accelerating global warming.”  “No, no, too much eco-villainy lately.  We want something more classic.  He just wants Australia so he can experiment freely.  He’s already rich but it’s not enough.  Now he wants to be free to pursue his science and genetic engineering faster.  To do that he needs a private world.”  My fist slammed the table triumphantly enough to make the guacamole jiggle.  “He means to terraform Australia!”

Now we could cross out #7 “Outlandish villainous ultimate goal” on our James Bond Movie checklist, as well as #9 “climactic battle” #5 “awesome villain tech” and #6 “evil lair”.  We had gotten this far through #4 “Grand evil scheme” which involved creating genetically modified super-aggressive swarming creatures which could be directed to attack target areas around the world using a machine which manipulated the Earth’s electromagnetic field.  The first attack would be bees, some target city, millions and millions of bees would all swarm in and devastate everything.  The world is held hostage.  But oh, the people think, we can hide inside our airtight houses.  So they all hide and the bees swarm black outside and people think they’re safe, but then the termites!  The electromagnetically-commanded termites burrow through the walls and let in the swarm!  And now the villain can demand they hand over Australia to become his brave new mammothy world!

There are certain questions that you always want your James Bond movie to be a potential answer to:  “Which was the one where there was a henchman with a special jaw that was super strong, and then they wound up in space?”  “Which was the one where he was driving through the ice palace while it was being melted by the solar space laser reflector beam?  Was that the invisible car?”  “And he was driving it from the back seat, while they were shooting at him–or was that a different one?”   All sorts of variants on “Wasn’t that the one where…?”  And Skyfall will never be the correct answer to these questions.  Skyfall didn’t… it just didn’t…

…James Bond Movie checklist item #1, the “Opening mission”…

Here! Here is where Bond should be fighting a guy!

“Can we have the swarms cause an opening pre-credits disaster on an oil rig?”   “Hm… what swarm… squid?  Squid that swarm up the poles!”  “Squid?  Wouldn’t that have to be octopus?” “Octopodes are too intelligent.  But can squid climb an oil rig?” “Squid can go pretty fast in the water, they just tend to do it horizontally, this could just be vertical.  Pwoo!”  (Sound-effect combined by gesture of arm shooting up in the air with finger-tentacles wriggling.)  “I don’t know…”  A few moments absently rearranging Jalapenos with my fork.  “Ooh, wait!  What if it works because there’s a submarine nearby, and millions of squid all whoosh up and drag the submarine along–” “–and smash it into the oil rig!  Of course!”  “Wait, I thought the beginning was when we were going to have him steal the prototype electromagnetic railgun.  How does the oil rig help?”

…James Bond Movie checklist item #3, the “Early stage of the scheme”…

“No, the railgun isn’t before the credits, it’s the second stage thing, after the credits.”  “And I thought it wasn’t going to be the main villain who stole it, we were going to have it be the woman who was working with him.”  “Did she want to steal it to use as a weapon?” “No, they thought she was going to steal it to be a weapon, but instead she brought the railgun to the geneticist to use for the magnetic field effect to control the killer bees, but then in the end she betrays him and helps Bond stop him, and then she betrays both Bond and the villain and sneaks in separately at the end and takes the railgun to use as a weapon.”  “Like Catwoman!”  “Only Bond stops her.  Because she isn’t Catwoman.”  “Right.”  “So she’s a villain, and then not a villain, and then a villain again, in addition to the main bioengineer villain.”  “Yes.  Oh, is she also the business scheming villain?  Or is there some other one doing the sinister businessy politicsy part.”  “Oh yes, someone has to do be a big business schemer, because someone has to invite him to a party, because…

…James Bond Movie checklist item #10: “Bond must order a martini at a swanky party”…

Bond did order a martini in Skyfall (oops, and I promised no spoilers!).  And he does so at an expensive party in a ridiculously glamorous exotic place, and drinks it with a beautiful and mysterious bond girl, and there are piles of cash and expensive evening gowns and goons in dark suits.  And these are all the right ingredients to set things up for the plan to unfold its first petal, and then… there are supposed to be more petals, right?  The twists are supposed to keep unfolding and unfolding, with one more layer of deception right when you think it’s all over.  And the stakes are supposed to be high.  Like a continent, or a coup, or ten billion dollars, or at the very least killing a head of state.

Our true triumph arrived with the dessert: “Ooh!  Ooh!  Can Bond have to go into Australia but to avoid the swarms and the magnets he has to do a super-high-altitude parachute jump like the Red Bull guy did?  Only, Bond has to do it while fighting a guy!”  (Whatever stunt other people can do, Bond can do “while fighting a guy.”  That’s Bond’s superpower.)

In all seriousness, we were aware that hordes of squid and stampeding mammoths are too sci-fi outlandish for Bond, but you can’t blame us for overcompensating after a flick where the most advanced technology displayed was… was… the internet?  I mean, there was a touch screen… those are… well, one came standard with my new laptop, so…  yeah, I’m going with the internet.

After our post-movie decompression we watched the recent Casino Royale movie again.  No clear blimps here either, and it  started the recent pattern of the films being more interested in (of all things) giving James Bond character progression than it was in the grandness of the scheme.  In fact, during Bond’s climactic battle over the suitcase full of $120 million I turned to my friends and pointed at the 16th century Venetian palazzo, which Bond had just destroyed, and said “You know what’s worth more than 120 million dollars?”  But it was still more satisfying than Skyfall because it had the requisite twist, followed by another twist, followed by a false ending, followed by yet another twist.  That was enough.

Instead of twists and grand schemes, Skyfall tried to do something which was undeniably bolder and more original, and considerably more worthy of respect.  It focused on the characterization of M.  Brilliant idea!  A great and veteran part of the Bond universe as-of-yet underexplored.  And stepping out of the Bond universe for a moment, this was an action flick which focused on an intelligent, dignified, 100% non-sexualized, retirement-age woman!  Maybe one or two movies a year give meaningful attention to an older woman, and certainly not ones full of car chases!  It didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and still degenerated into male-dominated action, and rescues, and characterizing her as Mom, but she was still an actual centerpiece of the movie in a way no gray haired woman has been in any action flick I’ve ever sat through.  It even passed the Bechdel test (something we usually know better than to apply to Bond films) in a scene in which M was questioned about her career by a female government official.  Such a move in a Bond movie was as startlingly deserving of respect as if someone had delivered a brilliant proposal for how to solve the Economic Crisis in the middle of Antiques Roadshow.  They also flirted with homosexual elements that no Bond had dared before, in a way which was a little awkward but also overdue and therefore somewhat healing in one of the most fiercely hetero-normative franchises in pop culture history.  On both counts it may not have really succeeded, but I respect the fact that it tried, and getting any kind of movement on sexual politics out of a Bond movie is rather like wringing tears from a stone.   I respect trying, but there is a difference between a movie I respect and a movie I enjoy, and it remains empirically true that I left the theater dissatisfied.

“I sure hope they make a normal James Bond movie soon,” I muttered later that evening, as we played fridge Tetris with the leftover fajitas.

Roommate: “What do you mean?”

I: “You know, one that isn’t about something.  One where they shoot lasers through clear blimps, with an evil villain, and James Bond defeats him, and there are quips, and no characterization.”

And that’s the story of how I found myself wishing the movie I had just seen had been less ambitious.  But thinking back on it, that isn’t really what I wanted.  I went to that Bond movie instead of any number of other movies that were actually supposed to be objectively good because I wanted the comfort of a familiar formula and the thrill of action-escapism.  Instead I got character depth.  Why couldn’t I have both?  Why couldn’t they have deepened the characters and still had more than three petals on their rose?  Why wasn’t there room in the movie for M and clear blimps?  Why did the first action movie I’d ever seen focus on a mature woman have to make me wish it wasn’t?

The weirdest thing is that it felt like the writers had the same idea.  The film ended with an “And now the whole team is assembled again!” moment, implying a vein of self-awareness: “Yeah, the last three Bond Movies have been weirdly character-ful, but now that we’re done dealing with Bond’s origin story and the retirement crisis, the next one will be a [….] Bond Movie, we promise.”  How did they intend their audience to fill [….]?  “Normal”?  “Traditional”?  “Action-centered”?  “Satisfying”?

Skyfall gets marks, though, for the most important test of every Bond film: the opening credits.  Also points for the new Q; someone (probably who was following the success of Sherlock and the new Dr. Who and Avengers) noticed that smart geeks, especially scrawny ones with glasses, draw a slice of the female demographic that Bond’s brawn misses.  Nerd is the new fan service – enough so that even a franchise as trope-encrusted as Bond has found one new “sexy” to tap.  Let’s just hope they never try to put Bond himself in glasses and a labcoat; I fear for the audience whiplash.

Addendum: many thanks to all my readers for being patient these few months with my slow posting speed and the infinite delay of the Machiavelli series.  I have been wrestling with the old illness/over-commitment combo.  I do intend to return to the Machiavelli series as soon as I am sufficiently rested and caught up on my 10,000 tasks.

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An Unbiased Review of the Marvel “Avengers” Movie

For some reason this isn’t the movie poster I’ve seen most places. Very confusing.  I mean, the “normal” poster has the adversaries on it!  Why?

Contains spoilers.  For background, see my Unbiased Review of the Marvel “Thor” Movie.

(Also, disclaimer: this review is, like its prequel, tongue-in-cheek and written as if the reviewer is Loki.  Some people who do not know me very well apparently failed to realize that and were confused.)

Fired with anticipation after the subtle and intricately imagined commentary on Norse Mythology offered by Marvel’s “Thor” film, I used my one free afternoon on a short conference trip to Oxford to see the sequel “Avengers Assemble” (UK title, which DIDN’T have the 2nd easteregg scene, thank you licensing people.  Grrr… I want my 10 pounds back.).

I did a little research in advance, and was glad I did, since the title had misled me to expect treatments of Ragnarok and Baldur’s murder and the betrayal-vengeance cycle surrounding the death of Yigdrasil, but it turns out “assemble” rather than “avenge” was the operative word of this transplantation of a bunch of heroes from other previously-unrelated sagas into the Thor-Loki narrative.  I therefore quickly acquainted myself with the relevant corpus of publications, and, despite some confusion, looked forward to the film.

The dialog was snappy and the effects excellent, as was the refreshingly novel absence of a tedious romance.  I was pleasantly surprised by the extraordinary writing and attention Hawkeye received, while in fact all the members of the Avengers were charmingly done, but what are a few beautiful flowers blooming in higgledy-piggledy clumps when the garden and its architecture – and above all its architect – have gone?  That was Loki’s plan?!  Once again, Loki’s true plan, which succeeded, was pure genius, and cunningly designed as a terrible plan which failed.  Yet sophistication of his scheme has declined in complexity so radically since his elegant and subtly-worked plan to destroy Bifrost and fake his own death in the “Thor” film that the viewer is left wondering what happened?  Was he distracted when he came up with this plan?  Further research into the “Marvel Universe” led me to several alternatives.  Is he simultaneously waging another battle in the Astral Plane, or the Mojoverse, which requires the majority of his attention?  Perhaps we are to believe that this was a cry for attention?  This would be consistent with the focus on his youth and desire for respect, treated in both films (though smelling more like a ruse than truth in both).  Perhaps we are to believe he was so frustrated that no one noticed the brilliant success of his earlier scheme that this time he has dialed down the subtlety in hopes that at least some of the supposed-genius members of the adversary squad might piece together the logic chain: “Loki is an unmatched genius.  This plan is dumb.  Therefore this is not Loki’s plan.”

Let us review step-by-step Loki’s “plan” which we, the viewers, are supposed to think was found plausible by such intelligent beings as Bruce Banner and Tony Stark:

SURFACE PLAN:

  1. Come to Earth and steal the Cosmic Cube* from S.H.I.E.L.D.**
  2. Summon an army of alien goons.
  3. Conquer the Earth.  Wa ha ha.  Wa ha ha ha ha.

* I recognize that they’re calling the object-of-power the “Tesseract” these days, but it has almost as many titles as the Allfather, so, since this is a saga, should we not show our learning by cycling through all of them?

** All together, Marvel readers: “Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division.”  (If you didn’t know it already, memorize it now – it is an important part of your nerd heritage.)

Now, we are asked to have respect for the heroes who sincerely believe that this is the best plan which a primordial avatar of cunning and intrigue could come up with?  Really?  To be fair, it did have some intermediary steps, so as presented to the heroes it was a bit more complicated.  Let’s spell it out more thoroughly, shall we?

SURFACE PLAN. GOAL: CONQUER EARTH (USING ALIEN GOONS) & BECOME KING (WA HA HA).

  1. Make a badly-thought-through treaty with some unknown aliens where they get the universe but I get Earth.
  2. Come to Earth and steal the M’Kran Crystal* from S.H.I.E.L.D.**
  3. Set human minions (including co-opted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents) working on using the Ruby of Cyttorak* to make a portal.
  4. Get captured by S.H.I.E.L.D.
  5. Spend time chilling in boring white cell while making the Avengers cat fight.
  6. Smash S.H.I.E.L.D.’s stuff, drop Thor down a hole, drop Hulk down a hole, make no attempt to kill the Avengers members that can actually BE killed, leave.  Tony Stark notices that it’s kind-of odd I haven’t killed the Avengers yet.
  7. Go to Stark’s house, which is filled with unmatched quantities of awesome technology and data, and ignore said resources completely while waiting around as the Infinity Gems* summon an army of alien goons.
  8. Smash New York City a bit.  NOTE: this is somehow supposed to result in me being king.
  9. Spend more time chilling in Tony Stark’s house.  Dum de dum.  Dum de dum de dum.  Hey, heroes, is anybody going to notice that… Oh, finally, footsteps.  “So, mortals, at last you…”  What the?  The Hulk!  I can’t deliver my awesome speech to you!  Well, I could try… um… What vocabulary do you know?  “Unworthy beast!  I am a god, and!..” SMASH!  “Ow…”
  10. More time waiting in Tony Stark’s House.  Less fun now due to Hulk.  While the heroes were distracted by goons, some random humans seem to have switched off the Moonstone* and its portal.  Huh… a nuke went by… how cute.  Dum de dum.  Oh, NOW the verbal heroes turn up, now that I’ve got a cracked rib and can’t make speeches.  Well, obviously, rather than using my abilities to turn invisible and teleport to, say, escape, I will surrender.

There was some distraction in the middle of this, I grant, since Loki’s intentional capture was totally unnecessary and thus very successful at keeping the good guys guessing, but are we to believe that not a single one of the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D.’s staff saw through such an obvious blind?

Final battle. Note absence of main character.

We had one hint of hope for the good team when Tony Stark became suspicious and suggested that Loki was intentionally letting the Avengers live so he could fight and defeat them before the public eye later on.  But Stark concluded that this was just because Loki wanted to look cool fighting in public – a theory he should’ve doubted when Loki did not in fact attempt to fight them in public at any time during the final battle.  It was rather charming having Stark’s narcissism interfere with his reasoning, assuming Loki would be the same kind of childish attention hog that he is, but the audience then expects a follow-through from Fury or Banner building from Stark’s good start toward the truth.  Is the film perhaps intending to prepare for an Avengers-Fantastic Four cross-over by leading us to conclude that only Reed Richards, the Smartest Man On Earth, can actually see through Loki’s blinds?  If so, the writers could at least make a blind good enough that we can retain respect for those who fell for it.  As it is, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes pretty-much fell for Pull My Finger.  Adorable, but not endearing.

Why such a weak plan, writers?  You have confirmed for the viewer that the Avengers are idiots (not news), but anyone can tell Loki hasn’t put his true arts into play here.  Even when toying with idiots, can’t we expect him to at least exert himself for his own entertainment?  We are discussing a being who, in the absence of worthy enemies, turns himself into one and battles on both sides (ref: Utgardsloki) and now he plots straight-forward world conquest with only one blind (the fake capture)?  Even when he was just messing with Thor and Odin in the last film he at least had that elaborate double-betrayal power-play attack against his own dear Jotenheim.  Have we descended from the heights of tricking Thor into destroying Bifrost to spending half the film kicking our heels?  The Father of Monsters bores easily, and the writers cannot expect the viewer to contentedly see him literally twiddling his thumbs.  Are we intended to mourn with Loki for the comparative absence of intelligence in this universe?  Are we to share his pain at feeling so alone – a firebrand among dull twigs?

Now, let us review Loki’s real plan, which was, like the first one, elegantly veiled, and entirely successful:

TRUE PLAN. GOAL: BRING INTERSTELLAR ATTENTION TO EARTH & TRIGGER KREE INVASION.

  1. Make treaty with Kree Emperor.  Let him think that I don’t know I’m really dealing with the Kree, and that Earth is weak.
  2. Come to Earth and steal the AllSpark* from S.H.I.E.L.D.
  3. Set human minions (including co-opted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents) working on using the Key to Time* to make a portal.  Get important security info from co-opted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.
  4. Get captured by S.H.I.E.L.D.
  5. Create elaborate diversion in order to buy Tony Stark enough time to hack  S.H.I.E.L.D.
  6. Escape.  Tease Thor a lot.  Drop him down a hole.  Te he.  Make no attempt to actually kill the Avengers.  They have other uses.
  7. Go to Tony Stark’s house and harvest hacked S.H.I.E.L.D. data plus all his other juicy science.
  8. Use alien invasion to bring incontrovertible proof of the existence of alien life before the human media.
  9. Avengers assemble, united by a common enemy (me!) and defeat the aliens, thus gaining the respect and attention of the Kree Emperor.  Earth has now stepped irrevocably onto the interstellar stage, and invasion is inevitable.
  10. Since the Kree Emperor has vowed revenge on me if I lose, allow myself to be “captured” and taken to a safe, comfortable cell in Asgard, within easy reach of the Platohedron*.  My well-established and large force of Earthly minions is never mopped up, and continues carrying out my will while I take a holiday.

And in case anyone was close to falling into the trap of thinking that the fake plan was the real plan, we are reassured in our subtler reading by such clues as the fact that Loki did not attempt to defend the Eye of Harmony* from the humans who disabled it (whom he must have spotted, since we know has sufficiently good eyesight to pluck one of Hawkeye’s arrows from the sky), and that the impenetrable shield protecting said Stargate* was defeated by a failsafe which the scientist programmed into it while under Loki’s mind control, i.e. at Loki’s desire.

The blind finishes nicely.  We are left uncertain about how Loki intends to play the Kree invaders once they come.  Will he steal the Dark Crystal* from Asgard at his leisure, and use it to buy favor with the invading Kree, gaining access both to the delights of a worthy war and to the ear of the Emperor which he can comfortably exploit?  Or will he play the opposite card and help the Asgardians save Earth?  As Earth’s only allied alien world, the Asgardians will certainly make natural leaders in the coming conflict, and as Thor and the other Aesir take the battlefield before the public eye, reinstating awe of the gods in human hearts, Loki would naturally be recruited as the master strategist, and save Earth and Asgard, winning the love and loyalty of all.  Or he could join and betray both sides, if that’s more fun.

The possibilities tantalize, as does the unfinished saga of the data Stark hacked from S.H.I.E.L.D., which, of course, the writers would not have introduced if it was going to just lead nowhere.  After all, as the writers quest to simulate the infinite and intricate puzzle-play of the Dark Trickster’s psyche, we must presume that every detail introduced is but one thread in some slowly-unfolding master plan.  In an inferior script, we might accidentally think the writers had no further plans for such details as the criminal syndicate the Black Widow was interrogating at the beginning, the worldbuilding implications of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s airship and invisibility technology, Stark’s comments about his suspicion at the levels of the Gamma Radiation which mutated Banner into the Hulk, and the great effort Loki went through early in the final battle to stab Thor with the tiny dagger which, since it had a blade too short to inflict meaningful wounds, was obviously either poisoned, cursed or implanted a sophisticated tracking device or other micro-tech object harvested from Stark Enterprises or S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ.  When, we are left wondering, will Loki’s mid-control over Hawkeye re-assert itself?  (Since we cannot possibly be expected to believe that a mere concussion could undo mystic space-alien mind engineering.)  And when will Loki activate the mind-control which Tony Stark thinks inexplicably failed?  Does he secretly activate it every night, so Stark is unknowingly spending half his hours preparing new toys at his divine master’s command?  Or will he save Stark for a special moment when his enemies are a sniff from victory?  We who await the sequel can spend a happy year weaving and unweaving schemes in our minds and cackling at the consequences.  Yet all this subtle mind-play is only after the movie, a take-home game, something we were not at leisure to enjoy during the film itself, which was dominated only by the Avengers’ blindness and Loki’s half-heartedness and boredom.

Have they intentionally created a movie which is more satisfying to think about than to actually watch?  If not, is the helf-heartedness of Loki’s fake plan just bad writing?  After the immensely subtle critique of gender in Norse culture which we took from the Thor film, we cannot assume pure clumsiness on the part of the planning team.  Right?

The best reading I can come up with is that this is a harshly contemporary self-critique of the history of Marvel’s attempts to offer escapist wish-fulfillment to its young and nerdy readers.  Many comics heroes but especially the principle Avengers, begin as very straight-forward wish-fulfillment for the intelligent, physically weak nerdy teen boy reader who turned to comics as an escape after a harsh school day of being bullied, rejected and ostracized.  Captain America (1941) accomplished this by offering a heroic alter-ego with the kid too weak to aid the war effort who, through the utopian power of science, becomes a hero and savior of his country.  Over the next decades, as war’s easy enemies gave way to peace’s complexity, the young comics nerd hungered not only for the promise of the possibility of becoming a hero, but for validation of the intelligence which made him an outcast.  Hence both Hulk (1962) and Thor (1962) were, in early days, nerdy scientific braniacs (in Thor’s case also physically disabled) who transform into physically powerful muscle-men and save the day, but also save the day through their intelligent scientist halves, proving that someday the intelligence which makes the nerdy reader alone will also make him valuable.

Enter Iron Man (1963), the selfish, rich industrialist engineered by his creators to be everything the sad young nerd does NOT want to identify with, since his selfish and effortless profit-seeking is contrary to the American good boy work ethic, his dabbling in weapons is un-charitable, and his general happiness and success makes him hard to identify with, yet through sheer good writing the creators win kids over with his charming, impish personality.  Next, advance a generation.  A new crop of readers feeling more alienated and self-identified as a sub-culture whom peers and grown-ups will never understand falls in love with the hated and feared X-men, who split the Marvel universe permanently into two semi-separate halves, the traditional hero stories and the mutant stories.  As decades advance, Marvel struggles to maintain reader interest in Hulk, Captain America, and in Thor, whose weak nerd persona is virtually and, later, entirely retired as new readers find more excitement from the myth-magic and family struggles of the gods than they do from the crippled medical student with whom they no longer identify.

Arriving at the third millennium, a series of movie revivals proves that the audience favorite is Iron Man, who, with his playful selfishness combined with the inevitable heart of gold and obligatory greenwashing, turns from weapons to sustainable energy and proves to the America of eco-guilt and rampant consumerism that we can have our Barbie dreamhouse, celebrity parties, flying sports car and be a jerk and still merit public love and a supermodel fiancée if we find what the current world dreams of: a way to save the environment without reigning in conspicuous consumption.  Tony Stark doesn’t even care about being an astronaut—he cannot be the intended alter-ego of the nerd kid who hides Heinlein and Asimov under the covers.  As for Captain America, Marvel judges (rightly) that modern audiences can only appreciate him as an historical artifact, a capsule of the loyalty, purity and politeness of a lost era.  So far we have come.  What now of the alienated brainy kid reader, who may not be the bulk of the film’s audience but has nurtured Marvel and its characters from their inky infancy?

Enter Loki, the smart, less-physically-impressive kid who can out-think his and every species and has lived in Asgard under the shadow of Thor, now reframed as the popular jock.  We cannot but recognize our nerd-alter-ego, suddenly recast as the villain!  With artistry he undertakes to revolutionize his universe, first exploring the depths of space, then taking away from Odin and the lazy Aesir the easy space-travel technology they have grown too complacent to use.  Thus he creates a new era in which Odin must (as the film specifies) conjure dark powers to send Thor from world to world, achieving a strange equality with humanity which is struggling so hard to touch the stars.  Surely now gods and men (who have had so little contact in recent, forgetful centuries) will reach toward one another once again, if only because doing so is now a heroic feat again on the part of bellicose gods who have no other great tests on hand.   No one notices.

Then our lonely genius hears of an initiative to assemble heroes: fellow geniuses Stark and Banner who might recognize his plan; great soldiers Black Widow and Hawkeye worthy, as few since the Viking age have been, to battle gods; the relic of the last great era of epic wars Captain America; and Thor himself who must surely, with such great help, finally realize what is happening.  This time he does not plan a small battle but a grand one that will change the Earth forever and re-initiate an age of greatness, monsters, many worlds and many races, Kree as good as Jotuns.  Remember, at this point in the Marvel movie continuity we are well past First Contact, but the government has concealed all knowledge of the extraterrestrial intelligences with which it has had extensive contact.  Loki will change that, crack the world’s shell and initiate a great (if dark) new age.  Think again of the young nerd who is obviously supposed to identify with Loki.  Here Earth already exists in the wished-for age of science-fiction, but government and hero alike—even our beloved, toy-loving Iron Man—is covering it up.  Today’s young nerd does not want peace and safety (as Captain America’s reader did) he wants Star Fleet and Farscape.  Loki makes that happen.  Giant space-fish corpses in Manhattan will change the human race forever.  Mankind will psychologically become Vikings again, warriors fighting back against a universe of cold and distant monsters.  Perhaps this will bring Aesir and Human close again, especially as the two races face the Kree together.  However, to achieve this sci-fi revolution, Loki has burned too many bridges to be welcome again on Earth or Asgard.

As for Loki’s interest in the Avengers, there is in this reading more to it than his simple desire to use them to prove to Aesir and Kree that Earth is worth fighting.  For a lonely god, who would rather face fire and arrows on the battlefield than play checkers in Asgard, his one hope for companionship lies, not in winning over his status-quo-loving brother, but in attracting the attention of intelligences like his own.  Surely, if he leaves enough clues, Stark or Banner will realize.

No.

And here we see why Loki’s fake plan had to be so mind-bogglingly obviously fake: even when he leaves every clue he can to his true motives, the smartest men on Earth don’t notice.   It can’t be that they couldn’t see the clues, but the conclusion itself—that a genius like them is fighting FOR a brave new age instead of against it—was somehow incomprehensible to them.

What message are we to take from this?  The message I can see is this: The different kinds of nerds cannot communicate.  Banner is the nerd as portrayed in the 1960s and 1970s, the age when fiction focused on fears that, if science trespassed into God’s territory, we would, like Frankenstein, be struck down.  Banner has renounced his nerdliness, given up on research and human inquiry, and dedicated himself to the palliative care of the status-quo.   Offer him a sci-fi revolution and it falls too far outside his realm of understanding for him to recognize it.  Iron Man, meanwhile, has become the commercialized nerd of the Geek Squad and the Genius Bar, lauded in sitcoms on the understanding that he serves the economy by fixing our computers and creating faster, smaller iPads, that he will let us all be spoiled and happy our whole lives if we compensate for our luxury with sufficient technology.  He works for progress, but a progress which will give us better toys and more wealth, not social change, nor revolution.  Offer him First Contact and he’s more interested in hacking S.H.I.E.L.D. to make sure the government isn’t getting its bloody hands on our green energy future.  He wants to privatize World Peace, not change the world order.  Loki—the sci-fi nerd—can drop the most overt clues in the world, and he will not be understood by these other kinds of nerd—the self-fearing nerd of earlier literature and the commercialized nerd which contemporary society wants the young reader to grow up to become.  Even the hints dropped in Loki’s speeches about how mankind seems to want to live in complacent servitude fail to make anyone think of rebelling against a world government which has not only hidden the truth about aliens and gods from mankind but is hiding technology (airships and invisibility!) from the public as well.  Stark and Banner will not open the public’s eyes.

Loki will.  He will not give up on changing the world.  He will not be content as a caregiver, or a codemonkey.  He will be an astronaut, even if it means he has to be a villain.  He will create the World of Tomorrow, even if he has to live in it alone.  After all, with no one able to understand him well enough to pierce his intentionally-obvious blinds and realize his true intentions, he already is alone.  The fact that the only genuine setback Loki encounters is the physical assault by Hulk (the accursed scientist who tried to make himself a god, at once Frankenstein and Monster) suggests that the revolutionary who dares push past the bounds of the human will still be punished for his hubris, not by the divine/cosmological retribution of Nature which undid Frankenstein and Banner, but by the wrath of those generations who believe in such a law of Nature and will make themselves its agents, tearing down the revolutionary in service of a perceived cosmic justice.

Thus my conclusion: Marvel’s Avengers Assemble film is an elaborate commentary on the reduced funding the Space Program received in the last budget cycle, viewed through evolution of nerd culture, specifically the increasing frequency with which the “commercialized nerd” has appeared in mainstream popular media (from advertising to Big Bang Theory).  The film’s creators are arguing that, even as society is embracing and cultivating the commercialized nerd who helps the economy and supplies the consumerist status quo with toys and technological solutions, that public nerd-love is concealing the fact that society and the government are stifling and rejecting the revolutionary nerd who still aims at Mars and beyond.  The little boy who dreams of living in the future is being tricked into thinking the World of Tomorrow is merely the World of Today with more toys, and if he escapes that propaganda then he finds himself an enemy of the present, while his adversaries are armed with weapons built by his fellow nerds.  If Earth or the Asgardians had cared enough to try to rebuild Bifrost and continue contact (i.e. if the Space Program had more public support), Loki might have put his genius at the service of such ambitious races, instead of having to become their enemy.  By failing to realize the cultural importance of First Contact (read the comparative lack of discussion of the retirement of the Space Shuttle), Stark and Banner’s ignorance proves the revolutionary is truly alone (we must look to privately-funded space travel?).  That it is ultimately not Stark but Banner (the nerd who fears his own power) who defeats Loki suggests that the writers think the biggest obstacle is the nervous and comparatively conservative baby boomer generation of ex-comics readers, who dabbled in sci-fi as kids but gave it up on reaching adulthood, and can tolerate Stark’s playful goading but not Loki’s attempts to use science to achieve real change.

Anyway, that’s the only reading I can find which explains why Loki’s plan was so dumb.  I mean, it could’ve just been a poorly-thought-out script, but a bad script?  From a comics movie?  Never.

Now, when precisely to switch-on the Tony Stark brainwashing…  So many possibilities…

Click hear to read the next review in the series.

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An Unbiased Review of the Marvel “Thor” Movie (Begins Unbiased Reviews Series)

December has been extraordinarily productive for me, with a large number of small articles and other projects now plumply complete, but the down side has been no time to write about Roman churches or ancient marbles or bad gelato and its wicked ways.  I hope to have such leisure again shortly, but in the meantime let me present an old piece overdue for posting in the fandom vein, my review of the MARVEL comics Thor movie which distressed everyone last spring by being nowhere near as awful as expected.

(For those unfamiliar, it will help you in reading this to know that Norse mythology, and Viking culture in general, are a secondary area of special academic interest for me, and also an area in which I compose and perform from time to time.  In both research and on stage I specialize in a certain very important Norse deity who sure as heck ain’t Thor.)

An unbiased review of the MARVEL “Thor” movie.  (Contains spoilers).

I have been driven to write this review since so many people seem to have missed the subtleties of this excellent and richly-worked commentary on Norse Mythology.  First off, I should like to correct a common, basic confusion about the film’s plot, since so subtle was the crafting of Loki’s character that many viewers seem to have been taken in by his brilliant plan, which succeeded, and which was cunningly disguised as a terrible plan which failed.  I apologize for the necessity of spoilers here.  Loki’s primary objective, destroying Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge, was clearly seeded early, when Loki revealed that he had found his own, unique methods of inter-world transit.  He thus ended the film with a triumphant monopoly on inter-world travel, whose consequences the viewer can look forward to enjoying in the sequel.  Concealing all this with the fake throwaway throne-grabbing plan was elegant writing, and provided an opportunity to banish the Thunderer long enough to get in some thoroughly enjoyable cheap laughs.

I should quite like to know how this version of Loki managed to alter things to set everyone up to believe he was Odin’s adopted son rather than brother, but I agree it was a necessary step.  It’s much easier to guilt-trip the Allfather in a father-son relationship than a blood-brother one, and the guilt-trip was integral to the plot.  Far more integral than most of the content of the film, really, but therein too lay some of its brilliance, since the large palette of seemingly superfluous and out-of-place characters provided an opportunity for brief dips into many interesting commentaries on the theology.  The Thunderer’s four seemingly-irrelevant friends, for example, especially the conspicuous ninja, settled in a few short scenes the oft-debated question of whether non-Viking warriors can go to Asgard.  The fact that the non-Viking population of Valhalla both outnumbered and, in one very moving scene, criticized the mourning practices of the one real Viking amng them, brought before the viewer’s eyes the pathos of a dwindling, traditional culture being drowned out by internationalization even in its afterlife.  The brief appearance of the woman identified as both the Thuderer’s mother and Odin’s wife was also a fascinating snapshot of imagined secondary consequences of the death of Baldur, since, indeed, if Frigg failed to produce any further heirs to Odin’s throne, he might of necessity disown his infertile queen and bring Fjorgen to Asgard in order to legitimize the Thunderer.  Even something so subtle as the prop design of Mjollnir proves, by its full-length handle, that in this reimagining the entire creation of the Weapons of Power was conducted differently.  The depth of the impacts of Loki’s deceptions has no limit.

Gender the film treated with rare and unexpected subtlety, and I stand in admiration of how it highlights and embellishes the unstable sexual categories of the Norse mythos.  We are accustomed to Loki’s dual-gendered nature, but instead of re-treading that ground, we are presented instead with a deeper examination of gender imbalance in Jotun society.  When we are informed Johtenheim has a single ruler, we might expect one of the great Jotuns the Thunderer usually battles, such as Bergelmir, or Utgardsloki,  or perhaps  Loki’s father Farbauti.  Instead we find Laufi, Loki’s mother, on the throne, and having taken a male form, presumably in order to command respect from a patriarchal society, much as her famous son/daughter does.  This pathos of this grim portrait of cultural pressures to use shape-shifting to renounce female form in a pre-feminist culture is then multiplied when we see masses of jotuns during the battles and destruction and realize that all of them have the same, hulking, distinctly male form.  What might be attributed to bad CG or chauvinist casting reads now as a silent proof of the sub-human position of women in Nordic culture.  Surely this common Jotun gender-switching is known to all-seeing Odin, but he has kept to himself in his kingdom—perhaps afraid of the ideas it might put into the heads of the Asynir.  Or does Odin have a darker interest in pretending that he believes Laufi is Loki’s male parent?  Is he covering a darker reality?  Are we meant to realize how closely “Far-bauti” i.e. “Far striker” might invoke Odin, the wielder of Gungnir, who, we know, often disguises himself to sire children, and answers already to Hnikar (Spear-thruster) and Hnigakudt (Thrusting-god)?  Is there yet another layer to the Allfather’s deceptions?  The linguist is left delightfully tantalized.

I must confess that, at times, so subtle was the scripting that it was difficult even for an expert to quite make out what it was hinting at (either that or they were stuck with a poor translation of the Eddas).  For example, Audhumla the Ice Cow, who freed Odin’s father (The first god, Bur) from the ice, must be the presumptive grandparent invoked by the Allfather in his reference to “my father and his father before him”, since no other being was responsble for Bur’s creation–unless this is perhaps intended as a roundabout hint that Loki had managed to confuse Odin about his own origins as well as Loki’s?  Clarification is needed.  At other points, though, the film provided almost too much information.  While it’s certainly useful for those of us who might want to repeat the process to learn at last that Mjolnir was forged using the heart of a dying star, I suspect some rather angry and protective dwarven smiths will be demanding reparations for trade secrets lost.

The costuming was excellent, all around.  The mostly-naked Jotun fan-service was much appreciated.  The Thunderer was hilariously adorable with his puny child’s beard.  The way Wayland the Smith went overboard designing these insane helmets was a great way of communicating his silent protest over being forced to build that ridiculous whopping robot thing.  I also admire the hairdressers’ bold speculation that if Sif did follow Freiya into the warrior-maiden calling, it would also give her the guts to finally admit that she was never a real blonde.

My major objection remains the film’s title.  While the Thunderer did get a lot of screen time, mainly because the writers were correct that watching his embarrassing antics on Midgard was a fine way to pass the time while important people were sneaking through inter-world rifts and casting endless incantations, he was so tangentially related to the film’s actual plot that it seems to me misleading to present him as some sort of titular and, presumably, central figure.  If the writers thought they needed the extra deception to keep the viewer from figuring out Loki’s true plan too soon, they must, I fear, be accused of too much double-bluff, since as it is so many viewers seem to have missed the real plot.  I have had it pointed out that the writers may have chosen the title for the merchandising, since I’m certain many lasses will soon be cuddling adorable Thunderer dollies, but I find it hard to believe a film, otherwise so sensitive and scholarly, would stoop to product placement.  If the actual main character could not be titular, Odin at least might have been a better choice, if not something more neutral, like Sons of Asgard, or perhaps Mjollnir Saga, since the hammer did contribute meaningfully more often than its master.

All in all, a well-executed film, if a bit crowded with comic relief; we must hope the authors do not make a similar mistake in the sequel, which should be titled Loki’s Victory, at least in my unbiased opinion.

(P.S. I hear some rumors about a title involving “Avengers’?  Vengeance is good too.)

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