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.)