Hammer of the Gods


This weekend brings the big-budget adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Thor to the big screen.  Thor is the heavy artillery of the Marvel Universe.  Super-heroes are generally men and women who acquire godlike powers.  Thor is a god, period.

The movie, like its comic-book source material, goes light on the divine aspects of Asgard.  Its inhabitants aren’t really “gods” in the religious sense.  They’re an advanced alien race of superhuman immortals who preside over a realm where science and magic are “one and the same,” as Thor explains it.  Science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke proposed a famous “law” that states “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which the Natalie Portman character helpfully cites in the movie.  Products of Asgard’s advanced science include a guy who can see almost anything happening in the universe, and a hammer that can control the weather.  “Advanced” really doesn’t do it justice.

Thor is an unusual variation on the super-hero origin story.  It runs in reverse.  Thor is already thousands of years old at the beginning of the story, and fully in command of his vast array of powers.  He is stripped of those abilities by his angry father Odin, and sent to Earth for a character-building time-out.  He’s hot-headed and arrogant before his banishment, but he’s nevertheless one of Asgard’s greatest heroes, loved by both his companions and the common folk of the realm.  His character arc takes him from hero to super-hero, a transformation that involves Thor losing power, rather than gaining it.

The structure of Thor also seems like a curious reversal of the traditional super-hero movie.  The most spectacular scenes come at the beginning, particularly a jaw-dropping battle in which Thor shows us – and his unfortunate adversaries – what he can really do.  The two climatic encounters later in the film seem much smaller by comparison.  Most of the cast (and seemingly the entire population of Asgard) just kind of wanders off, so that Thor can have his big final showdown with his villainous brother Loki.  The heavy emotional payoffs come before the climax kicks into high gear, while the leading lady checks out of the story fifteen minutes early, basically telling Thor to go have fun storming the castle.

This makes Thor a very enjoyable, and frequently spectacular, movie with a weak ending.  When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s right up there with Iron Man and Spider-Man, an especially neat trick given the truly bizarre nature of the protagonist.  As the movie’s advertising points out, only one super-hero is a god.  This is not the story of a genius driven to re-invent himself as a crime fighter, or a nice Kansas farm boy who discovers he can fly.  This guy was already flying back when the inhabitants of Kansas were learning how to make simple tools out of chipped stone.

The movie owes its success to star Chris Hemsworth, who brings a lot of warmth and texture to the role.  You can see why people on both Asgard and Earth would love and admire Thor.  He’s a fish out of water in the 21st century, but not a clueless dolt gaping at automobiles and computer monitors in wonder.  He basically “gets” the modern world and the human race.  He’s just a bit fuzzy on some of the finer details, such as the true purpose of pet stores.  His heroic journey feels graceful and natural.  Thor begins the film willing and able to fight for those he cares about, and ends by learning to die for them.  He also finds the point where martial valor ends, and horrifying cruelty begins.

Also fantastic is Tom Hiddleston, playing a different kind of super-villain in Loki.  The villains in previous Marvel films have mostly been victims of circumstance, driven mad by technology, greed, lust for revenge, or carnivorous alien underwear.  Loki is what he chooses to be, and he makes that choice in defiance of a much better path offered by his wise and loyal family.  He forges his destiny with eyes wide open, launching a betrayal he must have been planning for centuries.  He knows exactly what he’s doing, and why it is wrong. 

It’s interesting to note that Loki’s grand scheme is well under way before he learns a devastating secret about his relationship with Odin.  That revelation does not change what he wants, or what he’s willing to do to get it.  Several previous Marvel films have tried to evoke a sense of tragedy around their villains, with the clumsy Spider-Man 3 all but slamming the audience up against the back wall of the theater and demanding they feel sorry for the Sandman.  This is the first time you really will feel sympathy for the devil.

Thor is a fun movie filled with stunning visuals, a real sense of cosmic wonder, and actors who don’t think they’re playing two-dimensional comic book characters.  Even Jeremy Renner put some obvious effort into a hilariously awkward cameo, playing a very cool character who literally wandered in from another movie. 

This is the first time in a while that Anthony Hopkins has completely forgotten about the iconic serial killer he used to portray.  Watch what he does with the scene where Odin banishes Thor to Earth – and the heartbreaking way Chris Hemsworth plays Thor asking Loki if he can come home – for the evidence that a great many people brought their “A” games to tell the story of a man with a hammer who does not think all the world looks like a nail.