The year 2011 was make-or-break time for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk may not have been household names, but in terms of weirdo comic book ideas, they were fairly safe bets. Playboy billionaires who killed their demons with the aid of their wealth and a compulsion to punch ruffians in their craniums regularly populated both the big (Batman, The Shadow) and small (Arrow, M.A.N.T.I.S.) screens. The big green rage monster had already been fed to us twice before, and in 2008, the Hulk was easily the most popular Marvel character not currently licensed to another studio. But for the Avengers Initiative to succeed, Marvel Studios would have to sell us on some of their more radical and goofier concepts.
Thor, God of Thunder, is about as comic-booky as they come. If Kevin Feige had a single cynical bone in his body, he would have towed the same line of logic that traded yellow spandex for motorcycle leather or science class web-shooters for the organic variety. However, the time for treading water was over. If we ever wanted to get to Rocket Raccoon or Black Panther (a possibility I never considered until Nick Fury’s end credits tag), we would first have to survive Asgard. With a stable of cinematically unloved characters waiting in the wings and nary a mutant or Spider-Man at their disposal, Marvel Studios’ very existence rested on an unapologetic adaptation of their Norse myth champion.
Even as a kid growing up obsessed with Marvel comic books, I felt like Thor was a weird fit within the Avengers roster. Where DC Comics had few reservations about being tied to the supernatural or the magical, Marvel heroes were mostly science based. Genetic mutations, radioactive spiders, super soldier serums, gamma bombs, and a general fear of the atom were what stoked Stan Lee’s creative fires. Sliding into mythology and stealing characters from legend seemed like a cheat. For many years, I dismissed the thunder god as a distraction from the sci-fi theatrics I cherished. Honestly, while I flirted briefly with various runs on the character, it was not until author Jason Aaron took over the book that I began to see the appeal. Here was an epic realm that stood apart from the ordinary trials that constantly plagued the heroes of New York. I should have known better to scoff at the frilly Renaissance Fair attire. The Marvel formula has always been to take the gibberish of Dark Elves, Mangog, and Ragnarok and reveal the utterly relatable humanity beneath.
How can a god stand next to the painfully human Tony Stark? Easy. Thor’s not really a god, but an alien. In embracing Arthur C. Clarke’s rule regarding magic and technology (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), Marvel allows itself to eat its cake and have it, too. Thor can enjoy the bluster of Tolkien high-fantasy with a comic book wink. That particular flavor adds a necessary spice to the original Avengers lineup that is gratifyingly antagonistic to the group dynamic as well as comedic. Simply imagining this long blonde Adonis towering over the perpetually self-analyzing Stark will eventually lead you to the only tone appropriate for Thor’s first cinematic outing.
As the assured hand behind several grandiose costume dramas, Kenneth Branagh was attached to direct because he could balance the gravitas with the theatrical. He is an incredibly earnest filmmaker, and he could have easily wallowed in the Shakespearean tragedy brewing inside Thor and Loki’s sibling rivalry. There is an alternate version of this film where we never leave Asgard. There is plenty of adventure to be had in the slaying of Frost Giants and the friendly competition of The Warriors Three. Branagh could have gone the Batman Begins route and lost himself in the minutia of the who, what, where, when, and why of it all. But if what we’re really aching to experience is The Avengers, then we’ve got to get Thor to Earth, and you can’t drop him on Midgard without getting a little cheeky.
Pinning Thor to a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy may have frustrated, or even confused, die-hard fans looking for an entertainment more Conan the Barbarian than Crocodile Dundee. The romance between Thor and Jane Foster is crucial in grounding the character to the MCU and recognizing the character’s absurdity through knowing self-deprecating jabs. Before we can cheer on Thor’s victory over Chitauri invaders, our pesky adultness must be placated by acknowledging that magic hammers are a little silly. Check that box, now move on.
How do those sparks fly between an Asgardian prince and dauntless astronomer? Some call into question the chemistry between Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth. Not I. I get it. Put yourself in the headlights of Hemsworth’s pecs and you’d be a trapped doe, too. This hunky space god falls from the sky and you back over him in your truck. He’s clearly out to lunch, but his smile melts glass and you can literally see the sparkle in the blink of his eye. The intensity in which he regales you with sagas of meow meow and Rainbow Einstein-Rosen Bridges seems legit despite their preposterousness. Then Branagh lingers his camera on a shirtless Hemsworth caught between costume change. Oh. My. God. Indeed. We’re all Jane at that moment. She went looking for weather anomalies, found her greatest discovery, and fell in love with it. Why does Thor reciprocate her affection? He’s a mighty thunder god and she’s just an above average scientist…sure, that looks like Natalie Portman. Thor comes from a land of everyday trials of Herculean effort. One man against a fire demon army barely registers on the Asgardian front page. Of course, he falls from the might of her mystified Terran adulation.
Hemsworth is THE find of the MCU. Hollywood didn’t house an obvious stud suitable for the God of Thunder before Hemsworth struck. Can you imagine Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe dropping the hammer down on Captain America? I say thee nay. Hemsworth rides the line between silly and seriously cool with a surgeon’s precision, or a surfer’s unshakable balance. He has the muscle to back up his Shakespeare in the Park routine, and the charm to woo the staunchest of celibates. I can imagine another actor donning the armor of Tony Stark, or picking up the shield of Steve Rogers, but only one man is worthy of Mjolnir. Hemsworth is as synonymous with Thor as Christopher Reeve will forever be to Superman. Others will try, but perfection has already been achieved.
Thor seemed like a big ask seven years ago, but it was a question delivered from a studio absolutely confident in the future of their properties. The film earned just enough money to register as one of the year’s top 10 highest box office earners, but came nowhere close to matching 2011’s titanic successes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1. Tossed in amongst the MCU’s current 17-film franchise, Thor remains its 14th largest earner, just above Ant-Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Incredible Hulk. Thor was that first dip in the pool. If you enjoyed the shallow end, then the deep end of the cosmic comic universe would be revelatory. Going forward, Marvel would be all-in on their back catalog of offbeat and irresistibly weird heroes.
What Thor Contributes to the MCU:
- Loki, Lord of Mischief – Ah, you’ve been screaming this entire article, a hero is only as good as his villain. If you ask Tumblr, then maybe Tom Hiddleston was THE find of the MCU. I won’t argue too hard against that point. Loki’s contemptuous other-brother heartbreak under the diabolically mythological arrogance of papa Odin is almost reasonable. If you were stolen from your Frost Giant parents, raised as an Asgardian, and were always kept in the shadow of your beefcake bro then you’d probably be ready to stomp on a few ants as well. Hiddleston plays Loki as an ever-shifting, emotional wreck. He has absolute glee in duping rubes, but when confronting Odin on his origin, we are also privy to genuine torment. “You took me for a purpose, what was it? TELLLL MEEEE!” Thor does all the legwork in motivating Loki’s rage which allows him in The Avengers to have the most fun of any Marvel villain yet. The MCU has yet to recover from this exceptional meeting of actor and character.
- Hawkeye – “We need eyes up high with a gun.” Jeremy Renner’s S.H.I.E.L.D. sharpshooter was a last minute reshoot addition to the film and boy, does it feel like one. He serves zero purpose to the plot, barely rising above the rank of product placement.
- Outer Space – Asgard may look like it just floated out of a Jacek Yerka painting, but in Marvel logic, it’s just another planet floating around with the Kree, the Skrulls, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Sooner or later, they’re all going to bump into each other.
- Erik Selvig – an associate of Bruce Banner when he was toiling away at Culver University, Stellan Skarsgård’s anxious scientist has earned his paranoia. Wishing to simply study abnormal atmospheric phenomenon, Selvig is roped into an invasion plot spearheaded by a creature from his childhood bedtime stories. It’s enough to drive him stark raving mad.
- Agent Jasper Sitwell – the traitorous little weasel doesn’t have much to do in Thor other than manning a few of Coulson’s monitors. No one will ever ask for his action figure at Christmas, but he’s a key component in servicing one of Phase 2’s greatest plot twists.
What Thor Withholds from the MCU:
- The Destroyer – Gosh, I love this crazy suit of magical Asgardian armor, and I am desperate to see it come back to the MCU one day. Jack Kirby’s knight in shining armor design is beautifully simplistic, and Branagh’s addition of the War of the Worlds heat ray sound effect was a deft touch. He’s certainly too cool to waste on a 10-minute distraction to the ultimate Loki vs. Thor Rainbow Bridge bout that occurs here.
- The Frost Giants – Despite playing such a crucial role in Loki’s self-loathing villainy, his people have all but been forgotten. Branagh never quite pulls off the scale of these creatures; cutaways to Colm Feore’s King Laufey are too distant to properly appreciate his enormity.
- Donald Blake, M.D. – Once upon a time, Donald Blake was the secret identity of the God of Thunder, but the comic books eventually shed that concept for a full embracing of Thor’s mythological self. Here, we learn that Jane Foster once dated a doctor with the same name, but it’s little more than a throwaway Easter egg.
“The Mighty Thor: Loki” by Rob Rodi and Esad Ribic – Last year, I ranked my five favorite runs on the character, and if you’re looking for the final statement on the Son of Odin than I suggest you start there. Now, if you’re willing to expand even further into the nine realms of Yggdrasil then this “Wicked”-like retelling from the Lord of Mischief’s point of view will have you seriously craving that Hiddleston Disney+ series. Loki reveals the unstoppable hedonism of Odin, and Thor’s unquenchable thirst for glory. Alone in a family of psychopaths, the only logical option for Loki was to rebel against his clan. Ribic’s painterly style serves to elevate the pathetic whimpering of Loki to their classical origins. It’s a gorgeous production worthy of a back issue bin treasure hunt.
Read more from our series about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: