Film Review: Thor (and Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Release date: 2011
Plot summary: After a handful of Frost Giants, Asgard's former ennemies, broke into Asgard's vaults on the day Thor was to become king, Odin banishes his son from Asgard for endangering the realm by provoking Laufey, the Frost Giants' king. He is sent to Earth in a mortal form and shall only recover his powers and the use of his hammer - although he doesn't know it - when he becomes worthy of them. Meanwhile, Thor's mischievous younger brother, Loki, uncovers a hidden truth about his birth and family...
I had better say it straight away, this is a very positive review of Thor (2011) written by a newly-found super-fan of Loki ... However, I shall endeavour to remain as neutral as possible in my analyses, but I cannot promise to refrain from inserting smileys and personal comments between parentheses on the way... sorry!
/!\ SPOILER ALERT /!\
As my purpose in this review is mainly to analyse the tools of myth-making, the plot and the characterization of the different characters throughout the film, I will need to tell much of the plot, punchlines, and the like.
All this being said...
Thor or the making of mythology
Once upon a Christmas (read: four months or so ago), Santa brought me the DVDs of The Hollow Crown, which series 1, being myself a big fan of both British history and British series, and if possible, the two combined in British period drama, I eagerly watched, and fell in love with one of the characters thereof, Prince Hal - later (in episode 4) to become king Henry V. He was played by Tom Hiddleston, whom I vaguely knew from my Facebook thread - having some Loki fangirls as friends - and I fell in love with both his character and his acting - and, let's be honest, his good looks... Which is how I decided to finally watch some Marvel films, namely, Thor, in which he plays the main antagonist, the now-very-infamous Loki . This was not the very first Marvel film I watched - I had already seen (and rather enjoyed) at least some of the Iron Man films and at least two (I think) Tobey Maguire Spiderman films as well (which I enjoyed less, if I remember correctly) - but I have never really been into superhero films; what's more, with all the Avengers grouped-superheroes films, I had the feeling that these were just big blockbusters with a lot of VFX/CGI and that's it. Well, it took me so long to write this article that I had time to watch all (I think) Marvel Cinematic Universe films since I started writing it and I think that overall they are rather good in the directing, the VFX/CGI are amazing and the stories and characters well developed on the whole.
As to Thor, my overall first impression was very good: the directing and the settings, SFX, CGI and whatever else are beautiful and majestic, the actors are good, the characters well written (see later in this review) with enough humour to spend a good time but not too much/stupid as in many films (I believe Thor: Ragnarok is far less good on that score, although it's still OK by my standards, but much closer to the line; see later as well), the fights are not too long nor hard to understand - I am very bad at looking fighting scenes, I never understand what's going on where and to whom - and the plot is straightforward enough to be easy to understand but not entirely predictable (for me, anyway), yet rather predictable (for me, again) when analysed in depth (see later as well).
(By the way, as a matter of fun fact, Kenneth Branagh, the director, also directed Henri V in 1989, which I find funny because I discovered Tom Hiddleston as (the future) Henry V, which then led me to watch him as Loki in this film directed by Kenneth Branagh.
I still have Branagh's Henry V to watch, though. I also recently saw Branagh's last film, The Murder of the Orient Express, and I was not thrilled about it, but it is mostly because of the characters and the story; however, I found the directing - colours, settings, camera moves, angles, etc., very beautiful and overall well-engeneered.)
So (not so) long story short, I really enjoyed watching Thor. If you like big-budget films with amazing settings, strong characters and a clean and artistic directing - including impressive shots--travelling, overview and all--of the setting and the fights -, I believe Thor was made for you. (scroll down the images to read my extended analysis)
Plus, when it comes to the modern concern of women representation, I don't really know what's been said/written about it, but obviously, women are not meant to be prominent in this film, which is about brotherly rivalry in a patriarchal father-to-son accession to the throne system.
Yet, I quite liked the feminine characters. Jane Foster is a badass - though not very supported by the scientific community, based on her isolation - scientist, who does not hesitate to resist the SHIELD agents who have come to confiscate all her gear and results. Of course, she can't do anything, but she's not afraid and argues vehemently with the SHIELD agent (I forgot his name, poor guy). She is Thor's love interest in the film, of course, but I think she has cleverness and will-power enough to be a substantial character. Moreover, she is sometimes a funny character - for example, when she bumps into Thor with her car for the second time and she apologises, saying she doesn't do it on purpose.
Which leads us to Darcy, the feminine comic relief character of the film. I find her positively funny without being stupid - something which sometimes/often happens with comic relief characters, the more so, I guess, when they are women, since humour has not been associated with women for very long in Western cultures. What saves her from stupidity is actually, again, her cleverness. She's sarcastic and witty. She's not a stupid person - although she's Jane's intern without having ever studied science - she studied political science:
e.g. Dr Selvig: "I thought you were a scientist."
Darcy: "Political science."
Jane: "She was the only applicant."
Moreover, despite her obliviousness to science, Darcy is very observant and proves helpful to the scientists on several occasions. She is also more open than Dr Selvig to non-scientific explanations for the recorded phenomena.
Finally, the other important female character is the Lady Sif - Thor's wife in Norse mythology, but not in the Marvel universe. She is a badass soldier fighting with Thor and the Warriors Three. When Thor tries to convince his friend to disobey Odin's orders, he capitalises on what they owe him based on what they have already been through together. The interaction is on a "who did this for you?" => "You did" basis, but when it comes to Sif, it's women-empowerment-time ^^
e.g. Thor: "And who proved wrong all who scoffed at the idea that a young maiden could be one of the fiercest warriors this realm has ever known?"
Sif: "I did."
Thor: "True, but I supported you, Sif."
This deflation of male-based power serves both as a women-empowerment message and as a comic note, again proving that woman + humour doesn't necessarily equate spoilt joke.
So, basically, women are substantial in the film, they are not defined solely through their relationship with the hero - or men in general -: they are clever scientists, witty interns, badass warriors. BUT they are not geeky tomboys who only live for their job or their personal empowerment vindication in a patriarchal society. They are also women, meaning that they also have a feminine part. Jane is beautiful and she is Thor's love interest, but not only. Darcy's comic relief episodes include a lot of lurking at Thor's torso, taking pictures of him and proposing to perform CPR on him, but not only. She is a heterosexual woman who clearly finds Thor attractive but she is never in love with him or jealous of his relationship with Jane. She exists as a woman, complete with intellectual background, desires and goals, without needing to be defined through her link to the hero.
Yet, what struck me most on my first watching Thor was the story telling: how the plot was meant to explain the characters and the characters to inform the plot. Indeed, although the characters are, according to me, enough developped to be considered as true individual characters, they are foremost meant to be archetypes playing out - or reinterpreting - some of the main founding myths on which many mythologies, religions, beliefs and cultures were based.
What I will be interested in in my analyses is not, therefore, how Marvel totally reinterpreted Norse mythology, but how the film, despite all its FX, SHIELD agents, epic music and funny flirting, is no more - and I intend no pejorative connotation here - than a children's tale.
Myths and children's tales
A myth is "an ancient story or set of stories, especially explaining the early history of a group of people or about natural events and facts" (Cambridge Dictionary). It is especially "concerned with deities and demigods and explains some practice, rite or phenomenon of nature" (dictionary.com).
Mythology is therefore "a collection of myths" (Oxford English Living Dictionaries).
Thor is related to mythology in two ways: first, its source material (the comics) is based on Norse mythology, a set of myths used by the Norse people to explain natural phenonema, such as thunder which is created by Thor. It is noteworthy that many different mythologies actually feature different version of the same myths, as they are attempts to explain the same phenomena (e.g. Thor and Zeus/Jupiter as the God of Thunder). It is in this regard that I believe Thor to use myths as its main theme in a broader way. Indeed, besides using mythological characters, the film stages other types of relatively universal myths, those not intending to explain natural phenomena, but rather human phenomena/behaviours, and what those behaviours should actually be. Thus, myths often stage heroes that commit a fault and need to be go through a sort of initiatory journey/quest in order to be redeemed.
Now, a tale is "a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted" (Oxford English Living Dictionaries).
Such a definition may lead us to think that tales are far less important than myths in the building of a culture or a civilisation. Yet, myths and tales are often linked, and it may be difficult to tell the exact difference between a tale and a myth, especially when it is told to children. Indeed, a myth and a tale are usually both stories featuring magic / non-human characters (but not necessarily in tales), in order to explain a phenomenon. Although the definition of a tale does not include the need of a "moral", many tales were actually written in the same way as a myth: a character (often a child) misbehaves and must face the consequences of his/her actions. The moral is usually "so don't misbehave in this way" (for instance, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf => don't lie; "The Ugly Duckling" => don't reject people who are different; "The Little Red Riding Hood" => obey your parents and don't talk to strangers; and so on). Although we nowadays tend to skip the violent/deadly ending (in Disney adaptations and children's books), many tales, like myths, originally featured very violent episodes, meant to amplify/examplify the bad consequences to the character's actions.
Although Thor's plot is more complex than that of a simple tale and stages several myths and their related morals, I believe it is constructed and meant to be understood as a tale. This is clearly staged at the beginning of the film: after the introductory scene showing Jane Foster and her team chasing a magnetic storm (or whatever that is), an old man's voice (it's actually Odin) tells us an ancient tale: "once" (read: a long time ago or once upon a time), the Frost Giants attacked Earth, but were eventually defeated with the help of the Asgardians. The old man's narrative include features that are typical of a tale: setting the story in the far gone past, making the story universal ("Once, mankind accepted a simple truth."), etc. What's more, the very fact that it is told by an old man (a topos of tales) reinforces the tale status of his narrative. As we do not see the narrator and we see the action as it is told, we are initially led to believe that the tale is told for our benefit as an audience. And since this is a film and we are the audience, it is of course true. Yet, the next shots show us that Odin was actually telling the story to his two boys: Thor and Loki.
This first scene therefore shows us that the film, as a story complete with a beginning and an end, is to be understood (by us) as a tale told for our benefit and enlightenment. In this context, the characters are to be seen as archetypes representing human traits, and we are expected to have learnt a lesson about human nature by the end of the story. But this tale is also told to Thor and Loki as part of their education. So we are expected to analyse and interpret their actions in the light of Odin's tale's moral: "a wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it". By the time they became adults, had they remembered this important lesson? And if not, what would/could they do to remedy it?
One may be tempted to think, then, that the first storm chasing scene occuring before the tale is told is a little clumsy in terms of narration. On the contrary, though, it sets the film's story's time period, i.e. the film is set in the present, which thus allows the story of the tale to have happened a long time ago, another topos of both tales and myths. Besides, Odin's tale also has the phenomenon-explaning-myth function: we have been introduced to a natural phenomenon that the human characters do not understand, and what follows is it's explanation: the storm was actually created by the Bifröst, which is an advanced technology used by a civilisation of almost invincible and immortal warriors.
Now that I have established the frame of my study, let's have a look at the main founding myths I have identified in the film.
Myth n°1: the two rival brothers
Whoever has seen the film will probably agree with this statement: Thor's plot focusses on the rivalry between two brothers. And this is probably one of the most ancient myths. Indeed, in a patriarchal society in which the first born often inherits all or most of his father's goods, social position and responsibilities, rivalry and jealousy are bound to appear.
Such a myth, for example, can be found in the Book of Genesis in the Bible: it is the story of Abel and Cain (Adam and Eve's sons): both brothers make offerings to God according to what they produce; Abel offers what he has cultivated, whilde Cain offers the beasts he has bred; but God only accepts Abel's offering and Cain kills his brother, thus perpetrating humanity's first crime.
Of course, God represents here the Father figure. Moreover, this myth is not linked to patriarchal rules, as Cain was actually the first born, but to the sons' need/search/desire of their Father's acknowledgement.
And indeed, although he usurps the throne and seems to seek power for himself, what Loki really wants is merely to be acknowledged by his father - and his mother - as a worthy son.
e.g. Thor: "Why have you done this?"
Loki: "To prove to Father that I am a worthy son."
e.g. Loki to Thor: "I never wanted the throne. I only ever wanted to be your equal."
e.g. Loki to Odin: "I could have done it, Father! For you! For all of us!"
This mere desire of acknowlegment by his parents can also be clearly seen in his plan, which is only entirely revealed at the end (see myth n°3): first, we know he wants to ruin his brother's day, then that he also made sure he would get bannished. Since he could not have foreseen his father's "sleep", he probably only intended to become the rightful heir and wait. But then, he learns that his father is not his real father, and we see him make and alliance with his birth father: Laufey kills Odin and Loki can become king of Asgard and give him his artefact back. At this point, it is rather logical to believe that he has decided to turn against his adoptive father, but at the end, we finally learn that his plan was to catch Laufey in the act, kill him, save his father and become the rightful heir. What is most interesting here is that learning about his true parentage should have brought him some relief about feeling different, and may have made him rather indifferent towards his adoptive family. He may even have taken the opportunity of going back to his birth parents and claim their throne as their rightful heir. But on the contrary, the result of his learning who he really is only reinforces his need to become Odin's sole worthy son, and even leads him to want to destroy his entire race. When he kills Laufey, he tells him: "And your death came by the son of Odin."
He then turns to his mother to reassure her: "I swear to you, Mother, that they will pay for what they've done today."
The question is, then, why does Loki feel so slighted by his father?
Of course, there's the sword of Damocles of the patriarchal system: Thor is privileged by the system, he will inherit everything and become the most powerful man in the realm only because he was born first. Moreover, as his father's heir, he's bound to be educated by the latter to be his worthy successor: it is therefore probable that the boys did not receive the exact amount of attention during their upbringing.
But Loki's situation is more complex: we then learn that he is actually adopted. He is the son of Odin's old ennemy, Laufey, the Frost Giant. What's more, he has always felt somehow different. However, the film does not explain why or how, and one may wonder: did Loki feel different because he intrinsically is, or did he feel different because his parents, despite their true desire to consider him as their second-born son, could not help seeing him as different and were influenced by this knowledge in the way they behaved to him? Thus, as we unravel the layers of the plot/story-telling, we come to realise that the film tends to touch upon many broad questions about humanity and human behaviour, while not necessarily giving us all the answers/solutions. Moreover, the narration borrows here from famous Greek tragedies: Frigga, Thor and Loki's mother explains to Loki that "[Odin] kept the truth from you so that you would never feel different. You are our son, Loki, and we, your family." One is immediately reminded of the stories of the Greek oracles (e.g. in Oedipus): I strive to prevent something from happening, but on the contrary, all my actions to prevent it are actually what make it happen in the end.
So Loki resents being/feeling different. He also resents not being heir to his father for rather unfair yet very conventional reasons. In this regard, I believe Odin is not very helpful, as he tells the boys: "Only one of you can ascend to the throne, but both of you were born to be kings." I cannot help wondering: what's the purpose of such a sentence?? Of course, it may be that Odin is simply telling the truth, i.e. that Thor as his son and Loki as Laufey's son are destined by birth to be kings, but the children don't know about Loki's parentage... So it seems, indeed, that Odin's behaviour to his sons may, at least to some extent, have played a role in Loki's feeling slighted and growing resentment (which is confirmed by Loki in the second film - see Thor: The Dark World below in the article). By the way, I believe the same thing can be said about Abel and Cain: although God's prefering Abel's offering was by no way an excuse for Cain's crime, was it not unfair of God to prefer one son to the other without any sort of justification??
What the film somehow fails to show, in my opinion, is that Loki also resents being bullied by Thor. It is said a few times by the characters, but as only one scene of their childhood is shown to us, in which, even though Thor clearly states that he will be king, they exchange a knowing look and a conniving smile, thereby suggesting that they are rather close, what we see at the beginning of the film is that they are actually quite close and they are part of the same group of friends. Of course, this is necessary in the narrative process, in order to surprise the audience when we learn that all that happened was actually Loki's plan from the beginning, but I felt a bit cheated when I learnt through their friends' mouth that "Loki has always been jealous of Thor." and "Loki's always been one for mischief". At this time of the film, their starting to think him the trator seemed to me a bit unfair, as we had not been introduced to the same Loki as they seemed to know, the jealous and mischievous one (and as I knew of there existing a huuuuuge Loki fanbase, I admit I was willing to have more reasons to understand his becoming a villain). When I watched the film again, I then realised that Loki's being somehow bullied is shown mostly through his resigned looks in Thor's presence (e.g. when Heimdall refuses him access to the Bifröst and Thor takes the action into his own hands (see image below); e.g. when Loki tries to negociate with Laufey and Thor tells him "Know your place, brother.").
So Loki was, to some extent, bullied by his big brother and resents him for it.
e.g. Loki to Laufey: "That was just a bit of fun, really. To ruin my brother's big day."
Again, what comes to my mind is: what did their parents do? Didn't they notice it? And this is where I can't agree with what seems to be the film's moral, when Thor tells Odin: "I'll never be a wiser king than you. Or a better father." Well, I do think that Thor will be a wiser king (and father) than Odin, in time, that is (see myth n°2): Odin surely is a wise king when it comes to protecting the realm (and even the 9 Realms), not seeking out war and revenge and teaching arrogant sons a lesson (see myth n°2), but, in my opinion, he has clearly failed one of his sons and never repents for it (unlike Thor, see myth n°2) while still clearly preferring his other son.
e.g. Thor: "Someday, perhaps, I shall make you proud."
Odin: "You have already made me proud."
e.g. Loki: "I could have done it, Father! For you! For all of us!"
Odin: "No, Loki."
And it is when Odin thus denies Loki the mere acknowlegment (or even simply paternal love) he seeks that he decides to let go of the stick and supposedly kill himself.
Myth n°2: the making/initiation of a good king
The second founding myth I want to talk about is also very well known and is the basis of maaaaany stories (be it films, comics, novels, whatever). The Greeks were especially fond of it (in their tragedies... highschool memories are resurfacing right now...), and the English word for it is actually the Greek one: hubris, i.e. excess of pride, vanity, arrogance, *insert synonym*.
The film is called Thor, which gives us a clear indication as to what the main theme is: Thor is the main character, and the film is above all his story.
His story - Loki's schemes aside - is rather simple: Thor has always been a very brave, strong and successful warrior, and he was raised knowing that he would be king one day; therefore, he did not truly listen to Odin's moral (not seeking war) and developped a very proud and arrogant personality.
What I do not understand is how his parents - especially his father - failed to detect it before, but on the day he is supposed to succeed his (still living) father on the throne, an attack on Asgard threatens the security of the realm and Thor disagrees with his father as to the measures that should be taken: Odin advocates carefulness, not breaking the truce, not jumping to conclusions ("It was the act of but a few"), while Thor's reaction is rash and passionate, he wants to "teach them a lesson" because he sees the attack as "an act of war".
He openly (though only Loki is present) opposes his father's judgement, and thinks he knows better. As he starts a sentence by "As King of Asgard..." (meaning himself), Odin interrupts him: "But you're not king!... yet." Odin has finally realised that his beloved son is not ready yet.
But Thor really believes he knows better than his father and, with a little encouragement from Loki (see myth n°3), decides to disobey him and go to Jotunheim to seek answers. His actions, though, have very serious consequences, as he provokes Laufey who declares war on Asgard. (By the way, in case we hadn't understood Thor's faults already, Laufey states them again: "Why have you come here? To make peace? You long for battle. You crave it. You're nothing but a boy trying to prove himself a man." and a few moments later: "You know not what your actions would unleash. I do. Go now while I still allow it." Convinced by Loki, Thor turns back, but finally starts the attack when a Frost warrior humiliates him: "Run back home, little princess.")
Back on Asgard, he is once more lectured by Odin ("That's pride and vanity talking, not leadership.") and eventually bannished for being "unworthy!". And the price is high: not only is he stranded on a strange realm, but he also loses his powers and his hammer. The trick, though, is that he will be able to retrieve them, but he doesn't know it (whereas we do, as we see his hammer fall on Earth a few minutes after him, while he lies unconscious - after being tased by Darcy - in Jane's van). Odin curses the hammer thus: "Whosoever holds his hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."
So now, Thor has to become worthy; and his story is built like an initiatory journey, each step thereof brings him closer to worthiness. First, he - rather harshly - learns some humility, now his body is human and mortal (e.g. when he wakes up in the hospital, he shouts "You're no match for the mighty..." and is interrupted by fainting after being jabbed in the butt with a syringe). Then, he fails to lift his hammer. By the time Loki tricks him into believing that their father is dead, he has already learnt a lot about humility, and instead of lashing out at his brother, he humbly asks, looking very lost: "Can I come home?".
After Loki left him there (see myth n°3), he starts to actually realise things and put his faults into words: "I had it all backwards. I was all wrong." / "My father was trying to teach me something, but I was too stupid to see it."
His next step towards worthiness is not to rush into battle with the Destroyer Loki sent on Earth, but rather help evacuate the civilian population: instead of listening to his impulses, he prioritises and seeks above all to protect others (true, he doesn't have his powers anymore, but the Thor of the beginning of the film may have fought anyway, thinking that only fighting till the last breath and glory were worthy).
His last redeeming action, of course, is to almost die facing Loki alone, but I think the most important one is apologising to his brother - which Odin never did!!!
Thor: "Brother, whatever I have done to wrong you, whatever I have done to lead you to do this, I am truly sorry. But these people are innocent. Taking their lives will gain you nothing. So take mine and end this."
This ultimate sacrifice is what makes him worthy and his powers and hammer are returned to him, and his final reward lies in Odin acknowledging him as a grown man and a worthy successor: "You'll be a wise king." To which he wisely answers that "I have much to learn. I know that now."
Yet, I can't help feeling a little frustrated at Odin who is, in my opinion, highly responsible for all this mess and never so much as apologises for it, let alone getting actually punished (well, he does lose a son at the end...): I know that Thor's acknowledging that Odin knew what he was doing is important in terms of the moral of this myth, which can be understood either as a very strong advocacy of patriarchy, or, as I do, rather as an advocacy of listening to the elders because they usually know better, because of their longer experience of life, but I still feel cheated of a complete moral where all the guilty parties get, at least to some extent, what they deserve.
So to sum it up, Thor's tale is about growing from teenagehood into adulthood, learning to be responsible and to account for one's actions. And Thor makes a good job out of it but still has a long way to go - although paradoxicaly, being finally able to acknowledge this is a sign that he has eventually grown. But what about Loki?
It seems that initially, despite his mischievous and jealous nature, Loki understands the world and its implications better than Thor does. For instance, when he tells Laufey why he helped his men enter the vaults on Thor's big day, he answers, as we have already seen, that he wanted to ruin his big day, but also "to protect the realm from his idiotic rule a while longer." Thus, although he clearly acted out of resentment, it seems that he was able to understand Thor's true character long before Odin, and it seems rather responsible of him - again, despite all his resentment - to try to prevent his arrogant and impetuous brother from ruling Asgard and potentially leading the realm to chaos.
Yet, as he learns about his true parentage and his resentment grows even bigger, he progressively unlearns this wisdom and gives way to his inner self and emotions, going as far as trying to destroy his own entire race in order to fulfill his (a little bit) selfish desire for fatherly recognition.
Thus, at the same time as Thor progressively learns not to resort to war, Loki's desire for it equally grows. While Thor goes from being rash, vindictive and impulsive to wise, his brother goes from understanding the duties of a king to giving in to his basest selfish desire for vengeance. Loki thereby somehow becomes the antihero of his own story (rather than the villain as he will later be in The Avengers), in that he is deprived of the hero's defining attributes yet pursues the same goal: being worthy of his father's trust. However, unlike a real antihero, he does not succeed in his quest, precisely because he lacks the moral attributes of the hero: he is not "worthy". (cf. villain : "a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot" (Oxford English Living Dictionaries); antihero: "a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like" (dictionary.com)
Likewise, whereas it takes some time to Thor to understand how to become worthy but he finally manages to do it, Loki has a plan all along, but it's a bad plan that is bound to fail. Yet, he cannot resist attempting to pull Thor's hammer from the stone, and, of course, fails to do so.
Yet another example of the difference between Thor and Loki by the end of the tale can be found in the scene on the rainbow bridge by the Bifröst: in order to prevent the destruction of Jotunheim, Thor decides to destroy the Bifröst. Loki tries to stop him by reminding him that without the Bifröst, he will never be able to see Jane again. Thor destroys it anyway, because he has understood that saving a realm is more important than his personal love life. Loki, however, doesn't seem to be able to learn such a lesson: although he may have initially understood that Thor would be a rather bad king at first, his actions were always guided by self-centered motives - the acknowledgment of his personal rights.
Myth n°3: the making of the God of Mischief (and into a super-villain)
So Loki was somehow cheated by life and he is the antihero to whom Thor's progress in becoming a hero can be compared. But he is also a modern adaptation of an archetypal mythological character: the trickster, or the God of Mischief. And what is particularly interesting about this particular god is that his tricks can be compared to those of narration, i.e. it may be interesting to have a look at how his tricks are shown in the film and to wonder whether the director doesn't trick us in other ways thanks to the narrative and cinematographic tools at his disposal.
Although Loki can use magic and illusions, the trick he uses most is actually words. As Frigga tells him in Thor: The Dark World, he is very "perceptive about [every]one". As I have already argued, the film starts with Loki having a much better understanding of the duties and responsibilities of ruling than Thor. He is socially and politically, as well as intellectually, clever, and understands easily what the strenghts and weaknesses of people are, along with how to exploit them to his own advantage. He is therefore very good at using the right words to trigger the response he needs in someone.
e.g. Loki to Thor: "If it's any consolation, I think you're right. [...] But there's nothing you can do without defying Father."
For instance, in this scene, he first appears to Thor as an ally, as he proclaims to share his opinion and to be willfully oppose their father. His words are carefully chosen: he doesn't say "Father is wrong" but "you're right", thus artificially maintaining Thor in the authoritative position: Thor thinks and Loki agrees. Besides, he claims this is meant as a "consolation", yet his goal is to manipulate Thor into taking rash action. After going on for a few moments on why Thor is right, he concludes that despite Thor being right, he can't do anything "without defying Father". Now, this is very clever, because what he's saying is of course true, and without knowing the exact context, it would be impossible to blame Loki for being manipulative here. But if one knows about Thor's nature - rash, impulsive, loving to be unchallenged in knowing the solution - one understands easily that "there's nothing you can do" is meant to frustrate him, while "without defying Father" gives him the solution to this frustration problem: if he wants to be master of the situation as he thinks he ought to, he must defy his father. Loki thus achieves exactly what he wants by stating the opposite - and playing the act of surprise and fear at his brother's decision - because he knows exactly how to trigger Thor's weaknesses.
In rather the same way, when discussing Thor's bannishment with his friends, he tries to make his behaviour appear altruistic although it was mostly driven by selfish desires:
"I live Thor more dearly than any of you, but you know what he is. He's arrogant. He's reckless. He's dangerous. You saw how he was today. Is that what Asgard needs for its king?"
This time, he doesn't try to appeal to his friends' weaknesses but to their common sense. What he says is again all true, and to be honest, on my first watching the film, I truly believed him and found his friends rather unfair for thinking him the traitor. But his friends know him better than we do at this point - I'll come back to that later - and don't find him that convincing.
When they ask him, as the temporary king, to lift Thor's bannishment, his argumentation is, again, based on common sense and what appears to be a good understanding of his duties as king:
"My first command cannot be to undo the Allfather's last. We're on the brink of war with Jotunheim. Our people need a sense of continuity, in order to feel safe in these difficult times. All of us must stand together, for the good of Asgard."
What's more, this speech somehow shows that he is supposedly deprived of Thor's faults: he shows humility towards his father, and states that rashly rebelling against his father is not the wise way to react. But again, his friends see right through his strategy and go to Earth to bring Thor back.
Loki also uses arguments based on common sense to trick Laufey into killing Odin while what he actually wants is to kill Laufey in the act. When Laufey asks him why he doesn't kill Odin himself, Loki answers:
"I suspect that the Asgardians wouldn't take kindly to a king who had murdered his predecessor."
Again, Loki thereby demonstrates that he understands people and politics. This is also meant to show that he is a cold-blooded usurper and murderer. The reason - he says - why he won't kill his father is not because he loves him or doesn't want to kill, but merely because it wouldn't be very efficient as to their final goal (Loki becoming king and giving Lauvey back his magical artefact).
But Loki's use of words does not consist only in stating truths in the right context. It also involves lying. Of course, all the examples I have use so far can be seen as lies by omission, insofar as Loki never says all the truth and hides his true motives. But when the situation allows it - i.e. when nothing can contradict his lies - he also occasionally bluntly lies. This happens when Thor finds himself a mortal prisoner of SHIELD after he tried to retrieve his hammer:
"Father is dead." "I tried to tell him." "The truce with Jotunheim is conditional upon your exile. And Mother has forbidden your return."
Here, Loki lists facts that are not true, but which, he knows, will trigger Thor's sense of honour. Yet, he cannot resist using his usual trick - the manipulative and falsely consolating truth -:
"It was so cruel to put the hammer within your reach, knowing that you could never lift it."
Now, all this shows that Loki is already a trickster at the beginning of the film, what's confirmed by his friend's statement about his nature ("Loki's always been one for mischief, but this is something else entirely."). Yet, the second part of this statement shows that it may not necessarily be inferred that Loki is entirely bad. As I have already shown in the first two myths, although he is mischievous from the start, one cannot know precisely how far he would have gone had he not been confronted to his parents' lie. He may have hoped for Thor's bannishment in order to become his father's heir, but he probably wouldn't have gone further, once his goal was achieved. Therefore, I believe that the film is as much about how Loki became bad as it is about how Thor became good - back to square one antihero.
Thus, Loki may be the main antagonist in the film, but he is not a villain per se. In his next appearance on the big screen, however, things have changed.
In The Avengers (2012), Loki is the villain, and a super-villain with that. This can be seen, for example, in the first image of his face:
Although he still claims recognition of his rightful inheritance, his plan, this time, is the typical villain's scheme of world domination: he despises mortals, deems them inferior to him, and has decided that if he can't have Asgard for himself, he will make do with Mitgard (aka Earth). His trickster nature is merely noticeable in his justifications: humans crave subjugation because freedom prevents them from being happy.
He is not portrayed as a child whose world is a lie anymore, but as a badass villain who feels good and enjoys himself in this newfound role:
He is still shown to be very perceptive, but this time, he is not the only trickster in the story: there's also Natasha Romanov, and the scene in which he totally manipulates her feelings (the "you mewling quim" scene) only to find out that she has actually been manipulating his is hugely enjoyable.
So the trickster can be tricked, and in fact, in order to defeat him, the Avengers need to use his weapons. For instance, during the alien attack on New York, Clint Barton shoots an arrow at Loki, which he catches in a very classy way (image below), only to find out that it's an explosive device...
But the most enjoyable moment is, in my opinion, when the Hulk smashes him repeatedly like a child shmashes a toy during a tantrum, it really feels like he's reaaaally deserved it!
Although he is now officially a villain, he is still the God of Mischief and his main weapon remains tricks. His plan is to use the superheroes' oversized egos and turn it against them: at first, the group lacks unity because they don't trust each other and they all think they know better. And again, Loki knows exactly what to say to whom and at which time in order to plant seeds of doubt... until they all quarrel and the camera goes upside-down to film his sceptre in the foreground and the quarreling group in the background, a very effective visual depiction, in my opinion, of Loki's nature:
This means that basically Avengers teaches us the same lesson as Thor: that of humility. This is symbolised by the STARK sign on Stark Tower which is destroyed during the alien invasion and of which only the A remains in the end (STARK): the group of superheroes has evolved from a gathering of individuals/egos to a united group.
What I didn't like much in Avengers (in terms of story-telling and morals, for I actually find the scene rather funny in its function of comic relief) is the scene, after the alien invasion, in which the Avengers go fetch Loki and he tells them that "If it's all the same to you, I'll have that drink now.", referring to Tony Stark's offer in a conversation earlier in the film.
Although, as I said, this functions rather well as comic relief and transition between the big battle and the conclusion scene, it involves a coming back to the old Loki, the mere trickster whose errors we may come to pardon because he's a bit lost, very sexy and quite funny, except that in this film, he has effectively killed at least 80 people (as Natasha Romanov remarks to Thor), let alone all the probable collateral damage during the invasion. Therefore, he cannot be considered as a mere trickster anymore, he is a proper villain, and a proper mass murderer with that. Yet, this transitioning back to his ancient self is necessary before the beginning of the second Thor film...
Let's come back to Thor.
Now, the reason why I love Thor, the film, and Loki, the character, so much and I've already written sooo much in this article, is because I find them very interesting in terms of story-telling. We have already seen it in terms of myths - reusing mythology as a background, using the very well-known and identifiable story-telling structure of the educational tale/myth... - as well as in terms of Loki's use of words to manipulate people, but what about the narrator of the story? Of course, there is no narrator per se, as this is not a book and there is no voice-over narrator, but in my opinion, the director (and, depending on their respective involvement in the film production process, the script-writer) can be considered as the narrator: he (or she) tells us the story, and chooses what to show us and in what way. In this regard, Kenneth Branagh actually uses some of Loki's tools to trick us and as an audience, it doesn't always feel well...
For instance, I have already said it but I felt a little cheated when I heard that "Loki's always been one for mischief." whereas I had seen nothing of the sort. Of course, adapting a famous comics based on Norse mythology implies that the director may very well expect the audience to have some (even remote) knowledge about the characters: Loki is bound to be a/the bad guy. But what tells us that he already is so at the beginning of the film? As I have already discussed, I believe that he was already "one for mischief", but it's the event that take place during the film that really push him over the edge into villainy. But the narrator wants to surprise us, so he voluntarily hides us facts about Loki and Thor's infancy: like Loki, he manipulates the truth.
But I will come back to the analogy between narration and Loki's tricks when discussing Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok.
Myth n°4: Excalibur, America... all myths are one
This last point I want to discuss is not so much about one particular pattern that I found in the film, but is somehow a conclusion to all the previous points, with some additions.
Let's start with the very obvious appropriation of a famous Western myth: Excalibur. When Mjolnir (Thor's hammer, don't try to pronounce it...) hits the Earth like a meteorite and creates a crater (like a meteorite), people gather to pull on the hammer and try to lift it from the rock - like Excalibur. Of course, nobody can, because they're not worthy/Thor, but this shows again the universality of myths accross cultures and individual stories. Everybody knows about Excalibur and can draw the parallel instantly, and nobody is shocked to see an archetype of Briton mythology in a story (remotely) based on Norse mythology.
What's more, this crossed-mythologies episode leads to the introduction of yet another type of mythology, which I would like to call modern mythology: that of America. Indeed, the scene takes place in the desert in New-Mexico, a symbol of the conquest of the West, and features different elements which are very iconic of American culture - such as the pick-up truck (which, funnily enough, is not worthy of pulling the hammer) and a friendly barbecue:
Of course, the film is an America production and takes place in the US, so we are bound to see American stuff every now and then, but around the same time in the film Thor has pancakes in a diner, and again, there is a very American atmostphere to the scene:
So basically, Thor capitalises on well-known universal story-telling formulae to build a straightforward plot and archetypal characters which can appeal to a large and cross-cultural audience. And I suppose that's what I like about this film, and what makes it - according to me - a good film and a film one enjoys watching: it's because the film truly understands its topic, its themes, and its characters, without trying to be/do too much - because there are not too many subplots and secondary characters, because there aren't 50 different world-wide battles and fighting scenes, because the humour balances the seriousness of the topic... - I guess I never thought I would say that about a $150 million Hollywood superhero blockbuster!!
(This analysis of the film was mostly based on my personal impressions and my rather limited knowledge of superhero films and mythology. If you're interested in the topic of myths/story-telling/cinema though, you must absolutely read Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces: in this book Joseph Campbell, the world specialist of myths, explained his "monomyth" theory, which is, judging from the very little I have heard and read about it, rather close to what I have instinctly tried to point out in this article, namely, that all stories follow the same pattern. Since it was published in 1949, this book became a sort of Bible of scriptwriting in Hollywood. I haven't read it yet, but shall do so very shortly )
Thor: The Dark World
Director: Alan Taylor
Release date: 2013
Plot summary: After his plan of world domination failed, Loki is brought back to Asgard and sent to jail for life. Thor and his friends travel accross the Nine Realms to bring back peace; meanwhile, on Earth, Jane Foster is revived (after waiting for Thor to come back for two years) by the discovery of an anomaly in gravity itself. As she investigates this phenomenon, she is literally aspired into another world, where she becomes the host to the Aether, one of the oldest weapons in the universe and formerly used by the Dark Elves, defeated thousands of years ago by Bor, Odin's father. But are they really all dead? Facing both very powerful ennemies and his father's obstinacy, Thor will need to join forces with his infamous brother Loki if he is to emerge victorious and save his beloved's life.
Thor: The Dark World is quite different from Thor, and yet, it sounds and looks rather familiar to the audience of the first film.
Basically, Thor: The Dark World's structure is far less myth-inspired and much more super-hero blockbuster-y based. For instance, this time, we have a proper villain with a proper villain's world anihilation plan. This means that Earth is not the place for the hero's journey and trials in his quest for self-improvement anymore, it is merely the world whose destruction the hero must prevent - well, to be honest here, Thor must protect ALL worlds from destruction, but most of the action, including the attack in itself, takes place on Earth.
Thor's structure: protagonist lacks a quality - protagonist's initiation - protagonist becomes wiser and acquires self-knowledge.
Thor: The Dark World: random villain has random world destruction plan - hero has difficulties fighting him - hero finds adjuvants - hero wins all.
Of course, both structures can be seen as archetypal and very predictable in terms of story-telling, but the main difference is that the first one is about the hero's changes, whereas the second one is about a 'the good shall defeat the bad' moral statement, and the hero gets his heroic reward kiss at the end.
Moreover, the let's-save-the-world structure brings several topos of the genre which can easily be flawed or weak in terms of plot: how do you find the site of a physical anomaly? You draw random lines between ancient sites and bingo! How does it work? No idea... You have one Jane Foster and one measuring device for a type of physical anomalies, and a few minutes only to prevent those anomalies from tearing the fabric of reality apart, we're doomed, aren't we?? No problem! Jane can do some science voodoo, reverse the polarity or whatever, and turn the measuring device into a weapon. Piece of cake!
One good surprise within this general structure is that in the end it is not so much Thor as Jane who does the actual saving: it is her device (hum hum) which actually repells the danger, while Thor's muscles and mighty fighting only serve to distract Malekith long enough.
However, despite all these new elements which tend to give a new overall meaning to the story, the themes explored in Thor continue to be explored in its sequel: we learn to know the characters and their motivations better and their journey towards self-knowledge and improvement goes on.
Let's talk first about Loki. Around the beginning of the film, he voices my own criticism of Odin (remember?: basically that he didn't treat his sons equally, promising both to be king whereas only one was obviously destined to succeed him):
e.g. Loki: "I was merely giving truth to the lie that I'd been fed my entire life. That I was born to be a king."
So Loki is still self-absorbed, but something happens in this film that puts his desire of revenge for himself in perspective with his desire of revenge for someone he loves: Malekith kills his mother, and he craves vengeange. Well, vengeance is a selfish desire, but can't we at least recognise that, in terms of Loki, this constitutes a sort of improvement?
Of course, this does not mean that he becomes trust-worthy, and all his friends warn Thor about his potential betrayal.
e.g. Thor: "I wish I could trust you."
Loki: "Trust my rage."
So he hasn't become a better person, only an adjuvant to the hero in this particular instance. And yet, as he joins Thor, he becomes less of the image of villain he wishes to project, and more of Thor's little brother again. Being together, first, they start arguing about each other's driving skills like brothers, which reminds them of their former intimacy. This even leads Loki to give Thor advice about his love life: Jane is a mortal, and he is bound to suffer a great deal if he pursues this relationship. In the next scene, Loki protects Jane from an explosion with his own body and ends up sacrificing himself. This is an opportunity for him to appologise to Thor for his past errors:
e.g. Loki (dying): "I'm sorry... I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Thor: "It's OK. It's alright. I'll tell Father what you did here today."
Loki: "I didn't do it for him."
What is very interesting about Loki in this film, is that he is the one going through the self-improvement process of the hero. And it is through his link to his family that his redemption comes: he wants to revenge his mother, which brings him closer to his brother, which brings him back to the realm of the good people. In the process, he even learnt to act for selfless reasons, as the dialogue proves: although he has finally got what he wanted in the first film - he has become worthy of fatherly recognition - he discards it.
However, all this amounts to almost nothing since we learn at the end of the film that he didn't actually die and took his father's place, although the film doesn't make it clear when he decided to go for this plan: had he planned this all along or did he just take the opportunity of faking his death in the instant? Anyway, basically, Loki is still the God of mischief, and this is another of his tricks.
Talking about tricks: this part of Loki's personality is exploited to create humour in this film, in the same way as in The Avengers, but also suspense. The idea is for Thor to wrong-foot Loki by using tricks against him. For instance, when Loki asks for a dagger and Thor reaches for something, Loki thinks it's a dagger but finds himself in handcuffs instead. To which Thor tells him: "I thought you liked tricks." Loki doesn't find this funny, but later on, when he realises that Thor and his friends' plan was to trick the guards into thinking that they were going to use Malekith's starship whereas they were actually to use a much smaller one, Loki says that he is "impressed".
So tricks are again/still an important feature in this film, and the most important one is played by both Loki and Thor AND the film's director. As they approach the villains together after Loki's escape, Loki stabbs Thor, saying that he should not have trusted him. This looks like a basic Loki trick and creates a turnaround in the situation, only for it to be reversed a few minutes later, when this actually turns out to have been part of Thor's plan all along. Now Malekith didn't know Loki's nature so he doesn't really know/care what is involved here: for him, this merely appears as good news -> bad news. So the trick is actually for the audience's benefit. It is played by Loki and Thor, of course, but the trick could not have succeeded without the assistance of the film's director and the film's editor. Indeed, before this scene, several characters warn Thor of Loki's potential betrayal. So the audience, who is well aware of Loki's untrustworthy nature, expects a betrayal. What we don't expect is for this betrayal to be part of the plan! Moreover, the trick is made possible because we don't witness Thor's explanation of the plan to Loki: it's treated in a temporal ellipsis, which the audience doesn't even notice because it is a cinematic convention - there are ellipses all the time in films, and we don't always know what the hero's plan is in advance, so that we can marvel at its realisation. Besides, as we have been visually explained the first part of the plan - which is to be the only part of the plan - namely, Loki's escape and their reaching the Dark World, we don't necessarily expect Thor to have a plan beyond the one that Odin refused: meet Malekith, release the Aether, destroy it before Malekith takes hold of it.
So basically, this part of the film is built on a very big and yet very classical trick: a diversion of the audience's attention. It's literally a magician's trick If you want to see one live, here's a video by a French Youtuber who explains the mechanism (the video is in French of course, but if you want to see the trick, go to 4'45 until 7'09, during which time he explains how he is going to divert your attention from his two beloved items on his right by doing a magician's card trick)
As to Thor in this film, he undergoes far fewer changes than Loki, but that's only because he has changed so much in the first opus. He's continuing in the same direction, learning what it means to be responsible, and eventually refuses to become king, proving that he has indeed learnt much *enters punchline* "I'd rather be a good man than a good king." He has even learnt to think before acting, as Loki remarks about the whole escape plan: "This is so unlike you, brother, so clandestine. Are you sure you wouldn't rather just punch your way out?"
Losing Loki - or so he thinks anyway - especially so shortly after having reconnected with him makes him reassess his brother's worth in a way that I don't really understand: "Loki, for all his grave imbalance [till here, I'm OK] understood rule as I know I never will" [I get that you mean to appear humble, but where does that come from?? I know I have written pages, literally, about how Loki understood rule better than Thor in the first film, but things have changed a bit since then, haven't they?] For that matter, Frigga voices a much better assessment of Loki's wasted potential: "Always so perceptive about everyone but yourself."
However, this time, Thor gets to see that his father is actually far from being perfect. Indeed, in this film, Odin appears much less wise and far more obstinate and selfish.
e.g. Thor: "Then how are you different from Malekith?"
Odin: "The difference, my son, is that I will win."
How is that a wise answer, like, ever?? Yet, although he now really sees his father for what he is and decides to take action against his orders, Thor understands that standing up to his father in public and challenging him is not going to be helpful: "The realms need their Allfather, strong and unchallenged. Whether he is or not. But he is blinded, Heimdall. By hatred and by grief." People and societies need symbols, traditions and institutions to go on with their struggles, and facing such a threat as the Dark Elves, Thor's priority lies in keeping the worlds together rather than in placing the blame.
Director: Taika Waititi
Release date: 2017
Plot summary: Signs that the Ragnarok (destruction of Asgard) is coming have started to appear. Upon which Odin's death frees Hela, his first-born daughter, the goddess of Death, from the (almost) eternal prison he had put her into. She intends to take her throne back and to make Asgard the great warrior world it used to be by conquering the rest of the universe. Thor and Loki, stranded on a strange world by their sister, have to find a way out to save the world, with the help of the Hulk and Valkyrie, while Heimdall organises the resistance to Hela on Asgard.
It took me so long to write the first part of this article and my time has been so much occupied by my work and my studies that it now has been been several months since I last saw the film. So this one is going to be very short (and perhaps I'll write a longer paper later on).
Thor: Ragnarok is very different from its two prequels. This comes from its director, Taika Waititi, who wanted to breathe a new life into the franchise and from Chris Hemsworth, who was fed up with playing always-upright-and-boring Thor. This called for a total makeover of the universe and the characters. As you can see on the poster, this started (or rather ended, I suppose) with the use of bright colours to depict a funky world in which Jeff Goldblum organises gladiators' fights in what is literally the dump of the universe.
The makeover also consists in even more humour, or rather, more off-the-wall humour. Let's bring some fantasy and nonsense into Thor's well defined universe! This starts right at the beginning of the film, in the first scene: Thor, who is the prisoner of the monster Surtur, tells his story to his fellow prisoner (a skeleton) => although the film starts with the traditional story-telling device (literally: a character tells the story of what has passed), the solemn effect is deflated by the nature of the audience. When facing Surtur, this turns into a running gag, as Thor stops his story each time he turns his back to the monster (which happens several times because he is hanging from a chain which makes him rotate slowly).
In this scene, Thor shows us that he has accepted what he is, what he must be: "because that's what heroes do" (although that sounds a bit like a meta-joke about obvious story-telling devices and archetypical characters, such as the hero and his mission). Yet, this may hit at all this not being entirely fulfilling for him anymore. A heroic routine, as glorious as it may be, is still a routine. Perhaps Thor is as fed up with himself as a character as Chris Hemsworth was... And this called for big change!
But big change doesn't come to no cost and Thor's was to be heavy: he first loses his father, then his hammer (a second loss of his father or a loss of virility?), he is then exiled from his land and friends (several of which also die, by the way) and finally loses his hair and one eye as well. But all this is necessary for him to realise that he is not the sum of all these attributes: he is much more, he is the god of Thunder, and if he would just stop hiding behind his father's responsibilies as king and make his own decisions, he can do so much!
Thor: Ragnarok is thus the episode of the hero's death and his rebirth into a king, the king he craved to be in the first film, renounced to be in the second one, and finally embraces, at the end of his initiatory journey.
This film is also the occasion for Odin to make amends. Old, exiled and alone, he finally reflects upon his life with more serenity than in the other films and embraces his two sons as such: "I love you, my sons." He even goes as far as congratulating Loki on his prowess in magic: "Took quite a while to break free of your spell. Frigga would have been proud of you."
Talking about Loki, in this film, he is still Thor's triskter little brother and although he tricks us again in thinking that this time, he might really have become good, this does not trick Thor anymore, who actually anticipates Loki's betrayal and acts accordingly - we see here once more the new deflating-meta-humour of the film, which mocks the conventions established by the genre and the traditions and uses them to create comic relief in a world-domination-and-potential-destruction plot. However, Loki surprises us - or does he really? - by actually coming back to the rescue of Asgard of his own initiative... or is this yet another trick designed to lay his hands on an important asgardian artefact?
Well, I guess the answer to this question is now being answered in almost every cinema on the planet
Tags : film, hero, myth, storytelling, USA
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