Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich, Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, and Kenneth Branagh, 2011
As I've been writing about these Avengers movies I've kept coming back to the idea of resonance — what about these characters strikes a chord with people? For instance, the premise of the Hulk, at least in the comics, is that an extremely repressed man has the id and the rage he's been bottling up all his life released in the form of giant monsters. If you've ever struggled to keep your own darker emotions under wraps you might find that a pretty compelling concept. I hadn't thought that Iron Man offered such rich source material, but the team behind the first movie made a resonant scenario out of his origin — if you've ever been helpless in some way, it's easy to see the appeal of the fantasy of ultimate protection. I have long runs of both these characters' books: #158 to #266 for Iron Man, and #331 to #467 for The Incredible Hulk. But I never collected Thor. As an adult, I caught up with the much-celebrated Walt Simonson run, but even those issues I didn't like as much as I'd been led to expect. I appreciated that he went beyond the standard fare — he started by having an alien prove worthy of the hammer, and went on to turn the title character into a frog and do an entire issue of nothing but splash pages — but ultimately even Simonson couldn't get around the fact that the book was about Thor.
The premise of (Marvel's version of) Thor is that an arrogant, headstrong prince of the gods is forced to learn some humility on Earth in order to someday become a worthy king. Who can relate to that? Sure, there's no shortage of privileged assholes, but they generally don't like reading about how they shouldn't be privileged assholes, which is a big part of what makes them privileged assholes. And yes, I know that this sort of narrative has a long history: Shakespeare, for instance, devoted play after play to exploring the travails of kings and princes, travails suffered by something like 0.0001% of the British population. But at least he had the excuse that within that 0.0001% were his patrons. Marvel wound up stuck with this premise pretty much by accident. Thor was initially just one of a string of disabled superheroes Stan Lee cranked out in the early '60s: Matt Murdock was blind but fought crime as Daredevil, Tony Stark had a heart condition but took on the commies as Iron Man, and Dr. Donald Blake was crippled but with a tap of a magical cane could assume the power of the Norse god of thunder. All pretty standard "the weakling is secretly powerful" wish-fulfillment. And at first Thor really was just Don Blake in a superhero's body. He didn't know what all Thor could do — "What do I remember of him from my school days?" he asks himself — and had to figure out who Loki was rather than just remembering him. He even used contractions. But pretty quickly the stories started treating Thor not as a type of armor that Don Blake was putting on, but as Thor. Odin treated him as his actual son right from his first appearance, and before too very long not just Thor's speech but even his thought bubbles were full of thees and thous. The book became a showcase for Jack Kirby to go nuts drawing crazy cityscapes and alien planets and blocky gods pounding each other, and that meant that Thor remained Thor for entire issue after entire issue. That eventually raised some questions: Were Don Blake and Thor distinct individuals who traded off between existence and non-existence, or had Blake's mind started to transform into Thor's mind the same way his body transformed into Thor's? Either way, where was Thor before Don Blake discovered the magical cane? If he hadn't existed up to that point, how could he have all this past history with all these other mythological figures? Eventually, the early '80s Thor team hit upon an explanation: Odin, pissed off at Thor's hotheadedness and conceit, had wiped out Thor's memory, stripped him of his powers, and sent him to Earth believing himself to be medical student Don Blake, in order that he might hobble for a decade in a mortal's shoes and thereby learn humility. More than just a new de facto origin story for Thor, this was basically the only Thor story that had ever been told with thematic weight beyond "slightly lunkheaded good guy beats up on this month's opponent." So I went into the Thor movie with low expectations. It seemed like even if it wasn't just two hours of stupid violence it would be this "hereditary privilege proves retroactively deserved" bullshit.
As it turned out, I was mildly impressed — it's not bad for what it is. Asgard looks very cool with its reimagined Rainbow Bridge and its sky straight out of the Astronomy Picture of the Day. The idea of multiethnic Nordic gods is pretty dubious but the guy who plays Heimdall totally justifies it. Back on Earth, there's some decent sitcom-style comedy, which isn't meant as an insult: I mean, yeah, it's not at the same level as Tony Stark's mutterings in Iron Man, but sitcoms can be pretty funny in their way. I even liked some of the storytelling — I was surprised to find my "I actually understand why this is happening!" sense tingling pretty often — but I did have a few problems with it:
- On a pure plot level, it isn't made clear enough that the Rainbow
Bridge isn't just a means to reach the wormhole generator but is in fact
its power source as well.
Yes, I know Heimdall says as much at the 17-minute mark, as does Loki at
the 95-minute mark.
But it's a strange enough concept that those two perfunctory mentions
aren't enough to make the implications of Thor's final tactic instantly
They weren't for me, anyway.
- As noted, the basic idea here is that the natural son and
designated heir turns out to be good while the adopted son has an
Other-ness that makes him evil.
What century is this?
- Odin says that Thor is "unworthy" because of his "pride," "vanity," "arrogance," and "stupidity." Seems like the setup for the "Thor learns humility" story. And it's a nice moment when Thor tries to lift the hammer and can't. But what proves him "worthy," and brings the hammer flying across the desert into his hand, is his decision to sacrifice himself on behalf of his friends and the local townspeople. What does that have to do with humility? Nobility, sure, but that's a different concept.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that there's no place for slightly lunkheaded characters who used to be privileged assholes and frequently backslide. As a member of an ensemble — the Avengers, say — that can be great. But I'm still waiting for the Thor story that convinces me that he's a good solo lead.
And with that, there shall be an ending, for I have said enow! SO BE IT!
Next: Captain America