Now that Marvel’s Thor has struck gold at the box office – two weeks running – it’s high time to continue a discussion that we began last year with the release of Iron Man 2 – namely, is Marvel Studios’ ambitious shared continuity approach to next year’s epic superhero movie event, The Avengers, a sign of how superhero movie franchise should be built, or an experiment that shouldn’t be repeated?
Before we get into what is sure to be a divisive topic amongst comic book movie fans, make sure you’ve checked out the following posts:
- Our Official Thor Review
- Question: Is Shared Continuity Hurting Marvel Movies?
- Why Iron Man 2 was a weak-link in The Avengers chain
It should also go without saying that the topics discussed in this article will contain MAJOR THOR SPOILERS – READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
At this point we can say with assurance that most people enjoyed the Thor experience. The movie has a solid composite review scores on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, a solid Screen Rant Review, and is quickly approaching $350 million at the worldwide box office on a $150 million budget. Needless to say, Marvel Studios is still in the game as far as building its Avengers universe goes.
However, for all the positives surrounding Thor the film (like any other) isn’t immune to criticisms – the most common being that it felt like an uneven movie, made of two parts (the fantastical Asgard scenes and the more grounded Earth scenes) that never fully meshed together. Some people loved the Earth stuff, but didn’t love the Asgard stuff as much; other people felt the exact opposite way. However, the question here is not which realm served Thor best, but whether or not the film’s obligation as a lead-in to The Avengers was a detracting factor in how the movie’s story was spun.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. Factor
If you’re not a cinephille who has memorized the 3-act structure employed by a lot of films (definitely summer blockbusters and DEFINITELY Marvel films), allow us to break down Thor into its 3 core parts:
- ACT I: Thor’s back story in Asgard, battle with the Frost Giants, and banishment.
- ACT II: Thor on Earth meeting Jane Foster, trying to reclaim his hammer, and “learning humility.”
- ACT III: Thor regaining his powers, beating up bad guys and saving the world(s).
If there is one thing that seems to be generally agreed upon, it’s that Thor‘s second act is its weakest. Second acts are typically reserved for the bulk of character development – in which a protagonist grows/develops/learns their lesson while the conflict of the story simultaneously approaches its climax. In Thor, this meant the titular hero learning NOT to be an arrogant bastard, so that he could grow into the wise hero his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) wanted him to be. Thor’s relationship with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) was intended to keep him grounded, and to motivate him to change, since the qualities Odin hoped he’d learn would also make him a worthy man for Jane’s affections.
That’s a great story to tell, and an interesting way to explore a nigh omnipotent superhero – de-powering him and making humility, compassion and wisdom the keys to re-gaining his powers. It would have been a slower, but more interesting approach to telling a superhero story (riskier for sure) but on paper it sounds intriguing. Other films might have invested full time and attention in these second act developments; however, director Kenneth Branagh had a bigger sandbox to fill – one that included Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), his S.H.I.E.L.D. faction, and even an unsatisfying cameo by an Avenger (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye).
Compared to the Iron Man 2 team, the small squadron of writers who worked on Thor‘s script did a much better job of weaving S.H.I.E.L.D. and all those Avengers Easter eggs into the story. After all, if a magical hammer like Mjolnir crashed on American soil, and nobody (not even Stan Lee!) could move it, top secret government spooks would definitely be all over it. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s involvement in Thor was clearly organic and logical, whereas their involvement in Iron Man 2 was clunky and awkward. Points for that.
On the other hand, when you have to split your second act between tying together a cinematic universe AND the proposed epic transformation that’s supposed to take place in your central character, ultimately there are going to be sacrifices…
More Fun With The God of Thunder
I (and a lot of other people) will never forget just how fresh, original, and downright FUN Iron Man was to watch in theaters. What disappoints me just slightly, is that I feel like Marvel Studios forgets that a large portion of Iron Man‘s second act involved little more than Robert Downey Jr. sitting onscreen alone in a workshop, going through the trials and many errors of creating a better version of his armor, all while talking to a robot Paul Bettany (J.A.R.V.I.S.). And that was extremely fun to watch!
Director Jon Favreau took the bold approach of trusting in his leading man to carry the slower, but much more crucial, section of Tony Stark’s story on his shoulders. The result was one of the all-time best comic book movie performances in one of the all-time best comic book movies. Sure, the ending battle was a letdown for many (not me), but by the end of Iron Man, when Tony cavalierly announces that he is a superhero with a new outlook on life, you believed it. It’s what made the sequel – and its silly use of dues ex machina to drive both the plot and character development forward – even more painful to experience: Marvel Studios had by then settled into a formulaic story structure to build its Avengers universe, rather than trusting in the vision of the uniquely talented directors they hire.
While Chris Hemsworth is not at all the established onscreen charmer that Downey Jr. is, Thor has proven that he’s capable of being an extremely likable and engaging leading man who commands the screen he’s (almost literally) filling up. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt that the S.H.I.E.L.D. sub-plot in Thor took away from some other (greater) opportunities for this film to be more like Iron Man and less like Iron Man 2. If you’ll allow me to elaborate:
In the film, Thor was essentially presented as a character who always led with brawn before brains – the complete opposite of his nefarious brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Sadly, this aspect of the character was never fully fleshed out – and in my opinion, would’ve made for a much better movie.
The setup was there: Mighty Thor in small town New Mexico, amidst meager salt-of-the-earth, er, Earth folk. However, this fish-out-of-water scenario was largely left un-mined for the potential gems waiting in it. In the version of the movie in my head, I imagine that instead of Kat Dennings playing a throwaway comic relief character, maybe we have more townspeople as characters (not just stuffy out-of-towner scientists) – people whose hometown values and close connections would help Thor learn the value in the fragility and beauty of mortality (see: Thor comics of the last few years).
Instead of just coffee mug smashing and Facebook jokes to explain how Thor has much to learn, throw a young boy in there – some kid playing knights and dragons (or whatever kids role play these days) who Thor awkwardly tries to mentor in the true ways of the warrior. (For example, by standing the child in front of an oncoming car and telling him something insane like “Now hold your ground, young Midgaurdian! Do not yield!”). How about more scenes of Thor trying to behave like an indestructible superman, only to discover time and again the limits of a human body? Or Thor watching a townie pass away with his/her spouse holding their hand as they go (the beauty and fragility of human love)? Or Jane Foster treating Thor like more of an annoying child who has to eventually prove himself a mature man, instead of a buff guy whose bones she wants to jump from glance #1?
If you can’t tell, I could go on all day making up the movie in my head, but my point is this: the S.H.I.E.L.D. sequence in the second act ate up so much time and attention that what we DID get was a rushed transformation: Thor can’t lift his hammer, is discouraged, is tricked by Loki into thinking he’s trapped on Earth, and therefore says…what? “Screw it, guess I better settle down and get a girlfriend.” So Thor is the equivalent of a 30-year-old man who has finally sewn all his wild oats?
S.H.I.E.L.D. needed to be in the story, definitely, but just like in Iron Man they could’ve been kept on the peripheral, largely uninvolved – at least until the third act when a big super god/alien (galien?) in full armor is flying around whirling a magic hammer and summoning thunderbolts. Then you could have Agent Coulson asking questions about where he was trained and what his purpose is, with everyday townspeople standing by his side saying “He’s one of the good guys” – instant small town America endorsement!
The ONLY reason the story had Thor’s hammer crash-land away from him was to provide an excuse for the “Thor vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.” second act sequence. If Thor’s hammer had crashed right next to him (since Odin DID throw it in the portal right after him,) Thor would’ve gotten that whole “I can’t lift it” bit out of the way upfront, and we could’ve spent more time watching him learn his lesson. And S.H.I.E.L.D. still would’ve been involved in the story.
Guess Marvel thought that would’ve been too risky: boring the audience with all that Earth-bound character development that clearly didn’t work for Iron Man (sarcasm).
I know I’m not the only one who felt that the central theme of Thor – his transformation from reckless warrior into compassionate hero – was totally rushed and grossly superficial. And, I might be going out on a limb here (NOTE: I do not express the views of Screen Rant as a whole) but I think that once again, the demands of building not just a singular, insular, story – but rather the larger, ecompassing mythology of a whole cinematic universe – cost us what could have been a deeper and richer introduction to a fantastic character. But as a wise man once said, “These, are, the, breaks.”
One for the Team
I’m holding out hope (like many of you are) that The Avengers is ultimately going to be worth it. I’m hoping that seeing all these distracting little plot threads and tangents come together into one epic superhero team-up experience is going to be worth all the nagging little thoughts about ‘what could’ve been,’ which have been floating around my brain after every Marvel movie since Iron Man made me into a true believer of this Avengers initiative.
Was Thor terrible? No, far from it. But put this whole Avengers thing on back-burner, and focus ONLY on telling the story of The God of Thunder, and would we maybe have had a great movie in place of a good one? I’ve said my piece – what do YOU think?
Thor is currently lighting up theaters everywhere.