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...