Hammer of the gods
‘If the only thing you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,’ or so the old saying goes. If you happen to be a god whose hammer can also summon lightning and thunder then problem-solving becomes even easier.
Thor is the latest Marvel comic book hero to be given the big-screen treatment – Spider-man, Hulk, Iron Man and X-men being some of the others. However, Thor always seemed an unlikely choice for comic-book hero since he was hardly an original creation and not technically a super-hero. Thor is, after all, a god. More specifically, the Norse god of thunder, lightning, storms and strength. If his name still doesn’t ring a bell, have a look at your calendar. We named Thursday after him, so it’s clear Thor has been around for a lot longer than Superman or Batman.
In the 1960s when Marvel comics was looking to create new and exciting characters, their editor tapped into the existing mythology which lay behind ancient cultures. But rather than delve into the more popular Roman or Greek myths, he chose the Norse legends. So it was that a very modern-day interpretation of Thor was born. As such, his tale was always interesting because it raised the question: what would life be like for a god who walked this earth?
Marvel wisely chose Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor since he is no stranger to bringing historical characters to life. With his tongue jammed firmly in his cheek, Branagh brings wit to scenes which could potentially have suffered from the usual woes of summer blockbuster scripts. Branagh also knows a thing or two about depicting the fraught relationships between kings and ambitious princes.
The film follows a simple narrative arc, one which the Greeks would have approved of: arrogant young Thor is brought down by cocky hubris (and a scheming brother, Loki). He is banished from his father’s kingdom, stripped of his powers (not to mention his jolly big hammer), and forced to seek humility and wisdom before regaining his place alongside his father.
In this case, the kingdom is Asgard, home of the Norse gods, his father is Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins in full theatrical mode) and his place of banishment is Earth. Stripped of his powers, the local scientists (including a very charming Natalie Portman) who find Thor, struggle to believe his claims of deity, forcing him to abandon his youthful recklessness.
With his blonde hair, blue eyes and impressive strength, Thor is the very epitome of a traditional Western hero. He could be on a recruiting poster for the military. But it’s his attitude to problem-solving which brings to mind the quote at the start of this review as well the use of military power today. The young Thor is a believer in using one’s total strength to crush any signs of opposition, no matter how small or irrelevant. He advocates starting wars in foreign lands over the smallest of domestic violations even if they result in wider, more bloody conflicts. Such is the belief in the black and white nature of power.
It brings to mind a recent HBO mini-series called Generation Kill, based on the experiences of a Rolling Stone journalist embedded with the first marines who invaded Iraq in 2003. He was shocked by how immature, uneducated and uncultured the soldiers around him were. All they cared about were video games, porn and heavy metal. Yet – more so than the World War II or Vietnam generation – they were perfect killing machines. They lacked the emotional equipment to care about bombing villagers, but thanks to going to the gym, watching war movies and playing video games, they were more than capable of ruthless war tactics. They were perfect soldiers, but lousy human beings. They saw their might as there to be used for all occasions, even if diplomacy could succeed.
This is the Thor we encounter at the start of the film before his fall from grace. While history may take its time to humble great powers, a film is only two hours long, so it’s pleasing to see Thor realise the importance of self-sacrifice and refraining from war-mongering without having to wait that long. If only this were true of the real world.
So all in all, a film that’s plenty of fun, with Marvel back to doing what it does best – capturing the thrill of reading a comic book. There’s no sequel in the pipeline, but do expect more as Thor appears alongside Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man and others in 2012’s The Avengers. For now though, keep an eye open for the various Marvel related cameos throughout the film. Jeremy Renner pops up as ace bowman Hawkeye, Samual L Jackson appears right at the end as Nick Fury, and one of Thor’s comic-book creators Stan Lee is the old man whose pick-up is ruined trying to pull Thor’s hammer.