Playing to the Audience: “Thor” and the Joys of Marvel Superhero Movies

by Matthew Turner

What do people want from Marvel superhero movies? (Sorry, DC fans –there’s only room in this blog post for one superhero universe). Looking beyond the obvious answers (super-powered fight scenes, spell-binding visual effects, compelling characters and entertaining stories) the makers of a superhero movie about a lesser-known character like Thor (or a pre Iron Man Iron Man) have to perform a complex juggling act. On the one hand they have to appease the existing (though in Thor‘s case, relatively few) fans of the comics, bearing in mind that with characters like Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, there’s almost 50 years of backstory to draw on (this isn’t the place to go into the Ultimate Marvel Universe but it’s worth noting that film-makers have so far steered clear of its rebooted and updated versions of the properties). On the other hand they have to introduce the character to a whole new audience (usually by way of an origin story) and hopefully launch a new money-making and sequel-generating franchise – basically, everyone wants another Iron Man, the enormous success of which has led directly to the upcoming Thor, Captain America and Avengers movies. Speaking of which, Thor director Kenneth Branagh had a third ball to juggle, in that he had to lay the groundwork for the upcoming The Avengers and provide significant crossover with both the Iron Man series and Captain America, establishing a Marvel universe continuity that isn’t wholly reliant on post-credits cameos from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Based on the god of norse mythology (without him we wouldn’t have a Thursday, people) Thor was one of Marvel’s earliest superheroes. He was co-created by legendary comics genius Stan Lee (along with penciller Jack Kirby and writer Larry Lieber) in August 1962, making his first appearance in issue 83 of “Journey into Mystery” and finally getting his own title in 1966 when “Journey into Mystery” was finally retitled “The Mighty Thor”. He also quickly became a founder member of “The Avengers”, appearing in the very first issue in September 1963. Interestingly, Thor was created partly in response to the success of the Hulk, as Lee’s comment below (from his 2002 autobiography, “Excelsior: the Amazing Life of Stan Lee”) indicates:

‘How do you make someone stronger than the strongest person? It finally came to me: Don’t make him human — make him a god. I decided readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends… Besides, I pictured Norse gods looking like Vikings of old, with the flowing beards, horned helmets, and battle clubs.  …Journey into Mystery needed a shot in the arm, so I picked Thor … to headline the book.’

The cover of the first issue of “The Avengers”

Establishing exactly what it is that the loyal fans of a comic book actually want is a Herculean task in itself (Marvel do have the rights to the character of Hercules and he’s fought Thor a few times so don’t rule him out for Thor 4, but that’s not important right now), and not just because if you ask fifty Thor fans what they want from a Thor movie you’ll get fifty different answers. However, it’s safe to say that any self-respecting Thor fan would want to see the following things in Branagh’s film: Thor throwing his hammer (it’s called Mjolnir, hammer-fans) and it returning to him (check); Thor twirling his hammer (check); puny mortals being unable to lift Thor’s hammer (check – the film’s image of people in the desert lining up to try and lift Thor’s hammer comes from a recent run by comics writer J. Michael Straczynski, who co-wrote the Thor screenplay); Thor whipping up a thunderstorm (check); a significant number of the supporting cast from the Thor comics (check: love interest Jane Foster, Odin, Sif and the Warriors Three are all present); and classic villains, (and check – note that the feverish interest that surrounds each new superhero film is almost always focussed on which villains will be appearing – in this case Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Frost Giants and fire-breathing robot the Destroyer).

Give us a twirl, love.

Judging by previous superhero movies, appeasing loyal superhero comics fans involves three separate elements: in addition to reproducing iconic images and moments from the comics in the way that I talk about above (or think Peter Parker walking away from his binned Spider-Man costume) there’s the borrowing of specific – preferably classic – plots from the comics (which is why kicking off with an origin story is always a safe bet), and the inclusion of a series of shout-outs, hints and references designed to be picked up by comics fans as a special treat.

There’s no real bitten-by-a-radioactive-thunder-god origin story for Thor: the early 60s adventures had crippled Doctor Donald Blake finding a cane in a Norwegian cave and transforming into Thor when he rapped the cane on the ground but this was later retconned (in one of the earliest examples of Marvel retconning, back in 1968) so that Blake had always been Thor – he’d just had his memories removed and had been placed on Earth to learn humility. This idea forms the bulk of the plot of the current film and there’s a shout-out to Donald Blake when Thor wears his name badge as a disguise (in the film, Blake, who we never meet, is Jane Foster’s ex).  Other borrowed plot-devices include the Odin-sleep (used to get head god Odin out of the way whenever something Asgard-threatening is happening), the love interest between Thor and Jane Foster (a love-struck nurse in the comics but a brainy scientist in the movie) and a portrayal of Loki that’s faithful to his character arc as portrayed in the comics.

It’s also interesting to look at what the film-makers have dropped or down-played – for instance, little or no mention is made of the term “gods” in the film and it’s hinted that the Asgardians are merely super-powered aliens who were mistaken for gods by primitive humans (the comics can never quite make up their minds about the true nature of the Asgardians, offering several different explanations over the years). The film also largely drops the cod-Shakespearean language that made some of the Asgard-heavy comics such a slog – in fact, it’s fair to say that Thor is actually quite a boring character in the comics, so the film has done well in giving him something of a sense of humour. In addition, despite having the option, the film chooses not to make much of the fact that Thor is essentially powerless on earth – he easily fights off teams of SHIELD agents and squares up to the Destroyer, so he’s never portrayed as weak, at least not in the crippled-doctor-Don-Blake sense. Similarly, although there was never a fish-out-of-water element to Thor on earth in the comics, that idea was present in the Falstaff-like figure of Volstagg (one of the Warriors Three, played here by Ray Stevenson) and has been transferred to Thor for the movie for comedy purposes.

Obviously, with the imminent release of Captain America and the hopes pinned by Marvel Studios on the franchise potential of the upcoming Avengers movie (which just started shooting, under director Joss Whedon), the need to provide crossover with other Marvel movies and lay the groundwork for future projects goes beyond just having fun with cameos, or providing references and allusions for comics fans to spot. At a recent London press conference, Branagh had this to say about Marvel’s notes on that subject:

‘Occasionally, I would see that the place name has changed, so why is that? And they’d say: ‘Oh, that’s fine. Let me tell you about this…’ And they would explain something that’s going to happen… none of which I can tell you, obviously, otherwise I’d have to kill you! But they did it so subtly that I didn’t ever feel that we were being tugged in any particular direction. They were smart enough to know that, you know, they have Captain America coming up and The Avengers but they didn’t really plan ahead that much further – they have many hopes and dreams I’m sure. But we all knew that unless we put all our eggs in this basket and really concentrated there’d be no point in worrying about how it fitted in with the rest of the universe. There are lots of little surprises in there, I think, but there were ones that I was told about and if there were some I was forced to do they did it so brilliantly that I didn’t even notice!’

In reality, however, the Avengers stuff is largely kept to the background, although, as I’m sure any Avengers fan is aware by now, there is a fairly obviously shoehorned-in cameo from Jeremy Renner as bow-and-arrow wielding Hawkeye. Otherwise the bulk of the crossover is provided by the presence of recurring character Agent Coulson (played by Clark Gregg), a SHIELD agent who reports directly to Nick Fury and who appeared in both previous Iron Man movies. Finally, Thor sticks to the same pattern as The Incredible Hulk and the Iron Man films and duly ponies up a post-credits scene with Nick Fury that functions as a teaser to the Avengers movie and gives some hint as to who the villain might be. Intriguingly, the post credits scene also has the potential for crossover with the Captain America movie, because – and, SPOILER ALERT, skip to the next paragraph now if you don’t want to know details of the post-credits scene – Nick Fury is shown handling the Cosmic Cube, an all-powerful device that was initially sought by the Red Skull in the Captain America comics.

Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.

Visually, Thor looks like it was cut from the same cloth as the Iron Man movies, with an emphasis on striking colours and bold, clean visuals. It’s difficult to make a judgment as to whether this constitutes a house style for Marvel movies but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Avengers movie had the same look. (Captain America can get away with looking different – it looks a lot darker in the trailer – because the story takes place predominantly during World War II). At any rate, the US posters are keen to make the visual association with the Iron Man movies, featuring Thor in what has become known as the Iron Man pose.

In terms of overall quality, then, Thor is up there with Iron Man, Spider-Man and the first two X-Men movies, providing superhero-based thrills while successfully introducing the character to new audiences. It’ll be fascinating to see how it does at the box-office, but it’s probably safe to say that it has achieved the goal of launching another viable franchise for Marvel. It will also be fascinating to see what kind of impact the movie will have on sales of Thor comics – no-one thought Iron Man would become as big a hit as it did and the comic received a massive boost in popularity as a result.

As for potential Thor sequels there’s plenty of great material still to be plundered from the  comics, including fan favourite the Enchantress (Google her –you’ll see), Asgard villains like Karnilla the Norn and various Loki-empowered earthbound supervillains like the Absorbing Man (who was – sort of – a character in Ang Lee’s Hulk). It’s probably safe to say that Natalie Portman won’t be on board indefinitely, so we can perhaps expect Jane to get ditched for Sif – another of Thor’s love interests in the comics – somewhere down the line. We can also almost certainly look forward to the inevitable Thor vs Hulk smackdown in the Avengers movie, a perennial staple in the comics whenever big-hitters get together (see also: Thor vs Hercules, Hulk vs The Thing). The comics almost always copped out of declaring a straight victory, but for the record Hulk is the strongest one there is but Thor (or, as Hulk calls him, “Long hair”) is tricksier and usually wins by default (The two sweetest words in the English language – Ed).

This blog post would not have been possible without invaluable assistance from Kim Newman and James Moar.

Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is the film reviewer for ViewLondon and has been known to read a Marvel comic or two in his time.

“Thor” is currently on general release.

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About Matthew Turner

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is a freelance film journalist. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.

9 thoughts on “Playing to the Audience: “Thor” and the Joys of Marvel Superhero Movies

  1. Do they REALLY have to “appease the existing fans of the comics”? Why? I suppose they are very likely to go and see it but still, they can’t exactly count for much in the wider audience. Forget them! Make Thor gay! Make him come Krypton! Would it really matter?

      1. I would certainly pay to see a film where Thor frantically tried to crack one out as Superman advanced towards him, saying stuff about dead animals and Margaret Thatcher.
        Well, maybe I would.

  2. Does anyone else think the Avengers is going to be the dampest of squibs? It’s such an insanely ambitious idea that I can’t imagine them pulling it off.

  3. “this isn’t the place to go into the Ultimate Marvel Universe but it’s worth noting that film-makers have so far steered clear of its rebooted and updated versions of the properties”

    Except that the Samuel L Jackson version of Nick Fury is ripped right from the Ultimate universe.

  4. “Except that the Samuel L Jackson version of Nick Fury is ripped right from the Ultimate universe.”

    That’s a good point. Unless the casting came first? I’m not clear on the timeline re Ultimate Universe.

  5. Just got around to re-reading this for the first time since I saw the film.

    As a Spoiler-phobe I’d skipped what you’d written about the post-credits scene first time around, and wondered, when I heard this, if you had mentioned the fact that it was directed by Joss Whedon (again, don’t follow the link if you want to know nothing *at all* about the post-credits scene – although it doesn’t reveal much:

    http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=31051

    Entirely possible that wasn’t in the public domain when you wrote the piece, of course.

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