Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thor: Fit for the King

A typically-tardy, completely-biased review...

Every sci-fi and superhero movie of the past 30 years has at least a little Jack Kirby blood pumping in its veins (and most have a lot), as well as most action movies post-Die Hard.
The same goes for most video games as well.

A strange little man who grew up on the hardscrabble Lower East Side of the Depression, nearly lost his legs fighting for Patton and then spent most of his life grinding out the future for a lousy page-rate not only changed the look and rhythm of big-budget Hollywood, he also had an incalculable impact on the 60s counterculture as well.

Thor was always closest to Kirby's heart in many ways.
He was the apotheosis of the self-sacrificing warrior prince archetype that stormed through Kirby's pages as well as the long-haired, blond Adonis figure that Kirby had a nearly-erotic fixation on. Kirby reincarnated Thor as Ikaris in The Eternals (about which Secret Sun readers know all too well) and finally as Captain Victory, the dying-resurrecting cosmic warrior who's about to reincarnated once again by Alex Ross, the Michelangelo of the new Super-God Renaissance.

Thor's extremely close to my own heart as well, as longtime readers might remember. My first exposure to the great, shamanic Mystery cycle of the Descent to the Underworld came not in church but in a Marvel Treasury Edition, reprinting the saga in which Thor sacrifices himself to rescue his frenemy Hercules from Hades.

In typical Kirby fashion (Kirby was the main plotter on Thor after the first handful of issues, leaving Stan Lee to embellish with his dazzling wordplay), Hercules is lured to Hell by way of Hollywood, Pluto poses as a studio executive and tricks the superhero to a lifetime of servitude with a deceitfully-written contract.

And those old Kirby-Lee Thor's were a touchstone for me in my senior year of high school when I decided that sanity dictated an escape from the soul-crushing atmosphere of Braintree. I filled sketchbooks copying panels from old Thor comics, particularly from Tales of Asgard, the classic backup feature.

And it wasn't just Kirby, Stan Lee's writing might not be an obvious- or even visible- influence on my own, but it was Lee's obvious love for the English language that taught me that language itself is an art, not just means to an end. A lot of fans trash Lee for taking too much credit for stories that Kirby or Steve Ditko actually plotted, but their post-Marvel work showed how inseparable Lee's sparkling dialogue was from the Marvel Magic. Lee might seem like a odd duck in his dotage, but in his prime he was a word wizard of the highest order.

So a Thor movie has expectations that other characters would not. I read Iron Man comics, I read Spider-Man comics, I read X-Men comics but none of those characters resonated with me in the way Thor or Doctor Strange did (science vs magick, once again). When I heard that the Asgardians were to be aliens and not deities, there was an added burden placed on the film since that put the ball in The Eternals' court.

And the heavy emphasis on the Asgard setting not only pitted the film against Tales of Asgard, but also against the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn't sure how Kenneth Branagh could pull off a film like this, given his hoity-toity background. And then there was a lot of static over the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall, the "white god," a stock Branagh gambit.

Well, I'm happy to say that the film acquitted itself quite nicely. I'm not going to do a stock review here and go over the plot points and all of the rest of that. In fact, I really hate movie reviews for that reason. The plot should unfold as a complete surprise if the movie magic is to work, something these Cliff Notes trailer makers might keep in mind as well.

The writers and producers are all obviously aware of Kirby's legacy and seemed extremely mindful of it throughout the film. Plot-points are taken left and right from classic Silver Age Thor yarns, and a very healthy dollop of UFO and High Strangeness lore is smeared on like soft cream cheese on a warm bagel. For instance, Kirby depicted SHIELD agents as a swarm of anonymous suits when younger artists put them in form fitting yellow jumpsuits, and that X-Files/Men-in-Black vibe carries through here.

Better still, the action takes place in Ground Zero of modern UFO lore, New Mexico. The humans with which Thor interacts play like refugees from Race to Witch Mountain and Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) is no maidenly RN but a spunky parascientist, searching the skies for wormholes. The ultra-voluptuous (though tragically-overdressed) Kat Dennings plays the wisecracking sidekick with her usual charm and Stellan Skarsgard brings his usual world-weariness to his burnt-out mentor role.

But this is Chris Hemsworth's film and he owns every frame he appears in.
This is another Hugh Jackman star-making role we're looking at. He and Portman have good chemistry (though not as good as Downey/Paltrow), and that's a rare compliment from me, not being a big Portman fan. Branagh coaxes a nuanced performance out of him, though Marvel purists will immediately notice Hemsworth is playing the dashing Hercules from the Lee-Kirby stories, not the earnest Thor. Kirby would have loved it anyway.*

He also would have love to see his Boom Tube (with which the gods traveled on the "waves of the mind") on loan from The New Gods being used by his Eternals/Asgardians. He'd have loved the Kirby Krackle in the skies and the pagan majesty of Asgard. He'd have loved the AAT, Thor's moment of decision and all of the Kirbyesque ultra-violence. And he'd be very gratified that his weird-ass cosmodelic vision can be faithfully translated into a well-produced and successful summer tentpole.

There were disappointments here and there- the Warriors Three were well-rendered, but Volstagg was farkin' hilarious in the Lee/Kirby comics and is just kind of annoying in the film. Loki's motivations could have used a bit more fleshing out, though he was brilliantly played (even if I kept seeing Brent Spiner in his face). Balder is a central character in the comics and was MIA here. I thought they should have used some kind of vehicle in the Boom Tubes and really driven home the UFO meme.

Maybe the success of the Transformers series -- which borrows (well, steals) so much from Kirby's Eternals-- will one day lead to an Eternals feature film. The concept has never seemed to resonate with the very peculiar and tiny audience of comics fandom, but I think its time might well be coming for a big screen treatment.

Start combing the beaches of Australia for Ikaris...

BONUS SYNC: If you see the film, keep your ears peeled for the Magi Number at the beginning of the action...

*I should add that Mrs. Wibble loved it too, saying it was her favorite superhero movie thus far.


  1. I am glad to be reading your
    blog again after 4 months of
    seeking in the Catholic Church.

    Now that I am apostate, I am
    free to absorb all the great
    intersections you expose via
    your observations of culture.

    I read all your posts going
    back to February and my mind
    was fragged...and it was a
    good meltdown.

    I look forward to more.

  2. Saw this on opening day (Thorsday hah!) in Australia with my ten year old daughter.

    We had both taken turns reading all the black and white reprints of the Lee/Kirby Thor stories leading up to the film's release, so we were pumped to see the film.

    Since becoming a Secret Sun reader my family and I see the number 17 everywhere - to the point that my daughter now rolls her eyes whenever I point one out.

    As the lights dimmed in the theater I whispered to her "I wonder if 17 shows up?" We didn't have to wait long:)

    I loved the portrayal of Heimdall and the Bifrost 'Gate'. My daughter and I both agreed that it was the Asgardian version of the Star Trek transporter pad. Kind of fitting since Chris Hemsworth previously played Kirk's father in the Abrams movie.

  3. Hey Chris,

    I haven’t seen Thor yet, but your post sure makes me wanna! I loved the first Iron Man, and enjoyed the second even though I felt like there wasn’t much of a story, and the big action blow-out at the end had no resonance whatsoever. So, I’m hoping that Thor might at least give me a taste of emotional engagement. I mean, that’s what we want from superheroes, right? Not just bombastic visuals and epic fight scenes, but bombastic visuals and epic fight scenes that really make you FEEL something.

    I guess when I was a kid I didn’t really follow comics regularly, but in my early twenties I did become a huge fan of ‘Constantine’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ opus. As a kid I had the nagging feeling (or virtual certainty) that anything was possible. Literally ANYTHING. If someone thought something was impossible, I felt like it was just because they couldn’t imagine deeply enough how it could be so, and they didn’t understand how imagination gives rise to everything we experience.

    So, reading Constantine and Sandman in particular really felt like I’d finally felt a strong connection for some of my own imagination in other artist’s work – what was truly possible in an infinite construct. Also, Constantine helped me release some of the pressure I felt from going deep into Gnostic territories. Dark times, dude. But at least I had John and Morpheus, Death and Others as analogues for my own ‘adventures’. When you’re young it really can feel like you’re trapped in Hell. What’s worse is when you feel you belong there. And sometimes, maybe when we’re a little older we can look back and recognise some of the wisdom of youth.

    Reading ‘Our Gods Wear Spandex’ was kind of the same feeling as my introduction to Sandman and Constantine (and Moore’s ‘From Hell’) – though your book was a work of art it was non-fiction; it showed me that others understood that there were depths to these things that shouldn’t just be written off as children’s tales.

    It was my early descent into the Underworld that destroyed and created me simultaneously, and I wish that was hyperbole, but it’s not. And it was trying to understand that underworld through literature, film, music, painting and science that was my guiding light back to some semblance of sanity.

    I used to think of myself as a King with No Name, bleeding to death on the long, long road to Damascus. It’s only recently that I’ve truly realised how much I hated myself. But I’m starting to realise how powerful fictions can be – with the help of this blog – and I’m confirming what I’ve always suspected, that we’re all Kings and Queens. We DO have names. Love DOES matter.

    Certain interested parties are trying to resolve our divine right to absolute zero. But this crossroads is fit for kings and queens. We don’t tire easily. We’re starting to recognise just how holy the imagination is, and how we have previously been colonised. There’s gonna be Hell to pay. When thunder is simultaneously righteous and humble, it can crack the sky.


  4. I liked the concept of the world. The setting worked and it certainly owed much more to the New Gods and The Eternals than the original conception of Thor (or even the recent version in the comics).

    However, the story, acting and effects did nothing but turn me off. Maybe the Eternals and/or The Inhumans will show up in Marvel Universe movies, but so far this shared universe is not very compelling.

    Certainly, the introduction of the Celestials would explain why these very similar humanoid forms inhabit the known planets in the WorldTree.

  5. Hey Chris, this wasn't high on my radar, but knowing how particular you are about comic adaptations, you have compelled my interest enough to see it.

  6. I agree with you that much of pop action film/media/games is directly influenced by Jack Kirby's visual and narrative styles (but don't forget the pulps). Like a good friend of mine said (huge Kirby fan, btw), this movie did Jack Kirby proud! And the rainbow bridge was a great cinematic interpretation too!

  7. Chris - glad you liked the movie as much as I did. And yeah, I kept seeing a young Brent Spiner in the Loki portrayal too - I still enjoyed the heck out of it.


  8. Did you not like Portman in Black Swan

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Just thinking of the AEsir, the Gods of Asgard (along with the Vanir), it seems that current archeological theories have them originating as Thracian around 2,000 BC and moving into Northern Europe as a human tribe with advanced military and for the time period technology. They would've been bronze age, Indo warriors facing stone age, Cro-Magnon natives (the Jotun). Wotan, the chief and his family would then pass into legend spread among his tribe's descendants eventually becoming Gods in their form of ancestor worship. Which would mean that the original Wotan probably worshiped the gods of the Iliad, ironically, or possibly even Mesopotamian deities.

    The interesting thing is the complexity of connecting that to the paranormal. You have the possibility that the original gods and heroes of myth were real people whose legends provide a framework for the explanation of any paranormal activity into the far future.

    For example, the gods of ancient Egypt or Sumeria may have nothing to do with UFO sightings except that the people seeing them would think that they do. John Keel talks about sightings of saints beginning with simple sighting of lights in the sky. Only when people begin thinking they are saints or the Virgin Mary do they take that form.

  12. Glad you liked the movie Chris. But how terrible was Anthony Hopkins character, and who is to blame for this?!?

    The Swede's to this day refer to Thor as "Asa-God."

    This is roughly pronounced as "Awsa - Gooood" which just makes me feel good to say.

    In western Yoga classes, "Vinyasa" refers usually to a group or flow of postures, or "asanas." This sounds like the same root to me as "Awesome," or the "AEsir." I think Thor would smile on Yoga warrior poses.

  13. I understand that the overt pagan and alien themes could be borrowed from Kirby. However, the symbolism in many of these movies extends further into subtle symbolism, easily missed by those unfamiliar with masonic conspiracy theories.

    For example, the movie featured numerous characters with injured eyes of Horus. Multiple near deaths and resurrections. And countless solar symbols in even the movie's Earth based architecture.

    Simple parroting of a comic book would not bring such attention to detail. Surely there must be deeper agendas and belief structures at work.