‘Thor’ Is a Then and Now Mishmash

What do you do when your car is slammed by a plummeting superhero? If you’re Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist looking for evidence of a wormhole, you’re briefly jangled, and then you launch into action. Following a quick exchange of horrified looks with her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), Jane is scrambling across the New Mexico desert to inspect the damage done to the stranger lying splat on the sand under the night sky.

This stranger (Chris Hemsworth) is the title character in Thor. Yes, he’s the Norse god of thunder — by way of Marvel Comics and director Kenneth Branagh — and yes, he’s got a hammer. Or at least, he did. At the moment he opens his eyes to look up at Jane, he’s actually hammerless, having been tossed from his home realm, Asgard, by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). That dad has flung the magical hammer Mjölnir in an opposite direction, so it lands conveniently 50 miles away from the now super-powerless Thor, sets up for a reunion, if only he can prove himself worthy.

That proof will have to do with his learning a life lesson, of course, namely, learning not to be an arrogant prima donna but a thoughtful, benevolent king who understands the value of compromises and truces. A bit of flashbacking shows that Thor’s stubborn insistence on going to war against the Frost Giants (Jötunheim), led by King Laufey (Colm Feore), when he’s been told not to, has enraged Odin. But even as the casting off is the son’s punishment, it suggests that dad’s not exactly a wise forward-thinker either. Thor’s absence opens the door for his trickster adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to ascend to the throne when dad collapses in grief and disappointment.

Even if he’s stripped of his powers, Thor has arrived on earth with something like a bang. Not only does he whomp into Jane’s car He’s fallen through time and space with such force that he has indeed created a wormhole, a practice he and his super- friends and family have perfected. When Jane learns this truth, she’s both startled and enchanted. “Your ancestors called it magic,” Thor doesn’t quite explain, “You call it science. I come from a world where they’re the same thing.”

How could she not be instantly smitten?

Alas, Jane’s response is one of the movie’s many shortcuts, a series of winks and nods that assumes viewers’ eager complicity in this not-so-clever mishmashing of then and now. While the so-moderne Jane is easily swayed by Thor’s ancient customs (he kisses her hand, he uses old-sounding grammar), her sidekicks and his provide the usual semi-explanations for their inexplicable behaviors. Jane’s coming off a rocky breakup with one Dr. Donald Blake (Thor’s secret identity in the comics, where she was a nurse rather than an accomplished scientist), and Thor, well, he’s never had a girlfriend but he does have a best friend, Sief (Jaimie Alexander), back on Asgard, who mourns his absence and plots with the Warriors Three — Volstagg the Valiant (Ray Stevenson), Fandral the Dashing (Joshua Dallas), and Hogun the Grim (Tadanobu Asano) — to bring him back.

The movie works very hard — you might even say it strains — to make the couple’s two worlds seem parallel, even while they intersect. As Jane resists the U.S. government’s efforts to shut down her project (and get control of the hammer, stuck fast in the mound of dirt where it’s landed, unbudge-able by anyone but Thor, post-lesson-learned). At the same time, Thor is resisting his seeming fate, hoping to get back to his father’s kingdom and good graces.

While Thor’s adventures in New Mexico occasion the expected fish-out-of-water gags, Asgard — and the Frost Giants’ realm, the Jötunheimr — are indeed whole other worlds, where magic is science and vice versa. Here palaces are massive, subjects are faceless (and exceedingly poorly CGI-ed), and weapons are devastating. This amalgam of magic and science is so complete, apparently, that Norse mythology is modified to include a black man, namely, the Gatekeeper, Heimdell (Idris Elba, whose casting has apparently raised questions for the comics’ “pure fans”). Such revision is hardly news, of course, as movie franchises based on old comics regularly do their best to update appearances, if not basic myths and prejudices (the dark blueness of the Jötunheim being just one obvious sign of their monstrosity).

The resulting controversy — initiated when the Council of Conservative Citizens called for a boycott of Thor — indicates, again, that fans of source materials frequently feel entitled to see their ideas reified in next generation versions. And, as much as this particular minor hubbub might vaguely allude to broader issues (say, those made temporarily extra-visible by the Birthers), it is also symptomatic more than it is unusual.

It’s symptomatic of the fundamentally cheap (if monumentally expensive) formula applied to current superhero movies. As much as Branagh might imagine Thor as a return to Henry V‘s fathers-and-sons saga, what’s remains essentially unrevised in such universes is the role played by Jane. Once she literally collides with Thor, the girl’s fate is sealed.

RATING 3 / 10