‘Thor’ Reconsidered As Both Vital and Dangerous for Marvel Studios

The epic crossover storyline “Everything Burns” concludes this week and signals the shutting down of Matt Fraction’s The Mighty Thor. Perhaps now’s the perfect time to reconsider Kenneth Branagh’s critical box office success Thor as a metaphor for the challenges facing the upcoming Jason Aaron-scribed Thor: God of Thunder.

Even among the extraordinary Marvel superheroes, Thor is one of the most absurd. In his debut in 1962’s Journey Into Mystery #83, the creative folks at Marvel gave readers a hero (based on the character from Norse mythology) who a brash, god of thunder wielding a mighty, magic hammer. Thor’s a cosmic commuter who splits his time between Earth and his ancestral home in the mystical realm of Asgard, light years away. He uses his strength and massive mallet to keep order across the universe while dealing with his daddy issues and contending with his brother Loki, the god of mischief.

In the comics medium, anything is possible and believable if the penciler and the writer do their jobs well. But making astonishing narrative aspects believable in the medium of film and accessible to a broader viewing audience is no easy task. As soon as it was announced that a Thor movie was in pre-production, fans knew the fantastical premise and the quite literally “out there” setting combined with Thor’s key magical elements would be a major sidestep from the more pseudo-scientifically driven tales of Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Iron Man. A motion picture featuring a cocky billionaire fighting terrorists with a suit of advanced armor is one thing, but a movie about a deity from another dimension searching for his enchanted hammer? That really is something complete different.

A standalone Thor movie should never have worked. Even for a comicbook adaptation, it had potential to seem absolutely ludicrous. In less than two hours, there were fights with cold-hearted Frost Giants, shiny rainbow-colored bridges to other worlds, costumes too over-the-top for the Lord of the Rings series and scenes featuring a colossal, metallic fire-breathing opponent that’s really good at blowing up gas stations. Plus, unlike a ticket-holder at a Spider-Man or Superman film, the average audience member, certainly unacquainted with the God of Thunder, had no idea to expect any of this. The key piece of the film’s dialogue that helped the audience swallow all this happened when Thor explained to Natalie Portman’s character, “Our ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”

If you recall, the idea of seeing Thor in real life brought some heart and humor to 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting but the lesser-known Avenger starring in his own blockbuster was a risk even with the likable Chris Hemsworth as the lead and Academy award-winners like Portman and Sir Anthony Hopkins in supporting roles.

Marvel had a lot riding on its Thor film. If Kenneth Branagh’s Thor had failed at the box office, who knows how optimistic longtime fans would be about Joss Whedon’s upcoming Avengers (released earlier this year), which would also feature the God of Thunder alongside the Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America, among others. Instead, as you now know, Thor received mostly positive reviews from critics and raked in more than $400 million worldwide at the box office. It turned out to be a visually dazzling blockbuster that balanced its far-reaching, otherworldly epic with wit, humor, and Shakespearean drama. As an added bonus, comicbook readers young and old could rest easy and only wait with greater anticipation for The Avengers.

Nevertheless, the success of Thor is both vital and dangerous for Marvel’s work in movie business.

Since Thor worked, it will undoubtedly encourage Marvel, giving the company more freedom to tell stories that have nontraditional settings, peculiar elements, and characters with more outlandish powers. It’s most likely that Thor 2 will send the hero to some of the other realms mentioned in the first film. Thor showed us three of the Nine Worlds: Asgard, Midgard (our modern Earth) and Jotunheim, the frozen wasteland of the Frost Giants. Expect Hemsworth’s character to do some especially precarious cosmic traveling again. In the sequel, maybe we’ll see the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim; maybe we’ll see the Light Elves of Alfheim. Whether anybody wants to see that is up for debate, but the Marvel Studios can certainly take that greater gamble now. But…

The Marvel Universe is a realm of magic as much as it is of science and technology. No hero is better acquainted with this mystic side of the equation than Doctor Strange. If the god-like Thor can be heroic at the box office, why not the magic-wielding Sorcerer Supreme? Why couldn’t Marvel take a second attempt at the Power Cosmic-endowed Silver Surfer, especially since they’ve already rebooted films about the Incredible Hulk and the Punisher, not to mention the on-going reimagining of their beloved Webslinger.

Thor likely reminded Marvel that its lesser known heroes can be successful on the big screen and on DVD. They’d already determined this when even Blade found cinema success while the reception to multiple films about the iconic Incredible Hulk or the Fantastic Four have been less than stellar. But, if there’s any lesson to be learned from Marvel’s Ghost Rider or DC’s Green Lantern it’s that adapting successful comicbook characters to the big screen isn’t always going to be worth the effort.

Already as early as the release of Thor on DVD and Blu-ray, Marvel hinted in interviews about several upcoming projects like Thor 2 and Captain America 2, which come as no surprise to anyone. However, the announcement that they’re developing films about Ant-Man, the Inhumans, and Guardians of the Galaxy shows that the company is doing some barrel-scraping for ideas and that they’ve chosen to drive right toward the bottom, bypassing the more obvious likes of Luke Cage. Thor spent a lot of time off-Earth in Asgard, and held the audience’s attention, which could suggest that audiences might happily go along for an intergalactic, futuristic ride with 31st century superheroes in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. If moviegoers can get behind a guy’s lengthy search for the war hammer Mjolnir, maybe they would be glued to their seats while watching a size-shifting hero use a special helmet to communicate with insects.

But would they really want to? It’s no secret that movies can really push the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. But, moviegoers have to want to make that leap of faith. Special effects can make anything and everything possible, but they don’t make a character super or a movie worth your while. May the makers of comic book movies, like Marvel Studios, remember that it takes more than a unique origin and a memorable costume to create a unique, memorable experience with a hero at the cinema. To find success with the audience it takes a solid story, a little bit of luck, and plenty of discernment. Thor was a step forward, but the next few steps could easily be in the wrong direction. Maybe Marvel needs a gatekeeper like Asgard’s Heimdall for their movie projects before a failure the size of the Destroyer hits the big screen.

If nothing else, the hammer of Thor it seems, may have provided a double-edged sword for the mighty future of Marvel’s films.