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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Marvel's Thor and the danger of subverting expectations

While watching the movie my sister texted me "there were no Asian Vikings!"

I think the expectations for this movie were different than what we would expect from other movies. Thor, like its counterpart Captain America, also coming out this year, have been produced almost for the sole purpose of giving back stories to some Marvel characters that are required to be in the Avengers movie, coming out next year. Both Captain America and Thor were poplar comics, but did not carry over into current generations in the same way that X-men, or Ironman, or Spiderman did. I am not tuned in enough to the Marvel universe to give appropriate explanations for this, however from my point of view I feel that it could be that either these characters never had the depth of the other ones, or that certainly, in the case of Captain America, even his name is hokey by modern standards. This is why the Captain America movie is set in the era in which he was born, the 1940s, because this is the only era where such a name is acceptable. I think it is perhaps a little less clear cut for Thor, but perhaps he was actually hindered rather than helped by the ties to a medieval mythology. The hammer is, in some ways, a less glamorous weapon, though really Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did him no favours by giving him that outfit, but I guess it was okay for the time.

As Laurie Rizzo pointed out in her paper on "Analysis of Arthurian Film Reviews," delivered at Kalamazoo this year, it is the discourse around a film that shapes how that film will be received.

I rather enjoyed Thor. I think it can be said to have lived up to expectations. It was pretty and the acting was also pretty good. It lacked the depth, somehow, of other marvel films like the first Ironman or the Spiderman films, and played out exactly how you would expect Thor's story to play out. And it is interesting because criticisms of the film have taken the form of complaints about the film's accuracy.

One of the criticisms is how well it reflects 'vikings.' The film makes a bit of a play for appealing to Norse mythology, explaining how the world of Asgard came to be interpreted by the old Scandinavian cultures. And it is this more than the marvel comics that makes people question why there should be a black heimdalr or an asian warrior for Asgard. This is an interpretive decision I support, since in the end it is nearly as arbitrary to not include diversity as it is to include it. As I have said before the film will be charged more to stick to the marvel canon than to adhere to any Norse mythology (which is all very interpretive anyway). And the choices of people had more to do with the demography of the sixties than it did with accuracy to Norse mythology, so that it might as well be updated for a modern audience, just as the dialogue and the characters and the plot lines have to be updated. This criticism really comes because out expectations for what a society that inspired Norse mythology would look like.

And speaking of characters, one of the other criticisms I heard was of Natalie Portman's character, Jane Foster. Natalie Portman has been in a few movies this year with vague and yet obvious medievalism references; Thor and also Your Highness. The problem with Jane's character was that she ended up swooning over Thor. Modern heroine's simply do not swoon. Despite the fact that the character is clearly smart, as evidenced by her profession and drive, and is independent, and also makes a show of not being interested in Thor at first, her comments about how nice he looks in his god armour subverted our expectations of a modern heroine. Despite her strength, one of the only things we saw was her apparent weakness. I would argue that it is not inaccurate for a girl to be so taken by a guy, and it is not like she was a bond babe where all he had to do was look at her and she would sleep with him. And yet, it is that subverted expectation. I would compare it to the recent Robin Hood film with Russell Crowe. Cate Blanchett's Marian comes out in armour and with a sword. This is not necessarily inaccurate, but it subverted the audience's expectations for what a woman who was actually in that period would do, and so criticism centered around that issue.

I think it was a highly enjoyable, if kind of flat, film, which has some great Norse medievalisms. One expectation that was not subverted was the appearance of Stan Lee in the film. Look for him when the hillbillies come together and try to lift up Thor's hammer Mjolnir.

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