Thor as Camp

Thor is a glitzy, glossy summer movie. It’s also high camp in the traditional sense: super-serious and apparently blissfully unaware of how utterly ridiculous it is on every level. It may take itself more seriously than, say, Batman and Robin, but Thor is far more improbable.

The best thing you can say about Thor is that you see the special effects budget. Asgard looks beautiful. And the costumes are spectacular. Everything has that fascistic movie crispness Hollywood loves — and does so well — these days.

The only other high point is Chris Hemsworth as Thor. True, all he has to do is look buff and engage absurd situations with utter, godly confidence, but he pulls it off well.

The film is directed by Kenneth Branagh, who’s known to most as a director of movies based on Shakespeare (as opposed to Wild Wild West). It’s a smart move for Marvel. And he fills Thor with epic sweep and Shakespearean seriousness that the material can’t quite hold.

In fact, it’s a pretty relentlessly stupid movie.

Chris Hemsworth pulls off a confident Thor, but confidence isn't enough to save this movie.

Someone should have told the filmmakers that when things like cosmic hammers crash-land, rarely do they create a pedestal made of rock in the center of the crater.

Of course, this was almost certainly done to make the hammer, which no one can lift, more obviously resemble the proverbial sword in the stone. Draw the hammer and you get Thor’s power; draw the sword and you become king. Okay, we get the resemblance, and it’s especially clear in shots where truckers line up to take their turn trying to pull it from that inexplicable rock pedestal in the center of the crater. But resembling a myth doesn’t make you any deeper; it just gives scholars something to write about. So you’re left with that stupid pedestal there.

You know that, at some point, someone pointed this out and got the reply, “Yeah, well, it’s a magic hammer, so maybe it made the pedestal as it crashed.” Which may not be the stupidest justification in history but is certainly in the running. Once you’ve said “it’s magic” to blithely justify the illogical, you’ve lost any claim to seriousness.

The film even puts this justification into the movie. Thor’s love interest — Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman — even quotes Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that a suitably advanced science would appear as magic. It’s true enough, but it’s become the go-to quote to justify the irrational and the silly. The point of the quote is to suggest how science is perceived in a less-advanced culture; it’s not to justify witches and warlocks, and it’s a useful way to separate the stupid fantasy fans (“It’s just as real as sci-fi!”) from the smart ones (who know it’s, well, fantasy).

One might expect Clarke’s quote from a stoner contemplating, say, whether aliens built the pyramids. But anyone who quotes it, in the midst of a Norse god with an interplanetary teleportation system, deserves to be institutionalized.

Given this, it’s pretty surprising that the person who quotes it in the movie is a scientist. In fact, an astrophysicist, exactly the occupation least likely to believe that, gee whiz, there just might be Norse gods up there.

There’s something called the scientific method, which is supposed to be an antidote to this kind of superstitious nonsense. There’s a war on science being waged in America, in which it’s erroneously equated to the most cockamamie of religious beliefs. Putting such nonsense into the mouth of an astrophysicist not isn’t helping. In fact, it’s offensive because it contributes to this radically anti-scientific climate.

Not that the filmmakers can even decide if Asgard is supposed to be some kind of super-science or not. At times, it’s a planet, which would make Thor an extraterrestrial like Superman, not a god in any meaningful sense. At other times, Asgard is clearly a magical realm, such as when this supposedly alien planet is depicted as apparently flat, with water cascading off its edge into space. You know, like the idea of sailors falling off the end of the world — an idea so superstitious and stupid that sailors, who knew full well that there was a curved horizon on which ships disappeared before their masts, never believed in it.

There are innumerable other examples of glaring stupidity.

There’s the unmotivated way in which Odin casts Thor out of Asgard, then sends his hammer after him. Sure, we’re supposed to think that Thor’s redemption was all part of Odin’s master plan. But that would mean that he was probably able to see Loki’s evil too, which makes Odin’s treatment of Loki all the more disturbing. Not to mention that Odin is apparently willing to risk his kingdom, including the deaths of several of its noble inhabitants, just to straighten out his cocksure son.

There’s the fact that Thor, although he’s supposedly powerless, isn’t hurt by crashing to Earth, then isn’t hurt by being hit twice with a car. For that matter, why is he referred to as “mortal,” if he’s only an alien who’s been rendered powerless? He hasn’t changed his species, has he? Or are we going with magic gods after all?

Then there’s the depiction of S.H.I.E.L.D. Its heavy-handed, no-justification tactics seem straight out of tea party paranoia. Yet they’re also unbelievably incompetent. At the sight of the crashed hammer, they construct a tiny facility — yet they don’t seem to have secured their perimeter enough to prevent Thor and Foster from simply strolling right up to the edge of an elevated lookout, just meters away. Then they simply let a captured Thor leave, on nothing more than the word of Foster’s dad. They don’t even question him to authenticate the story. They even let him steal a supposedly crucial scientific notebook on the way — one apparently left unguarded outside. Sure, they’re going to follow him, but this all strains credibility beyond the breaking point.

Portman’s character and the love plot in general is also a huge problem. She’s one of the film’s weakest spots, which is surprising, coming off her recent, stunningly brilliant portrayal in Black Swan. Can we rescind her Oscar?

Her character plays into a popular Hollywood type in the last two decades: the young and attractive woman who’s also a brilliant, experienced scientist. Okay, at least in Thor she learned the ropes from her dad. But while Portman has expressed that she thought her character might inspire women, her character actually depicts being a cutting-edge scientist as a rather breezy affair. Typical of such characters, here’s no hint of any of the hard work of school or education, which is pretty anti-intellectual when you think about it — and not out of line with her pseudo-logical comments in favor of magical thinking. The point seems to be not that a girl can be a scientist, should she want, but that she can do so while young and gorgeous.

Thunder gods make girls hearts flutter. And their heads lose about 60 I.Q. points.

And giggly. Squeaky, even. Portman’s instantly so head-over-heels in love with Thor that she spends most of the movie acting like a 12-year-old schoolgirl in an anime. The point being, girls, that sure, you might become a female scientist, but you’ll still be willing to chuck it all and become the worst sort of female cliché the moment a handsome guy comes into your life.

By the way, you’re never as conscious of product placement as you are watching Portman nervously attempting to hide her Kashi GoLean Crunch, which you’ve already spotted in an earlier shot, by stuffing it in her cabinet. Apparently to make her small abode seem clean, because guys really hate seeing cereal lying about. Then, just in case you didn’t think Kashi got enough screen time, she realizes she’s being girly and girlishly overreacts by pulling it all back out of the cabinet. The scene fails on so many levels.

Then again, maybe her behavior is understandable. After all, Thor is buff. We know this because everyone remarks upon it. Constantly.

Did you notice this guy is buff? Don't worry if you didn't, because the movie's going to remind you about 200 times.

The way they play up Thor’s muscles in this movie makes 300 look straight.

This is so extreme that it undermines Hemsworth’s performance, which doesn’t need the help. You start to feel like maybe he’s not acting well, like maybe he’s just a professional wrestler cast in the role of “the Mighty Thor!” This is enhanced by some very wrestling-style shots of him, not the least of which is a rather unconvincing — no joke — mud fight.

All of this has me wondering why comics fans would embrace this movie so strongly. Sure, there might be some overlap between comics fans and wrestling fans. And no one can deny the homosexual subtext of men slavishly following the adventures of absurdly muscled, costumed super-heroes. But these fans mostly don’t look this way. They’re bookish and not known for body-building. Most super-heroes play on this split: Clark Kent’s unassuming, but he becomes Superman; Billy Batson’s just a kid, but he becomes Captain Marvel; Peter Parker’s a troubled young man, but he becomes Spider-Man; and even most of the X-Men are normal-looking (if not actually ugly) outsiders before they band together. Whereas in Thor, the only character with which such fans could identify is the thin, clever Loki.

In fact, I wouldn’t blame anyone for such sentiment. Loki’s the only remotely human or interesting character. Thor’s a muscle-bound idiot who learns a grade-school lesson. Foster’s unbelievable both as an astrophysicist and a squirmy idiot of a girl. Loki at least has a recognizable if not sympathetic personality, weakened only slightly when we find out that he was really only out to please daddy all along.

But the movie has deeper problems than this. There’s Thor’s stupidity, before he’s cast out, and the fact that this sets up the entire movie as a kind of after-school special focused on a moral lesson grade schoolers should know.

There’s the incongruity between the dumb warrior culture of Asgard, which we’re clearly shown, and Odin’s wise and peaceful ways.

There’s the way in which, after all of this was precipitated by Odin stepping down as king, Odin ultimately and inexplicably decides to remain on the throne after all. (And no, his plan couldn’t have been to fake stepping down only to teach Thor a lesson, since he couldn’t have known about the simultaneous raid that would change things, unless Odin were part of the treason. But the plot is so confused that trying to think about it results in these absurdities.)

There’s the instantaneous teleportation between what are apparently planets. I know, I know, it’s not magic but super-science! But how do we explain the magical pattern it leaves on the desert floor? Or explain the way the accompanying atmospheric disturbance seems flat on its top, as if materializing horizontally, not from outer space?

Also, is there an accompanying disturbance when Loki comes to visit Thor in captivity? Certainly, no one seems to notice one. Or was that in a scene cut from the film? (Such questions might be explained in The Avengers, in which Loki’s set to appear, but leaving basic plot points out of Thor weakens it considerably.)

In their final scene together, in which he melodramatically professes his feelings and she gets all weepy, Thor promises to return to Jane Foster, then never does (a move perhaps designed to echo the first Spider-Man). But we’re only briefly shown Foster and company dispersing, apparently giving up hope of Thor’s return, and then returning to normal life. How did she know how long to wait? It’s only fair, if we get to see the emotional high before he departs, that we be shown the emotional low here — though that plot might actually be an interesting movie, one with real character.

None of this makes any real sense, and some of these problems cut to the core of the movie.

But in the long list of silly and illogical elements, not the least of which is (Dare I mention it?) Thor’s action sequences. Watching him spin his hammer around at lunatic speed is perfectly adapted from the comics, but that doesn’t make it any more logically possible. Nor is the way he recalls his hammer.

Frost giants, no matter how well you render them, don’t make for very good villains. Thor underlines this almost immediately, his hammer mowing them down in great numbers. He gets all the tough-guy lines, and he’s clearly ridiculously powerful — so much so that you have to wonder why anyone would bother challenging him.

This certainly appeals to a kind of adolescent mind, which responds to such scenes by thinking an enthusiastic That’s bad-ass! instead of a rather more lukewarm This is so ridiculously over-the-top that this fight and probably this character have lost all meaning.

The Authority #14 page

How flying through a giant's head was handled in The Authority #14, written by Mark Millar and penciled by Frank Quitely.

There’s even a scene in which Thor flies through the head of a huge monster, an idea clearly stolen from Mark Millar’s The Authority. Only there, the point was to underline the implications of super-powers, not to make someone look cool. There, the victim was human, which might complicate that simplistic response. Here, the victim looks remarkably like Return of the Jedi‘s Rancor monster, which it’s hard to sympathize with. Oh, and Thor lands, not a drop of blood or monster brains on him. But that’s okay because it’s, y’know, magic.

All of this stupidity and exaggerated, over-the-top flavor can really only be appreciated as camp.

It’s impossible not to see Thor‘s Asgard as something straight out of the Flash Gordon. Watching Thor, I found myself thinking of the Queen theme to the 1980 movie on several occasions. And yes, Flash Gordon, with its dumb jock hero, is anti-intellectual too.

Asgard as seen in Flash Gordon (1980). Or Hawk people or some shit. Anyway, they live in outer space and have weird fetishes, like most people do in outer space.

The special effects combined with a twisted version of mythology also strongly recall Clash of the Titans.

And the whole god-falls-to-Earth thing comes straight out of B-movies. Watching Thor, I kept thinking what in the world someone who doesn’t know comics would make of this incoherent take on Norse myth focused around mindless super-hero action.

Seriously, comics fans. You can’t dismiss Batman and Robin for being ridiculous, yet accept Thor for being the same.

But like the best of camp (and unlike Batman and Robin), Thor doesn’t know it’s camp. It doesn’t know how ridiculous and exaggerated it is.

Consider a couple useful comparisons. With its opening on Asgard and its casting of a veteran actor as the hero’s father, Thor owes a lot to 1978′s Superman. Thor even underlines this connection by arguing that Thor’s some sort of alien, not a proper metaphysical god. But Superman wasn’t camp: it turned Krypton into a stale, crystalline world, portrayed as coldly and as logically as the time allowed. Thor‘s equivalent is gaudy, bursting with color, and filled with gimmicky designs. In its Krypton sequence, Superman aimed at elevating the super-hero to serious sci-fi. But Thor‘s Asgard seems more interested in one-upping Flash Gordon.

Howard the Duck is another Marvel movie about an alien stranded on Earth. It’s almost universally panned, and most think it set Marvel back at least a decade in movie theaters. Like Thor, it’s silly and over-the-top. And it has its charming moments. But it’s a comedy, and it’s redeemed by knowing that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

That’s what Thor is: it’s Howard the Duck, glitzed up and done seriously. With a little Superman, Buck Rogers, Clash of the Titans, and a slew of others thrown in.

That’s not a bad thing. But it will probably be years before we can learn to watch Thor. Right now, it seems like yet another Marvel movie. In retrospect, it will seem very much like Buck Rogers or Clash of the Titans. Something a lot closer to Batman and Robin than The Dark Knight, or even Burton’s Batman.

It’s new camp. Add enough dazzling special effects and crisp photography, and you don’t recognize the schmaltz so easily.

That said, it’s about as good of a movie about the character as could be made. It’s not utterly faithful, but it’s very close in many respects, not the least of which is visual — and it’s a movie all about the visual. No one’s going to argue fidelity to Thor comics the way they would with Batman, much less with Watchmen.

But moviegoers are going to discover what comics fans have known for a long time: that shared universes aren’t entirely a good thing. Nolan has controlled his version of Batman and dismissed his ability to coexist in a shared universe with Superman, much less magic. A shared universe is only as realistic as its most unrealistic element.

Science, except in its most superficial, anti-scientific form, doesn’t make much sense in a world with magic, and events quickly deform history so as to make the world unrecognizable.

Well, the Marvel movie universe just got its magic movie, and it’s incommensurate with taking Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk or Captain America seriously. Thor (and Loki’s presence in The Avengers) is only going to underline how stupid these other movies are. Instead of Tony Stark the weapons dealer from the opening of Iron Man, we’re going to realize how silly it is that he could complete this unprecedented device while a prisoner in a cave, much less invent a new element merely to solve a problem with this device on the fly in Iron Man 2.

The movie poster that reminds us that "courage is immortal" (whatever that means) also reminds us that Thor is from the studio that brought us Iron Man... and, unfortunately, Iron Man 2.

Tony Stark’s supposed to be a scientist, after all. And we know what Thor has to say about scientists.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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