Many call this the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies, but I disagree. There are many comic book movies being made, but the vast majority are origin stories. To put it in comic book terms, we’re getting a market loaded with #1 issues and the market is waiting to see if any of them become successful enough to merit getting a second issue. And the success rate of those sequels is all over the place. For every The Dark Knight and X-Men 2 that succeed, there’s an equal Iron Man 2 (commercial successes that disappointed) or Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (commercial bomb).
Origin stories are simple to understand and easy to make. The innate conflict between a man or woman accepting the power that is bestowed upon them by fate, chance or choice is one that we like to visit and revisit. It’s no different than King Arthur lifting the sword from the stone or Luke Skywalker agreeing to go with Ben Kenobi. We know how they function and how they must end and, therefore, we like them. Movie studios in turn make them for us and then hope that we liked the character enough to green light a sequel and then cross their fingers that enough people like the sequel to make a number 3.
So far, the list of comic book characters that have more than 2 movies in their resume is not surprising: Superman (5 with another on the way), Batman (7 with another on the way), Spider-Man (3 not counting the 70s TV movie, with another on the way), the X-Men (4 including the Wolverine prequel, with another two on the way), The Punisher (3 movies) and Blade (3 movies). Aside from Wesley Snipes’ anti-hero vampire killer and the three aborted attempts to bring Frank Castle’s story to life, all of the characters mentioned are among the most popular, known and recognized franchises in comic books. They’re characters known to the public at large and with a popular history that crisscrosses every element of pop and social culture.
Which brings us to Thor and to Marvel’s ingenious Avengers strategy. I don’t think I’m saying anything incredible when I state that it’s difficult to imagine people lining up for a movie about Tony Stark or Thor. Fact is if you had asked any person on the street what was the name of Captain America’s alter ego, most would not have known the answer. Instead of trying to push each of their secondary characters individually and hope that they hit (as DC is doing with Green Lantern), Marvel has made them part of a larger thread upon which they can be woven onto. Iron Man, Thor and Captain America are not just individual movies hoping to establish their own franchises. They’re already part of a franchise; The Avengers franchise. This means that there’s a push behind them beyond their individual qualities. There’s an impetus and a drive that makes them bigger than they are. Even if The Avengers turns into a big failure, the success of each individual franchise will more than make up for it. Iron Man will have at least one more movie. And judging from this weekend’s $66 million haul, chances are high so will Thor.
Of course, none of this would matter if the movies were bad. This has been stymied by hiring quality directors and letting them bring good actors into the fold. Look at who they surrounded Chris Hemsworth with in Thor: Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Colm Feore and Rene Russo. Most of them said that they were interested in this movie for one reason: director Kenneth Brannagh. The Shakespearean-trained actor/director may seem an odd choice if you’ve never seen his take on the Bard’s plays like Henry V or Hamlet. But getting someone like Brannagh to helm this allowed those Shakespearean elements in Marvel’s take on the god of thunder to step to the foreground — elements like royalty and responsibility, family and position, duty and destiny.
As envisioned by Brannagh, Thor is the story of a powerful being (they never refer to themselves as “gods”) who is on the verge of inheriting his father’s throne and position as Lord of Asgard. However, before it is done, they are infiltrated by their hated opponents, the Frost Giants, who seek to recapture their ultimate weapon. Enraged at this violation of an ancient truce, Thor leads his friends into the Giants’ realm where he proceeds to piss all over the aforementioned truce between the Asgardians and the Giants. Rescued by a furious Odin, Thor is stripped of his powers and cast down to Earth (New Mexico to be specific) where he meets various astrophysicists and no knowledge of the world around him. Thor must now prove himself worthy of this powers, his mantle and is hammer, Mjolnir.
In a way, both Iron Man and Thor are very similar: they both depict powerful men who are accustomed to getting their way because they are at the top of their particular societies. Both of them have their heroes brought low and forced to re-examine their actions, motives and purposes. Both of them have treacherous friends who betray the heroes. Both of them have the heroes find a greater calling to their abilities than just to please themselves. Both of them emerge as champions of humanity.
Where Thor might be better than Iron Man is that their main villain is not a left-field curve that seems out of place. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki isn’t out for power for its sake at the start. He comes off as the younger son trying to find a way to do his father proud but unable to step out of his big brother’s huge shadow. Even in his fall, he’s not motivated by his father’s mistakes or any desire for vengeance. Loki seems to borrow a great deal from The Devil of Paradise Lost. His fall is led by a lot of good intentions.
Thor is another good entry into the Avengers storyline. Now we only need to see how Captain America does before preparing for the big payoff next summer.