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My Best of 2011: Thor, Daddy Issues & The Triumph of Optimism…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

Thor is number five. Check out my original review here.

This is perhaps one of my “what the…?” picks, one of my choices that will seem especially random, and a blockbuster highly unlikely to show up in any other critic or commentator’s “best of 2011” of “end of year” countdown lists. However, I think there’s a lot to like about Branagh’s adaptation of Marvel’s faux-Shakespearean hammer-wielding Norse God, and I think it works so well because Branagh seems to acknowledge the same sentiment that Stan Lee tapped into when creating The Mighty Thor: the idea that superheroes are a modern American mythology, a vehicle with which to explore the hopes and fears of the modern world through a fantastical prism, something that can be traced back to the pantheon of old. While the best superhero films explore this sense of relevance, I admired the way that Thor managed to embrace it in the most abstract manner, tracing it back to that earliest and most basic type of story: the story of fathers and sons.

Of course, superhero stories tend to focus on the relationships between male characters and their father figures. Often both parents are dead, but narratives tend to focus on the father. Consider the fact that Superman II only gave time to Lara when Marlon Brando made unreasonable salary demands to return as Jor-El. Or the fact that, despite the fact he’s an orphan, it’s the death of Peter’s father figure “Uncle Ben” that prompts him to become Spider-Man. Or the fact that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins gives significant character development to Thomas Wayne, while reducing Martha to an extra. Hell, despite the fact that both his parents died in a tragic accident, Iron Man sees Tony Stark vanquishing an evil surrogate father-figure, while Iron Man II allows him to make peace with his deceased father played by John Slattery.

That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions to the general trend, of course. Frank Miller, of all people, has arguably played up the importance of Martha Wayne with All-Star Batman & Robin. It was a pleasant surprise when Neil Gaiman decided to focus on Martha Wayne instead of her husband in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Nevertheless, it seems to be something of an archetype that most superheroes have daddy issues, the kind of thing that we can trace back to the myths and legends of old – as far as Zeus and Cronos, Icarus and Daedalus, if not further.

I think the charm of Kenneth Branagh’s film is the incredibly honest and candid way that it deals with this – it’s direct and straight-forward, a superhero film that is not only unashamed of being a piece of pulp and trashy entertainment, but also one that understands its genre and classification and its own narrative predecessors in a manner that most superhero films seem to struggle with. Branagh might not have given audiences much confidence that he could handle such a large and archetypal story after the misfire that was Frankenstein, but he gets it. He knows what he’s doing. It’s grand melodrama playing out one of the most basic stories and relationship dynamics against a colourful backdrop.

I almost put the re-release of The Lion King on here, if only because seeing the film in the cinema again reminded me of how much I loved that Disney story. It might be my favourite entry in the Disney canon. I mention this, because I find a lot of the same appeal in Thor. Both films are direct about the stories they want to tell, using one of the most basic story structures to allow them to sketch and develop the film around it.

Indeed, there’s significant plot overlap between the two films: a prideful son learns about responsibility in the sudden absence of a loving father, adopting a humble lifestyle with unconventional friends while a villainous and insecure relative assumes control of the kingdom in his absence. It’s such a wonderful and archetypal story, and Branagh and his cast nail it perfectly. Chris Hemsworth manages to be arrogant without seeming belligerent, Anthony Hopkins chews on scenery with the reckless abandon of an actor perfectly comfortable with his surroundings and Tom Hiddleston gives a sort of nuanced and subtle performance that elevates his character beyond most blockbuster bad guys.

Indeed, Hiddleston’s Loki is a key part of the film’s success. Surprisingly, given how essential a villain must be to a movie plot, it seems like an element far too easily overlooked in most modern popcorn flicks. Too often, villains seems shallow or simplistic, lacking facets as simple as a compelling motivation for their actions. Loki’s motivations, like the film around them, are elegant in their simplicity – and yet somehow all the more tragic for them. He’s just a lost little boy, desperately looking for approval from his father. The movie teases us with cardboard villainy, as he seemingly plots to assassinate his father with the Frost Giants, only to reveal that Loki’s grand evil genocidal plan is nothing but an attempt to prove himself a worthy successor to Odin, coloured by resentment of his biological lineage. “I could have done it, Father!” he insists, dangling over the edge. “I could have done it! For you! For all of us!”

It’s that moment that Hiddleston and Hopkins share, as Odin whispers, “No, Loki.” Beneath all the silly outfits and impressive special effects, and inessential 3D, that’s a powerful little moment. It’s just as powerful as Loki’s failed attempt to prove himself “worthy” by lifting his brother’s hammer – something he’s unable to do. It’s a nice scene, one a lesser director might have cut. It has no plot relevance, as there’s never any doubt that Loki is “unworthy.” However, it demonstrates that, underneath all his snark and his wit, Loki just wants to be “worthy” in a culture that values strength and brutality over caution and intelligence.

Despite everything that Loki does – and it’s villainy on a scale that even most Bond or superhero villains can only aspire towards – he remains understandable to the audience. His actions are motivated by a sense of pity and a lack of self-worthy. His own internal racism renders him incapable of dealing with the fact that he isn’t who he was told he was, as if dashing any hopes he ever had of fitting into the society around him. There’s something strangely touching about the scene where Loki discovers he isn’t of Asgard, accusing his father with pure rage and anger, trying to make sense of the fact that his entire existance is a lie. He drives the All-Father to something close to a heart attack. However, the moment Loki realises his father’s health is failing, his anger caves. Despite his anger, he’s genuinely scared at the thought of losing the man he still thinks of as a father. It’s to Hiddleston and Branagh’s credit that the characters seem so real, even in such a lavish and fantastical setting.

And this rather wonderful father-son drama plays out against a gloriously Technicolor background. I love Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, but it fed into the incredibly silly idea that superhero movies have to be serious in order to be intelligent or sophisticated. Nolan’s artistry was applied to a character perfectly suited to that style of film, but Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns demonstrated that not all superheroes are suited to that sort of approach. I never understood why people seem to be so insecure about these types of portrayals – most of these heroes are grown men in tights who wear their underwear on the outside and can fly and break laws of physics as if they are mere suggestions. Personally, it seems more mature to acknowledge these figures as figures of fantasy, rather than treating them as incredibly self-important dark and gritty dramas.

Thor is unashamedly a successor to Richard Donner’s Superman. Indeed, it works as the very strongest spiritual successor to the film that proved a man could fly, the kind of film that I suspect Donner might have made with today’s technology available to him. Asgard is gold and shiny, with nothing about the film capable of being dismissed as “minimalist” or “basic.” It’s loud and it’s brash, and that’s exactly how films like this should be. It’s silly, but that doesn’t mean it’s stupid. It’s bright and shiny, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sophisticated. It’s fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s brain-dead.

It’s a film written, directed and acted with an enthusiasm of a child’s imagination, without any of the cynicism one seems to expect these days. Don’t get me wrong, I like cynicism. There’s a lot of cynicism in the final four films on this “best of” list, as well as the bunch all ready published. However, I don’t believe that cynicism is a position anymore valid than optimism, or that it’s somehow more intelligent or better. It’s just a different outlook, and sometimes it’s good to have both. Neither is any more legitimate than the other.

That’s why I loved Thor. That’s why I’d make the case that it’s easily the best Marvel Studios film – better than Iron Man, which I liked far less than most. That’s why it’s the superhero movie of the year, and the summer blockbuster of 2011.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) The Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

2 Responses

  1. Awesome! I completely agree with all that was said in the review, especially the idea that just because it’s silly doesn’t mean it’s stupid!

    If you are able to change it, the actor who played Loki is named Tom Hiddleston, not Hiddlesmith.

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