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I Came, I Thor, I Conquered: The Strange Postcolonial Politics of the Thor Trilogy…

The Thor franchise has never been particularly consistent.

Compared to the Iron Man or Captain America films, the three Thor films have lacked a clear sense of unity or direction. Part of this is down to the lack of a singular creative vision across multiple films in the trilogy. Jon Favreau provided a very clear statement of purpose when he worked on the first two Iron Man films, a loose improvisational style tailored around the personality of Robert Downey Jnr. The Russo brothers ensured that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War were of a piece with one another, pseudo-political action movies.

In contrast, the Thor franchise has always felt like the runt of the litter. The first film in the series was directed by Kenneth Branagh, and bristles with the excitement of getting to play in the comic book world of grand language and bright colours. Branagh pitches Thor as the most classic superhero movie; he borrows the Dutch angles from Batman! and the bright aesthetic from Superman. In many ways, Thor is the most undervalued film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps the best distillation of the company’s formula applied to the character best suited to it.

Branagh did not return for the sequel, Thor: The Dark World. Marvel initially hired Patty Jenkins, but that fell through due to creative differences. Jenkins would demonstrate her ability to direct mythology-themed superhero action with Wonder Woman, but Marvel replaced her with Alan Taylor. Taylor was a television director, and by all accounts was treated as such by the studio. The film ended up an overstuffed tonal mess, often feeling like a half-hearted (and confused) imitation of the wave of “prestige-tinted blockbusters” that were popular at the time.

The failure of the sequel would lead to a significant delay between the second and third films in the series, not to mention a complete change of direction. The third film in the trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok, would be directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Waititi was a comedy director best known for his work on What We Do in the Shadows and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, who pitched the film as a superhero version of Withnail & I. The result was a film that felt utterly unlike either of the two earlier entries, even sending its title character out into deep space.

As such, the Thor films all exist at odds with one another. There is no consistent throughline to the series. The setting, the tone, the quality, the narrative focus; all of these elements change from one film to the next. The title character is introduced in Thor when he gets hit by a van, can become an inter-dimensional peacekeeper in The Dark World, and wield ray guns and steal space ships in Ragnarok. Attempting to impose structure or consistency upon the Thor films is an act of madness, one compounded when trying to integrate them into The Avengers or Avengers: Age of Ultron.

And yet, in spite of all of this, there are small themes and ideas that simmer through the three films in the franchise, recurring fascinations. In particular, the Thor trilogy is particularly fascinated with the idea of empire. In shifting away from the idea of Asgardians as literal gods or living stories, the franchise instead settled on the notion of Asgard as an imperial power tasked with bringing order to “the nine worlds.” With its magnificent spires, idyllic surroundings, exaggerated British accents, the Thor movies return time and time again to the idea of Asgard’s golden throne as the seat of empire.

Each of the Thor movies approach this idea in different ways, but they all play with the question of imperial legacy in a manner that is arguably more political than anything in The Winter Soldier or Civil War.

Note: This post contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok. Continue at your own risk.

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Non-Review Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a delightfully pulpy adventure. In many respects, it feels like the movie that Captain America: The First Avenger really should have been, a celebration of its lead character’s versatility and a demonstration of how easily the comic book character can cross genres. Part of the beauty of The Winter Soldier is in the way that it feints. It weaves in directions that are a little surprising at times, and even avoids taking the path of least resistance when offered.

With an opening act that teases the age old debate about liberty and security (“this isn’t freedom,” Steve Rogers solemnly states, “this is fear”), the movie deftly steps sideways to avoid getting too bogged down in familiar political discourse. Much like Iron Man 3, there’s a charm in how The Winter Soldier evades any particularly probing political commentary, cleverly swerving out of the way of anything that could become ham-fisted or heavy-handed.

The Captain and the Widow...

The Captain and the Widow…

It tricks the audience into expecting a contemporary political thriller, only to become something a bit more unexpected – a strange hybrid of pulpy science-fiction, conspiratorial secret history and even seventies espionage thriller. It’s an exciting and engaging blend, one that never outstays its welcome. The only real problem is that it tries to do a bit too much and some of the smaller pieces get lost in the shuffle – which means the climax doesn’t resonate as well as it needs to.

Still, those are ultimately minor problems with a superior blockbuster.

Body of evidence...

Body of evidence…

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Hub (Review)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has burnt through a lot of goodwill at this point. Offering a television spin-off from one of the most popular and successful movie franchises of the last decade (if not all time) should be easy; giving the show to long-time collaborators of Joss Whedon should only increase the series’ likelihood of success. The show has the budget and the scope to offer an exciting slice of pulpy comic book entertainment, but all the episodes so far have been incredibly generic, and could easily have been lifted from shows like The X-Files or Fringe.

At least The Hub offers us a sense that the writers are finally pitching shows to the niche filled by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a story about a massive multi-national spy organisation with dark secrets and impossible technology, which places it firmly in the show’s wheelhouse. There are a lot of problems, mostly with finding the right tone, but it seems like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is at least finally finding its own voice. It’s not a strong or distinct voice yet, but there’s still a faint sliver of hope.

Plane sailing...

Plane sailing…

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Watch! Captain America: The Winter Soldier Trailer!

The trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier has arrived. Based on Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run on Captain America, the film sees the iconic comic book character adapting to life in the 21st century while discovering that perhaps the past isn’t quite as closed-off as he might have suspected. It actually looks quite intriguing – like it might take the look at S.H.I.E.L.D. and it relevance to the modern world in a way that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been so energetically avoiding. Indeed, it looks like it might be a S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric movie, which is a smart bit of world-building and a nice way of exploring the character and his themes. Check it out below.