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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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My 12 for ’13: Iron Man 3 & Shane Black’s Christmas in April

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 9…

While Tim Burton’s underrated Batman Returns remains the definitive superhero Christmas movie, Iron Man 3 comes pretty darn close. Which is very strange, for a movie released in towards the end of April in Europe and in the United States in early May. This paradoxical festivity is just one of the many ways that Iron Man 3 feels more like a Shane Black film than a piece of the expansive and ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And that’s a good thing.

ironman3a

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

Ah! We’re half-way through the first season! It’s an episode written by show runners Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon! This must be the episode that will finally provide direction to a first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that has been coasting on autopilot for weeks now!

Well, it was nice idea in theory at any rate.

May day...

May day…

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

So this is what a tie-in to Thor: The Dark World looks like. This is the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. broadcast specifically to tie into the major motion picture blockbuster. In essence, this is as close as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will ever get to integrating with the shared Marvel universe. Given the fact that the show’s official title includes the prefix “Marvel’s”, that cross-media synchronicity is a large part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s branding.

The result is… disappointing, to say the least. It’s just a generic “strange phenomena of the week” episode with even more crossed wires than usual, a tiresome bit of back story for a bland character played by a mediocre actor and an unwillingness to take advantage of any of the benefits of being a television show tied into a blockbuster franchise while remaining firmly anchored to the weaknesses associated with the medium.

Hot rod...

Hot rod…

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Non-Review Review: Thor – The Dark World

Thor was a gem. I’d argue it remains the best of the Marvel Studios films, expertly and enthusiastically embracing the heightened melodrama of comic book storytelling and boiling it down to faux Shakespearean elegance. With Kenneth Branagh directing and a fantastic cast, the film hit on a lot of the old-fashioned comic book spectacle. Yes, it was sheer nonsense, but there’s something surprisingly affecting about hearing Anthony Hopkins intone Stan Lee’s decidedly corny dialogue. This is sheer unadulterated pop, filtered down and distilled.

A lot of that carries over to Thor: The Dark World. “Some believe that before the universe, there was nothing,” Hopkins’ Odin assured us in the trailer, in a narration omitted from the film. “They’re wrong. There was darkness…” Sure, physicists and scientist might weep at the suggestion, but Hopkins is able to imbue the ridiculous line with a surreal gravitas. “I like the way you explain things,” Jane tells Thor at one point, and the British accents lend the goofiness a strangely convincing air.

It doesn’t make any sense, and it’ll hurt your head too much if you think about it, but that’s entirely the point. This is a movie about a Norse god with an English accent and flying hammer.

It's... wait for it... hammer time!

It’s… wait for it… hammer time!

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West Coast Avengers Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I’ve never been especially fond of the classic Avengers. The group has always seemed particularly insular and self-centred for a comic book superhero team, with so much emphasis on their by-laws and regulations, their posh fifth avenue mansion and the strange sense of pride that second-tier characters like Hawkeye seem to place on their own importance within the Avengers franchise. There have been great runs, and there have been comics that I have enjoyed a great deal, but I will concede that I am not a fan of the Silver and Bronze Age Avengers aesthetic.

West Coast Avengers is a clear attempt to develop the franchise, to give Marvel a second high-profile Avengers book. Launched in 1984 and running for a decade, the book followed the establishment of a second superhero team branded on the classic Avengers model. Of course, part of me suspects that this was all just a plan to get Hawkeye out of the mansion (“you and Mockingbird can relocate quickly… and the sooner you do — the sooner our west coast team is operational — the better!” Vision insists).

There are moments of wry self-awareness in West Coast Avengers, but far too much of it reads far too earnestly.

And yet somehow this guy has appeared in two of the biggest superhero blockbusters of the past five years...

And yet somehow this guy has appeared in two of the biggest superhero blockbusters of the past five years…

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Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye (Review)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye is pretty much a companion piece to Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates run. Unlike other miniseries like Ultimate Comics: Thor or Ultimate Comics: Captain America, Hawkeye isn’t designed to be read on its own. It is clearly intended as a story to be read in parallel with Hickman’s on-going Ultimates narrative, unfolding at the same time alongside that particular story. As such, it’s a weird miniseries to read on its own terms, doing a rather excellent job of fleshing out the global scale of Hickman’s Ultimates work, but never really working on its own terms.

Broken arrow...

Broken arrow…

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Jonathan Hickman’s Run on Ultimate Comics: Ultimates (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

There’s something to be said for keeping Marvel’s Ultimate Universe as a “do anything you want” sandbox for up-and-coming creators, a chance for writers and artists to demonstrate their ability to tell comic book stories without worrying too much about the status quo or putting everything back in something resembling the way they found it. After all, the Ultimate Universe provided a fertile starting point for creators like Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis and Brian K. Vaughn to demonstrate they could tell big bombastic superhero stories, with Millar and Bendis going on to radically shape  the mainstream Marvel continuity.

As such, Jonathan Hickman’s run on the awkwardly-titled Ultimate Comics: Ultimates feels like an audition. It’s very clearly a weird alternate-universe take on many of the ideas that he would carry over to his run on Avengers and New Avengers when he succeeded creator Brian Michael Bendis. Hickman’s Ultimates is bristling with big ideas, and an exciting willingness to tear down and build up without any hesitation. The only real problem is that it feels like a story sorely missing an ending.

Thor smash!

Thor smash!

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Grant Morrison & Ian Gibson’s Avengers – Steed & Mrs. Peel (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I feel a little bit cheeky describing this as “Grant Morrison’s Avengers.” After all, it’s this sort of confusion that led Disney to somewhat clumsily try to rebrand last year’s Avengers as Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in Ireland and the UK, afraid that easily-confused cinema-goers might be confused by the absence of the character my better half describes as “umbrella man”, while those more emersed in classic Britannia will recognise him as John Steed.

In fact, the comic was actually branded as Steed and Ms. Peel to avoid confusion, both in the original 1990 Eclipse miniseries and in the recent BOOM! studios reissue. That said, while legal matters prevent the release of a comic called “The Avengers”, BOOM! have hardly been shy about the original television show, with advertisements for Mark Waid’s recent revival teasing “the original Avengers” and “the original Hell Fire Club.” (Which is a little misleading itself, since the Hell Fire Club is actually a much older (real life) institution. Ah well.)

Still, Morrison and Gibson’s Steed & Mrs. Peel is a delightfully fun romp very much in the style of the original show. It is, by no means, the smartest or most essential of Morrison’s work – but it’s still clever and betrays an obvious affection for the source material.

Wheel of misfortune...

Wheel of misfortune…

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Watch! New Thor: The Dark World Trailer!

I’m looking forward to Thor: The Dark World, if only because (somewhat controversially) I think that Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is the best of Marvel Studios’ films to date. Branagh isn’t back directing, but I’m always a sucker for high-concept fantasy and a wonderful cast. From the looks of it, Thor: The Dark World is really cashing in on this year’s hip new cinematic trend: destroying London. It joins Red 2, The Fast and the Furious 6, Star Trek: Into Darkness, among others, in laying waste to the capital.

The Dark World features returning performers Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins, which is reason enough to watch. Add in Christopher Eccleston and I’m intrigued.

Anyway, the traielr is below. Check it out.