I’m still ashamed that I never got around to writing a blog post about the first Thor movie–but now the second one is out, and I’ve got stuff to say! First, let me get my griping about pronunciation out of the way. The Shakespearean language bothered me, as it always did in the comic books as well (which I never read much, since I was more of a X-Men and Spiderman fan as a kid), but I figure this is a product of the awkwardly archaized English of the saga and Edda translations available in the first half of the twentieth century (incidentally, these are the versions that are in public domain now–you can find some on Northvegr). If you encountered the Norse gods in those versions, then of course you think they speak like they belong in a poor Shakespeare knock-off. But what really bothered me was the pronunciation of the names– “YOTE-un-hime” for “Jotunheim”, which should be “Jötunheim,” which is more like “YUTunhaim” (or “Jötunheimr”/”YUTunhaimur” if you want the nominative form that you would see in a Norse or Icelandic dictionary). OK, OK, I’m really not giving especially accurate guidance here, but it’s a bit more in the right ballpark–the beginning of the New Introduction to Old Norse has a great section on pronunciation in both Old Norse (which is reconstructed–meaning, it’s an educated and scientific guess) and modern Icelandic (which is the pronunciation I’ve usually found used in academia when we read portions of the sagas aloud). A New Introduction used to be available for free online as a PDF, but that does not seem to be the case anymore–I guess they came out with a new edition and want folks to actually buy it. The wikipedia article on the Icelandic alphabet can also give you some pronunciation tips.
Anyway, sorry for the rant. I realize American audiences are not familiar with the o-umlaut, but the sounds aren’t difficult, and I feel like a proper name ought to stick at least somewhat to the original (and the fact that they used the German pronunciation of “-ei” instead of the Scandinavian is unforgivable. >:[ ) Also unforgivable–Laufey is Loki’s (goddess) mother in the myths, but becomes his giant father in the first movie (his giant father is Fárbauti in the myths), and Loki is bloodbrother to Odin, rather than adopted brother of Thor. Look, it just gets silly after a while… But I will get into Loki’s family and relationships another time. It’s complicated.
OK, that’s off my chest. Whew. Let me also confess that I just didn’t like the first movie as much. The romance, which is apparently supposed to be central to Thor’s redemption, just does not feel convincing, and the final fight felt pretty lame to me too. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character) seemed to be in the movie primarily to make Thor look good (by falling for him and going wide-eyed in anticipation at appropriate moments)–but OK, I’ve seen several blog posts that argue that the movie actually passes the Bechdel test, so I’m willing to step back and let people make up their own mind about that. I’m still skeptical, but it seemed like they made a decent case (alas, not sure exactly which blog post it was that started it for me…).
The new movie is more of an unabashed space-fantasy, which I think is more fun. Well, OK, I think the first movie would have been a lot more interesting (maybe not necessarily better) if they had taken out all the space-stuff (that legitimates Thor’s story) until that moment at the end (spoiler alert) when he gets his hammer back and Jane et al. all see that he WAS telling the truth and is a super-being from space. But for Dark World, I really enjoyed just sitting back and watching the spaceships and stuff zoom around. Pretty fun. I like space stuff. Also, there are a few fun twists (at least one that really got me), and the dynamic between Thor and Loki is really played up a lot more, I assume partly in response to reception of the two characters among the fans and partly as a result of the ways the actors have filled out these roles so well. And I really like how the Thor franchise doesn’t take itself too seriously (not all the time anyway)–I really enjoy the humor at times.
– The Vanir are Asian? Kinda but not really, according to Snorri Sturluson, who derived the name Æsir (whom Odin and Thor belong to) from “Asians” (for him, that would be Asia Minor–he was interested in convincing us that the gods were originally Trojans). The Vanir are another group of the gods who joined the Æsir (after fighting with them), and Snorri’s etymology is BS but interesting in terms of how he worked it into his grand narrative deriving Norse poetics from Classical poetics. Once version of the truce that brought them together also covers the origin of poetry, but that is a tale for another day…
–Minorities and Others. To continue on the above topic, race is a pretty interesting topic to get into w/ these movies. OK, you might say that race is not at all prominent as an “issue” here, so why bother stirring it up? But it is precisely the unintentional, taken-for-granted ways that race manifests itself in this movie that are telling (and interesting). There was a huge furor online (much of it blatantly racist, and much of the rest racist at the same time that its purveyors protested “I’m not racist, but…”) when it was revealed that Heimdall would be black in the movie version of the comics. Never mind that these are aliens anyway, and that they may as well be green (like the Æsir in StarGate… which I still haven’t watched). Personally, I am more troubled by the way in which the overwhelming whiteness of these “aliens” (especially those ruling the 9 worlds) serves as an “as above, so below” justification for the situation here on earth the last 500 or so years, the imperialist and colonial programs of the West now written in the heavens and in the primordial past. As was pointed out by Karl Siegfried at the conference we met at, even Idris Elba’s version of Heimdallr becomes a liminal figure, a bodyguard who protects those on the inside from those on the outside, without being on the inside himself. With this new movie, we realize that the token Asian of the first movie is not really “from” the ruling community of the gods, but from the Vanir. I would assume that this also means that Elba’s character is from another community, although I believe I did see a token black person or two in the background among the other guards. The “earthly” varieties of “race” or ethnicity then, based on skin color and accent, stand in as “model minorities” (peripheral and not in charge, but apparently not bothered by that), while the monsters, whether the primordial Dark Elves or the barbaric looking figures with horns and stuff in the opening battle in Vanaheim, or the giants, stand in for the threatening aspect of the ethnic/racial Other (maybe not too different than in the Norse myths themselves–despite the name, the “giants” of the early texts are not necessarily gigantic, and whether they appear “normal” or “monstrous” will depend to a degree on just how much their Otherness needs to be emphasized in that particular story). The correlation between the celestial world order and that on earth becomes a bit eery and disturbing when we have Odin talking about Asgard’s peacekeeping role across the 9 worlds and the need to show these worlds that they are “strong.” The politics of power don’t differ too much across the 9 worlds, I guess. Anyway, this is not to make any of these actors feel bad for playing these roles, or to say that there is some nefarious purpose behind it all–but all this is still there, it is part of the movie, and it is better to be able to see these things (and to try to subvert them rather than reinforce them) than to be blind to them.
–The Dark Elves. Not going to say much here, except that we really hardly know ANYTHING about the elves in Norse mythology, and the “dark elf/light elf” division may be an invention of Snorri, that incurable systematizer. I like the suggestion that “dark elf” or “black elf” is just a kenning for “dwarf.”
–Women and power. So, Jane is great, and I appreciate that they’ve tried to portray her as a genuine scientist who really is interested in SCIENCE and not just muscles–but it seems to me that her thunder (haha) is really stolen by Thor’s arrival as one of those who really “possesses” the tech and science she is trying to just get a glimpse of. I mean, how can she ever pass the Bechdel test now if the subject she is a specialist in (SCIENCE… OK, more specific than that…) is now meaningful in the narrative only in so far as it relates to the main male character? OK, her tech is what finally defeats the bad guy, but that was just too silly for me (I mean, human home-grown tech… which her male colleague built, now that I think about it–against super-being apocalyptic tech. Not going to work). And one thing that I noticed here, and then saw paralleled in the X-men material (thinking of Jean Grey as Phoenix here)–power in these cases (the Aether for Jane) is something that possesses these women, rather than something that they possess, as is the case w/ their male counterparts. Haven’t thought further on this, but I’m curious how many other parallels there are in the comics world… Also, Jane’s impotence is really highlighted a LOT. Not just in her possession by this power, or in her out-of-placeness in Asgard (which is more of a legitimate plot-point that could have been explored more), but in the silliness of her physical violence–hitting Thor when he comes back after ages is kinda funny, sure, and we all laughed when she hit Loki, but the latter case really turns ridiculous when we really look and see her hit this man and say “That’s for New York.” Maybe it’s just me (and sure, we have Sif in this movie too, and she’s pretty bad-ass), but taken with the rest it just felt like a picture of the helpless woman juxtaposed with the competent male. And Sif or not, that is really the central relational image in this film (and of course, Sif’s place in the story is defined largely by the fact that she does NOT have the relationship with Thor that the weaker Jane has).
–The Aether. OK, just going to point out that it isn’t really a Norse thing, but that’s fine. I didn’t really find it all that compelling (or well explained) a novum (or plot device) in this movie though.
–Pectoral and boob plates. Yeah, just silly (always is–even if its Batman). Armor does not need to articulate that which it protects (and any articulation would just weaken it). That said, it’s nice that they don’t go for gratuitous chain-mail bikinis and the like, and really, the armor in this film is a step up from the stereotypically exploitive fantasy armor. Also check out this blog.
–Mayans and Stonehenge and Ancient Conspiracies. OK, I just hate that stuff. Too many people buy into it. For a book that discusses WHY people buy into ridiculous conspiracies, ancient or otherwise, there is a handy chapter in this book (which I hope to review soon). At least it wasn’t a prominent theme in this movie.
–The sneak-peak at the end. OK, who’s excited for a Infinity Gauntlet movie crossover?? ME!!!!!! I hope this means they are bringing back Silver Surfer. Honestly, I don’t know how they will do it though. The Marvel movie franchise may be big, but not THAT big. Still, I’ve been excited about this ever since the Thanos appearance at the end of the first Avengers movie. I haven’t kept up with comics for 20 years though, so who knows, maybe that whole storyline has been redone since “my time”…
I think I am missing some things, but oh well. Also check out Karl Siegfried’s interview about the movie at his blog. Karl’s interview is a lot more thorough and systematic in dealing with the connections between the “old” myths and their appropriation in the movies and comics.
And since it is that time of year, here is my pic of Thor and Loki from Christmas a couple years ago. Now available as greeting cards and posters on Redbubble, as well as on DeviantArt (where you can also get it on a mug!). The pen brush sketches from above are also on my DA acct, as well as on my tumblr.