Thor Gets His Groove Back… But Why?

When confronted by Loki’s Destroyer, Thor’s friends engage the metallic creature while the exiled Thor shepherds bystanders to safety. He tells Sif and The Warriors Three (Hogun, Fandrall and Volstagg) that he has a plan. He doesn’t let them in on this plan, though Hemsworth’s somber expression says it all: it will likely lead to his death. And it does.

In what plays like the culmination of a character arc, Thor nobly sacrifices himself to save the humans in his vicinity. But this sort of gesture was never called into question during the preceding narrative. Laying down his life for someone else, especially someone innocent, never comes up during the film as something Thor is unlikely to do. Even his apology to Loki in this moment is for a reason he doesn’t seem to understand. It’s an apology just in case.

There’s little by way of action, or even dialogue, to suggest that the Thor of a few days prior wouldn’t have laid down his life this way. Earlier in the film, Sif mentions wanting to die “a warrior’s death.” Sacrifice on the battlefield is already an Asgardian symbol of nobility, so what is Thor’s Earth-bound journey really for, if this is how it culminates? Would Thor not have ferried innocent bystanders to safety, regardless of the kindness shown by Jane Foster? These are questions that don’t seem to have answers. They only ever come up as answers, to questions the film never asks in the first place.

Upon Thor’s return to Asgard, Loki asks him why he no longer wants to kill Frost Giants, to which he replies: “I’ve changed.” But Thor’s apparent change, which came about on Earth and among a people he’d never encountered before, doesn’t have any dramatic bearing on his initial battle on Jotunheim. The Frost Giants are a people Thor feared and detested because of their centuries old blood-feud, a notion that’s never challenged or even mentioned during the film.

Thor does, however, complete some semblance of an arc after his return to Asgard. When Loki unleashes the full power of the Bifrost (the bridge between Earth and Asgard), he aims its destructive capabilities at Jotunheim. The bridge is sure to destroy the Frost Giants, but Thor hammers away at its foundations until it breaks, cutting him off from Earth, and from Jane, in the process.

This is an unboundedly selfless act, wherein Thor chooses the greater good over his personal desires. He would likely have never done this pre-banishment, given that it saves a realm at war with Asgard, but what leads him to this point in the story is still a question unanswered.

There’s no beat or even suggestion throughout the narrative that makes him question why he went to war in the first place. Thor’s actions, while in service of saving lives (both human and Jotun), don’t stem from reciprocating or paying forward any kindness or selflessness he was shown on Earth. Destroying the Bifrost still comes about through the force of his hammer, a symbol of masculine destructiveness. Thor, at least in this film, never comes around to using it the way his father suggests: as “a tool to build.”

Rather than any dramatized change in outlook or methodology, Thor still operates within the same archaic, masculine, militaristic paradigm. He merely shifts its target. Whatever one feels about superheroes constantly hitting things — one might argue the genre would be boring without it — by placing its character in this predicament, the film short-changes his arc.

Marvel’s Continued Hesitance

One can easily intellectualize Thor’s character development. On paper, where he begins and where he ends up are two different places. It’s part of what allows the film to remain borderline functional, even if it’s emotionally incomplete. Thor’s story, however, never follows a sound enough trajectory to feel resonant. There is no singular moment that defines Thor as a character — no “Steve Rogers jumping on a grenade” — and no difficult decision that’s satisfyingly expressed.

The film’s plot-structure and dialogue treat Thor’s selflessness as the opposite of his arrogance. However, through the film’s own narrative framing, this selflessness on Earth is ultimately disconnected from his violent conquests elsewhere. When Thor sacrifices himself to save the humans, this act is entirely independent of his warmongering past. In the process, his second and arguably more important sacrifice — the decision to destroy the bridge — plays like emotional leap, since he never confronts the parts of himself that led to his banishment.

Once again, Marvel’s reluctance to entertain the notion of confronting military conquest works to its narrative detriment. In the first “Phase” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, war is merely a given. It’s the way the world at large operates, a status quo that has neither cause nor solution from a character standpoint, even though a character-centric approach to war is exactly what some of these films are missing. The heroes aren’t allowed to truly change, because they’re never made to face the parts of themselves most connected to the world around them.

In the process, the early Marvel films fall just short of emotionally satisfying. Though, as with other future installments, Thor’s third-sequel Thor: Ragnarok would finally address this shaky foundation, turning the God of Thunder into one of the series’ most interesting characters going in to Avengers: Endgame.

***

Expanded from an article published April 5, 2018.

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