Never mind that 1990 is ancient history. For Thor, it’s always hammer time.
And with a hammer this cool, why wouldn’t it be? It looks like someone strapped a slab of iron the size of a bread maker on a stick and called it good. Try framing a basement with this sucker, and you’ll likely need a new basement. But Thor’s hammer isn’t really for pounding in 4-inch concrete anchors. And it’s not even just for taking down 40-foot monsters. It can be hurled like a boomerang, spun like a set of nunchucks and can change the weather. It is, in the words of Thor’s pop, King Odin, “a weapon to destroy or a tool to build.”
Try getting something like that at Home Depot.
Thor’s the perfect guy to wield a hammer like that—or at least so thinks he. He’s the heir to the great throne of Asgard. And he’s got biceps bigger than bowling balls. So why not, he figures. But not to build, at least not quite yet. Thor’s more of a demolition kind of guy. So when he learns that the family palace was nearly burgled by a handful of frost giants—eternal enemies of Asgard—Thor decides it’s time to put the hammer to good use. Defying Odin’s orders, he, his brother Loki and a handful of his best buds gallop across the Rainbow Bridge, get zapped into space and barge into the frost giants’ chilly kingdom.
It almost goes without saying that Odin’s none too pleased with Thor’s willful disobedience. He was actually on the brink of crowning the boy king before this whole giant fiasco began. Now Odin wonders if perhaps his plan was too hasty. So the father calls the son a “vain, greedy, cruel boy”—and the son shoots right back with, “You are an old man and a fool!”
Well. Odin’s had just about enough of that kind of talk. Hoping to teach Thor a lesson, he banishes him to Earth, sending the hammer along for the ride. The catch: Thor’s just an ordinary guy down here (albeit extraordinarily large), and his nifty hammer’s frozen in rock—a sort of “sword in the stone” trope to ensure that no one, not even Odin’s No. 1 son, will use the thing until he’s good and worthy.
Looks like Thor has some growing up to do.
For all his size and strength and warlike prowess, Thor really is how Odin describes him: a boy—impetuous, selfish and spoiled. I could fill this whole review with the titles of movies that generally laud childlike, childish behavior in their heroes—pretty much every Adam Sandler movie ever made comes to mind—but Thor picks another path: It exposes the harsh reality of the consequences for never wanting to grow up.
Earth proves to be a good boot camp for Thor. Stripped of his titles, prestige and nifty hammer, the guy learns about humility. When he’s told that his father died from sorrow (a lie), Thor grows familiar with loss and regret—critical components to developing a new appreciation for what it means to be both a king and a son. And when a fearsome monster threatens his new human friends and begins to ravage the tiny New Mexico town they’re all holed up in, he discovers a wellspring of charity and sacrifice.
[Spoiler Warning] Perhaps the most telling sign of Thor’s radical transformation comes at the end, when the heir of Asgard opts to break apart the realm’s Rainbow Bridge, the conduit through which he and others visit the universe’s nine known realms. Breaking the bridge means, in essence, that he’s giving up the chance of ever visiting Earth, and beautiful Jane Foster, again. But it also means saving another world—the world of the frost giants. We’ve been conditioned to see heroes make sacrifices for their friends or values. But when Thor sacrifices something of great value to save his eternal enemies … well, that puts this warrior on rare ground.
In Norse myth and in Marvel’s original comic books, Thor, Odin et al are “gods.” And at least one of this film’s promotion posters refers to Thor as “god of thunder.”
But onscreen, the denizens of Asgard don’t regard themselves as gods (even though they acknowledge that when they visited Earth about a 1,000 years ago, they were taken to be such). Sure, they have god-like powers—to us at least—and live in a heavenly realm, but the movie tries to explain away all that murky spirituality by casting them as aliens from a faraway world—a place where science and magic are one and the same.
About that magical science: Loki is considered to be something of a sorcerer, and Thor’s hammer obviously has some serious power built into it. But if taken within its context—and if divorced from the Norse mythology—those story elements develop from natural, not supernatural, origins. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is quoted as saying that “magic is just science we don’t yet understand,” and when Thor breaks a seemingly magical connection with other worlds, the film hints that science may be able to rebuild it again.
There are, of course, a lot of ifs in that bit of explanation. And it is, in our world at least, very hard indeed to separate this cinematic Thor from the character’s mythological roots. But Marvel and Paramount at least try.
Thor is an object of ardor when he’s unceremoniously dumped onto our planet. When he’s found in the middle of the U.S. desert, unconscious, by Jane, fellow scientist Erik and student intern Darcy, the intern sees Thor’s pretty face and immediately volunteers her services. “Does he need CPR? ‘Cause I totally know CPR,” she says. And later, when he walks around shirtless, she says, “You know, for a crazy homeless person, he’s pretty cut.”
But Thor has eyes only for Jane, and she returns his affection. He delicately kisses her hand twice, while she plants a long, passionate smacker right on his lips.
In the Norse tradition, Odin, Thor and Co. lived to fight. It was their reason for being, frankly, and their version of paradise was characterized by all-day battles followed by all-night parties.
Here, Odin and, eventually, Thor, are more circumspect about violence. “A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it,” Odin says. Still, Thor boasts the sort of action that would make any self-respecting medieval Viking let out a gleeful, guttural yawp.
Battles, while not particularly bloody, are intense and relentless. Combatants are skewered by blades, pounded by hammers (sometimes vanishing into dust under the assault), frozen and crushed. Folks fall off the sides of cliffs. Others apparently vanish into the vacuum of space. One massive, robot-like guardian blasts fire out of his visor, causing much mayhem. Combatants are thrown through the air and contract frostbite (a side effect of a frost giant’s touch).
Thor, naturally, inflicts his share of damage, and even without his hammer he’s a force to be reckoned with. He beats up several guards while trying to reclaim his weapon of choice and roughs up about a dozen doctors, orderlies and police officers who are trying to care for him. While battling a huge beast, he turns himself into a human bullet—rocketing into the monster’s mouth and exiting through the back of its head, leaving behind a gaping wound.
Jane accidentally hits Thor twice with her SUV (once so hard that a window breaks). Darcy tasers the guy. And he’s ultimately hit so hard by a gigantic, inhuman soldier that the blow appears to kill him.
Elsewhere, there are loads of ear-rattling explosions. Things crash violently to the ground, and several vicious storms are conjured. A resident of Asgard is nearly murdered in his sleep. Odin injures his eye in battle. (We see the bloody wound.) Thor tips over a banquet table, and he smashes a coffee cup in appreciation.
Characters say “d‑‑n” once, “a‑‑” once and “h‑‑‑” four or five times. God’s name is misused a half-dozen times.
When Jane and her friends find Thor wandering in the desert, they hear him mumbling something about a hammer. “You’re hammered, all right,” Jane says. Later, trying to pull Thor’s hammer from its resting spot turns into a party of sorts, with revelers setting up barbecues and drinking beer around the crater. The head of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a shadowy superhero agency in the Marvel universe) makes Erik promise to keep Thor away from bars. The two, naturally, head right to the nearest saloon, and we watch them guzzle boilermakers. Later, Thor carries a very drunk Erik home. “We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud,” Thor tells Jane.
Erik lies to get Thor out of the custody of S.H.I.E.L.D., telling them that their prisoner got so large by using steroids. A doctor injects Thor with something to make him go to sleep.
Loki is a liar and traitor, manipulating circumstances to keep Thor out of Asgard, impress his father and claim the kingdom for himself. In turn, Thor’s battle buddies defy Loki’s orders to rescue Thor. Turns out, too, that Odin, Loki’s adoptive father, lied to the guy for years about his true lineage.
Thor nearly causes a war just because someone taunts him.
“When you learn you don’t have all the answers, you ask the right questions,” Erik tells Thor. It’s a paradox of sorts—the idea that we’re a step closer to wisdom when we admit our ignorance—but we know it instinctively to be true.
This film pounds away at that concept and, in so doing, becomes something of a conundrum itself. It’s a spectacular, silly action movie that, in spite of itself, has something to say.
We know all along that Thor is incredibly strong—yet he finds his true power when he’s at his weakest. We know him to be a hero, and yet he’s at his most heroic when he bows his head in submission. He was born to be a king but proves his worth in exile. He was trained to be a warrior but makes his most impressive stand without weapons, without armor. He scores his greatest victory when he suffers a killing blow.
I could go on. Some of this calls to mind, of course, another counterintuitive King. And while making too many parallels between Christ and Thor would be pointless, if not even a tad sacrilegious, they’re interesting to note … and lead to yet another paradox: Thor, a film with undeniably pagan roots, can feel at times almost Christian.
I won’t and don’t want to intimate any sort of an excuse for those ungodly underpinnings or the film’s unremitting violence. Thor, like its namesake, has issues. But it still showcases a true superhero—one who becomes all the more heroic when he’s not doing anything super at all.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.