WARNING: In talking about the themes of the movie Thor, I’m going to assume you’ve seen it. If you haven’t, PREPARE TO BE SPOILED.
Thor is one of my very favorite movies in the world. I don’t tire of it, I don’t want to stop watching it; the more times I watch it, the more I enjoy it, the more entrancing I find it. In my more hyperbolic moments I think that every movie should be like Thor. (I know that’s silly, though; sometimes I also think that I could live on nothing but coffee, but sense always eventually returns.)
For a good long while now, the move in fantasy entertainment has been away from the bold four-color heroes of latter years and into the many many shades of grey. The trend toward “realism,” here meaning “grim dark bleak hopelessness,” has culminated in the huge popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which, if you’ve been living under a rock, is based on George R.R. Martin’s neverending book series of the same name. If pop culture is a mirror of an age, our age is cynical, nihilistic, violent and horrible.
By contrast, Thor is old-fashioned. It’s so old-fashioned, it’s practically a throwback. It’s so out of touch with the trends, it needed my rather snarky aside in the above paragraph. Compare and contrast a still from GoT and from Thor: one is gloomy, desaturated, bleak. The other is bursting with bright, glorious color.
Nor am I talking just about the actual RGB hues on your monitor. In contrast with much of the popular entertainments in these latter days, Thor is not cynical. It is not a joke at the viewer’s expense, or a long bloodbath. It is not especially violent, because it’s not really an action movie,* although of course the Asgardians, being a warrior culture, tend to resolve their conflicts by feats of arms. Thor is the tale of a thoughtless young man who, by his good choices and his spiritual growth, becomes a worthy king; it is at its heart hopeful, loving, and optimistic.
*More on this later, perhaps.
Team Free Will
Odin All-Father has two sons, the bright and the dark. At the start of the film, both of them are arrogant and self-involved, so you can’t really say that Thor is the “good” son and Loki the “bad.” The greatest contrast between them is in their behavior: Thor is brash, open, boisterous; Loki secretive, closed, introspective. Both of them, however, “were born to be kings,” and Odin, who loves his sons, wants both of them to live up to their destiny.
This is important. Thor’s rise, and Loki’s fall, are products of their own choices. As much as Odin values his sons, he values their independence and their free will. It’s unclear whether or not he knew that Loki engineered the Frost Giants’ interruption of Thor’s Big Day, but given the fuss he fails to raise, it seems probable that he did. Similarly, he permits Thor to go bust up Jotunheim because the consequences of that course of action–namely, banishment from Asgard and the loss of the hammer Mjolnir–are perhaps the only things that will teach Thor true kingship.
Odin: You’ve forgotten everything I taught you! About a warrior’s patience.
Thor: While you wait and be patient, the Nine Realms laugh at us. The old ways are done; you would stand giving speeches while Asgard falls.
Odin: You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!
Thor: And you are an old man and a fool!
Odin: Yes. I was a fool. To think you were ready.
Odin loves his son, and he sorrows at what has to happen next (Sir Anthony Hopkins’ performance here is masterful; listen to the break in his voice as he delivers his lines), but Thor must be taught to do better.
Anyone who has even dipped his toe into the waters of Christianity can see the parallel between Odin’s treatment of his sons, and God the Father’s loving Providence towards his children. God lets us screw up, even disastrously, knowing that through the greatest losses come the greatest lessons. He is fitting us for Heaven, for eternal Kingship as his adopted sons and daughters. He is giving us chance after chance to become better, more beautiful, more loving.
Thor succeeds at the task he has been (unknown to himself) given, and his blossoming is a delight to behold. The once-arrogant God of Thunder serving breakfast to his new friends is a sweet and joyful little scene. But what about Loki, Laufey’s son?
He too is given the chance to do better, when the Allfather collapses into the conveniently timed Odinsleep. Suffering under the revelation of his true parentage, confused and conflicted, you would think that this would be the perfect time for Odin to stick around and offer a firm hand of guidance–but Odin prefers a more open-ended, laissez-faire approach. With Thor banished and Odin in a coma, it is Loki’s chance to shine. What will he do with the opportunity? Will he show himself a wise king?
Well, no, and that is Loki’s tragedy. Thor’s everything is taken from him, and he becomes great. Loki is given everything, and he destroys himself.
Sounds pretty true-to-life.
No Greater Love Than This
Thor has one true love: himself. No, make that two: himself, and his mighty hammer Mjolnir. As a man grown, he is not much changed from the rowdy little brat who boasted that he would one day “hunt the [Frost Giants] down and slay them all.” He can, however, be charming, and he’s just as good as his brother at talking people round into doing what he wants them to do. He mercilessly and recklessly uses his friends to get his way, and in his bitterness at the ruination of his “day of triumph,” he nearly gets them all killed.
The banishment sequence is heart-breaking. Watch Thor’s face as Odin dresses him down: he is confused, terrified. He truly is “a boy, trying to prove himself a man,” and he’s as confused as a scolded puppy as Odin strips from him his badges of rank and power. He crash-lands on Earth still reeling from the speed of events, still trying to process what has happened to him; it’s no wonder Darcy feels the need to tase him. A giant man is shouting nonsense at the heavens? I’d tase him too!
Banishment alone is not enough to teach Thor his lesson, however. He attempts to use his new friends the way he did his old. It is only when he cannot lift Mjolnir, when he is shown how unworthy he is, that he begins to understand.
He begins to atone, through small acts of love: he rescues Jane’s journal from SHIELD; he tells Jane about the Asgardian understanding of the Cosmos. He drinks with Selvig and actually listens to what the older man has to say–possibly a first in his life. He makes breakfast for the scientists. And, when Loki sends the Destroyer to do what it does best, he lays down his life not just for them, but for the town.
“There is no greater love than this,” says John 15:13, “than that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
This is the essence of love, the essence of kingship: to hold yourself not above others, but as a servant to all. To give unflinchingly and unstintingly of your self, even to death. Thor faces the Destroyer with nothing but his own mortal might … and he asks for his brother’s forgiveness.
And you know what happens next.
The loving sacrifice of Christ is echoed in pop culture all the time, but it’s usually symbolic, seldom so on-the-nose. Thor actually expires, there in the dust of a backwater town, having given his life that his friends might live. He has learnt, thoroughly and well, the lesson his father sent him to learn. And because of his willingness to die in the service of others, he proves that he is once more worthy to wield the hammer, truly worthy to be king.
The Greatest of These is Love
Thor is a movie based on a comic book character based on a pagan god (who, if you read the old stories, is pretty much a boor), but at its heart it is thoroughly, entirely Christian, and I submit that, for that reason, it failed to connect with a large segment of its intended audience. Read any random io9 article and see how long it takes for the commenters to start saying hateful things about Christianity (science articles are best for this, but just about any one should do).* Talking about all the reasons post-Christian modernity hates Christianity is not within the scope of this already lengthy post, but the animosity is an observable fact, and within the geek community, which seems to contain a higher concentration of self-proclaimed atheists,** the rancour is particularly fierce.
Small wonder, then, that a movie carrying such a thinly-veiled Christian message, only a little bit subtler than that of the Narnia books, should fail to find much of a welcome there. Which is a shame, since Christian messages about loving one’s neighbor–loving one’s enemies–about patience, kindness, help for the needy–are always helpful and relevant not just to those who profess the faith of Christ, but to all humans.
I have much more that I would like to say about Thor; I have barely touched on its visuals, and haven’t mentioned the music or the excellence of the cast, or the awesomeness of its supporting characters. I’m sure I could write a book about it–but this particular article seems to be winding to a conclusion. I shall leave therefore with the famous lines from St Paul: “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice, but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. […] Three things will last forever–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.”
One Final Note
Did you know (I just found this out today, and I’m still geeking out) that the knotwork that appears on Thor’s hammer, whenever Odin’s will is acting upon it,*** is called a Trinity knot? I wonder why it’s called that? Hint: it’s not because of that chick from The Matrix.
*I love io9, but I can’t read the comments boxes, and I sometimes have to skip the articles too. But it’s a great source for nerd-related news.
**Totally unscientific observation, based not on stats but merely on being alive and present on the internet.
***At least three times in the movie: The banishment sequence, when Odin whispers the famous “Whosoever holds this hammer” line; in the compound, when Thor fails to lift the hammer; and just before it flies off to trigger Thor’s transformation sequence.