Thor: Let Your Hero Look Foolish
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we're talking about Thor, the movie that gambled on the idea that maybe non-Iron Man movies could be good, represented the MCU's first step into cosmic weirdness, and introduced my fiancée's two favorite Marvel characters: Thor and Loki.
When Vacation came out in 2015, and Ghostbusters came out in 2016, people seemed somehow surprised that he had really good comedic instincts. To those people, I wonder: did they ever watch Thor?
The first Thor film spends thirty minutes establishing the world and its main characters. We meet Thor Odinson, a nearly-indestructible, cocksure, arrogant, loudmouthed dudebro god with a magic hammer. We see him conquer enemies in battle, only after getting goaded into the fight by being called a "princess." We see him convince his friends to come with him on a foolhardy mission, and he never admits that they made a mistake by entering the frost giant's realm. We see his father strip him of his titles and his power, and cast him down, humiliating and humbling him.
And for many other movies, that would be enough. But this film takes advantage of the fact that Thor has no experience being a vulnerable human, and has a lot of fun in Act 2 at his expense.
The transition from Act 1 to Act 2 is marked by Thor waking up in the New Mexico desert, raving about his hammer and the Bifrost, and then getting tased by a college intern.
Thor wakes up in the hospital as the staff draws a blood sample, and begins beating up orderlies and security guards. And this scene demonstrates that, even without his Asgardian powers, he's still a force to be reckoned with.
And then he gets an injection in his butt, and immediately slumps against the window and blacks out.
It may be my favorite comedic beat in the movie. Because at that point, we don't need a reminder of the fact that he's mortal. Thor doesn't learn it in this scene, because when he next wakes up, he doesn't understand how he could be restrained. It serves no exposition and doesn't mark a change in the character, so theoretically it adds nothing to story.
But it completely makes the film work.
When we first see Thor charging around with his hammer, arrogant and dangerous, we don't like him that much. But then all of his power is stripped away, and we see how confused and disoriented he is. And yet he doesn't change right away. In fact, he doesn't really change at all until more than halfway through the film. (If he had changed, he would have been able to lift his hammer at the midpoint, which he's unable to do.)
So, why tase him at the beginning of Act 2? And then why tranquilize him? And after that, why show how he doesn't understand why he can't free himself from velcro restraints? And after that, why hit him with a car again?
Because Odin wanted to humble Thor. The audience wants him humbled, because we want to see him learn a lesson. And everything that happens to him on Earth just drives the message home: Thor still needs to learn humility.
Good comedy also punches up. Thor is a god, a prince about to be coronated as the new king of the gods, and a superhero. Even though these scenes make him the butt (pun intended) of the joke, they don't feel mean-spirited, because he's still a spoiled ass.
The entire first half of the movie is full of jokes about how Thor is a fish out of water - he smashes the cup in the diner, he wanders into traffic, he asks a pet store owner for a horse. But as soon as he fails to lift the hammer, those jokes dry up. The filmmakers know that they've done enough to humble Thor, and he's now experienced the greatest humiliation he can possibly suffer.
And then he offers a sincere apology to Loki, and we can see him beginning to learn his lesson. The second half of the film is about him reacting to the realization that he can't simply return to his old life, and figuring out how to better himself. That's the mindset that propels him into Act 3, and transforms him into the hero he's meant to be.
Also, somebody at Marvel realized Chris Hemsworth had wonderful comedic timing, and that it was really funny to watch him get tased and get injected with tranquilizers. Sometimes, a solid joke is its own reward.