So, we’re about nine years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with sixteen films under their belts. We’re about five years in from the Hollywood-shattering movie that was The Avengers. This will be the first year that three MCU films will be released in the same year. With Thor Ragnarok coming out later this year, and being directed by one of my favourite contemporary directors, I thought I’d look back at the first Thor film and uncover the thinking behind the film; how it works to its own goals and to the wider goals of the MCU.
The first Thor film was notably directed by Kenneth Branagh, which might seem like an odd choice. The dude known for mostly doing Shakespearean films decides to do a superhero film about Norse Gods. On the surface of it, it doesn’t make sense. However, there is method to Marvel’s madness.
You may have already worked out the connection that Thor and Shakespeare have, even on the surface of it. The language. Thor speaks in this pseudo-historic mashing of contemporary speech laced heavily with unusual phrasings and thee and thou. Thou (an early modern variant of you) is rather well known for its association to Shakespeare. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo” (Modern translation: Romeo, Romeo, why is you Romeo) for example.
However, there’s perhaps an even greater connection to Branagh’s oeuvre of work than purely a conceit of language. The story of the Thor film has many connections to Shakespeare. Let’s have a look at some now. This will not be an exhaustive list. I’m no great Shakespeare scholar, merely an enthusiast. If you can think of any other connections, feel free to leave me a comment on social media (links here).
Let’s start with Henry V, Branagh’s first film. Although it might be more accurate to be talking about Henry IV, which Branagh never brought to film in full but peppered throughout Henry V. Part of Henry IV’s plot concerns the young prince Hal. Hal in his youth spends his time with drunkards and fools having a merry time. Notably, Hal spends his time with a fool named Falstaff whom he later disavows. Thor spends his young revelry with his friends (one of whom is named Volstagg). Both Hal, who would become Henry V, and Thor must learn what means to be king before they can take up the mantle.
Another comparison might be found in King Lear. King Lear concerns a dying king who attempts to placate his children with their separate inheritrices but it gets bloody from that point. Lear exiles his previously favourite child, as does Odin. In terms of King Lear, I’m sure there are more connections but I’m only largely familiar with King Lear.
Coriolanus concerns a man who would be ‘king’ who cannot overcome his warrior’s spirit to be ‘king’. There is a stark difference in that Cassius “Coriolanus” Marcius kind of hates the people he’s representing, whereas Thor’s conflict is more internal.
Now we’ve examined Thor through the lens of Shakespeare. However, if there’s one figure here who demands to be compared to a Shakespearean figure, it’s the one played by the guy known for playing Shakespearean characters: Loki.
Usurping the throne via manipulation and occasional murder is certainly something that was common in Shakespeare. It was a favourite tactic of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play. In fact, there’s something very Macbeth about Loki’s rise to power. Once he comes to power, all his machinations are about keeping it. He forbids the use of the Bifrost, he treats Heimdall like a lapdog, he connives with the enemy, he convinces Thor to remain in exile, and only when he tries to kill his enemies do things turn on him. He is undone by the return of an enemy he had discounted. Very Macbeth.
Also, like something out of Macbeth, Odin’s words have a Shakespearean propheticism to them: “Only one of you can ascend to the throne, but both of you were born to be kings.”. That double meaning is common in Shakespeare. While his phrasing can be taken at face value, it can also be looked at as his confession of the fact that he adopted Loki. In fact, this double meaning lies at the crux of Merchant of Venice. Shylock intends to take a pound of flesh from Antonio but if he spills any blood while he does it, he will have broken the terms of the bond and taken more than agreed upon.
The last brief comparison one might make is between Iago and Loki. Iago and Loki are both conniving Machiavellian figures who turn against their leaders because of perceived slight and being overlooked for a position that they feel they are qualified for. Like Iago goading Othello into killing Desdemona, Loki goads Thor into violent, erratic action against the frost giants.
Those are all the oblique textual comparisons I could think of at this point in time. Perhaps one day I’ll revisit this topic. There is one last comparison to Shakespeare which one could make. Shakespeare’s works are often works which feature two worlds. Venice/Belmont in Merchant of Venice. The woods/Fairyland in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There is also the common trope of the stranger in a strange land, common in Shakespeare’s works. The shipwrecked betrayers of The Tempest. Viola, from Twelfth Night, washed up on the shores of Illyria, finding herself in a strange new world and falling in love in a story similar to Thor’s journey on Earth in the film. Those are some examples just off the top of my head.
Also, worth noting but not connected to Branagh and the Bard is the film’s not-so-subtle connection to King Arthur. A mythic weapon seated in stone that can only be retrieved by the one true king.
Now some of these comparisons may seem high-mind and conceptual in their connections but I think that’s why it works. Branagh has a mastery of the Epic as a form. Hamlet, which one might consider his Magnum Opus, is just over four hours long. I also think it’s why the first film is effective. It takes the unusual presence of Thor as a comic book character and attaches it to the well-trodden ground of English literature. Thus, the film comes off as high-minded and larger than life. It’s effective at conveying the high stakes aristocratic family tragedy that lies at the heart of Thor’s origin.
Though Ken, for the love of Odin, use less Dutch angles. This is not Battlefield Earth.