Michael Lee is a writer, script consultant, script reader and judge. He’s worked as a creative executive for a few production companies and as reader and judge for some of the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country including PAGE and Final Draft Big Break. He’s recently optioned his latest project: a science-fiction comedy entitled How to Conquer the Earth. Follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter:@GoldenAgeofGeek.
After three movies Marvel Studios MCU project had been a smash success with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. The films had all been critical and commercial hits. The studio had proven that you could take supervillains from the pages of the comic books and successfully adapt them to the big screen. But none of their cinematic villains had been a true breakout star. That changed with their fourth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor was the movie that introduced the world to actor Tom Hiddleston and the supervillain Loki, Norse god of mischief. The effect on the Marvel Cinematic Universe was enormous. Loki became the first Marvel supervillain to overshadow his own movie. When people talk about this movie they still mostly talk about the character and the performance by Hiddleston. A star was born with this film; two stars really, both the actor and the character. But the movie itself shouldn’t be overlooked. In my opinion it’s one of the more underrated Marvel entries and it has a lot of strengths besides Hiddleston.
Again with their fourth movie Marvel took yet another approach to the superhero story. Whereas the Iron Man movies had focused on the hero’s internal struggle to be a better person and The Incredible Hulk had been a manhunt thriller, Thor embraced its fantasy adventure roots. The director this time around was Kenneth Branagh who appears to have borrowed liberally from Peter Jackson. The citadel of Asgard definitely looks like Minas Tirith and the battle scenes against the frost giants wouldn’t be out of place in the Lord of the Rings movies. But Branagh made his mark in Shakespeare and that’s what he brings to this movie in a big way. The Bard based a lot of his works on myths and legends popular in his time. Branagh also knew Hiddleston from their time together on the British TV adaptation of the Wallander series. It’s Branagh’s focus on the family dynamic at play here that makes Thor work so well and helped make Loki a supervillain for the ages.
As last time a warning; SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Movie: Thor
The Supervillain: Loki
Up until now we’ve dealt with some of the more minor villains like Obadiah Stane and The Abomination or what amounts to an original creation in the form of Whiplash. But Loki is one of the iconic supervillains of the Marvel comics. Obviously the character began life thousands of years ago as a part of Norse mythology. He became the central antagonist for Thor when Marvel launched the character in the 1960’s and has been a major part of the Marvel Universe ever since. Handling a character with such history can be tricky as we will later see. Such an iconic legacy creates a certain amount of expectations that have to be met. If everything else about Thor had been spectacular but audiences had walked away thinking “That Loki guy was just okay” the film would have been a disaster. And as strange as it may seem, this was the first of the Marvel movies where the villain had genuine world domination as his main goal. The antagonists in the other movies were certainly up to no good and would have caused lots of damage. But in this movie, Loki seeks control of Asgard and the elimination the entire Frost Giant home world. Again these sorts of giant sized ambitions are a potential pitfall. Audiences can relate to say man trying to get revenge for crimes committed against his family. They have a harder time understanding the motives of someone who wants to rule everything or destroy everything. And it is vital that the audience understands and even relates to the antagonist on some level in order for them to buy in to the story’s dramatic stakes.
So how does Thor deal with Loki? How does it take a supervillain who isn’t even human, wasn’t raised on Earth and who’s ultimate goal is incredibly grandiose and not only make him work but turn him into one of the breakout stars of the last decade?
It’s no one thing. It’s a lot of little things and small details. For all his larger-than-life ambitions and his otherworldly origins, what’s important are all the small moments in this film. It starts in the very beginning when we are introduced to both Thor and Loki as young boys. This doesn’t serve to tell the audience that Loki was once a little boy or that he and Thor are brothers. In the scene, young Thor is the one who talks. Young Loki stays quiet. The movie is telling us right away what kind of character he is; quiet, introspective. And he remains that way throughout much of the film. He doesn’t twirl his mustache or chew the scenery. He keeps things close. He doesn’t expound on his brilliant plan. We suspect that he’s responsible for the incident with the frost giants that gets the whole plot rolling. But we don’t get confirmation from him until much later in the film. And even then he isn’t telling the whole truth as his new frost giant allies quickly learn. Also we’re never sure exactly how much of this was planned. There are key parts about his own heritage that he isn’t made aware of until after things are set in motion.
But there is also tremendous sympathy for the character. Loki is easily the most sympathetic and even likable of the Marvel supervillains. His reaction to learning about his heritage seems genuine and it leads to a great confrontation between and Odin. And there are those looks he gives to Odin and even to Thor that hint that he does care for the people he hurts. Again these are all little details and small moments which Hiddleston nails time and again. As a result his performance is endlessly re-watchable. You almost always find something that you missed in these scenes.
Thor was maybe Marvel’s most significant early victory because it not only gave them a core member of The Avengers but also that film’s villain. It was thanks to this movie that audiences were salivating at the chance to see Loki take on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Loki remains one of the classic Marvel supervillains. The very next film in the series featured another from the supervillain hall of fame. Would Marvel score another triumph?
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