Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thor: Blindness & Death

Director Kenneth Branagh's Thor is overflowing with great, important material. If you have any plans to see The Avengers being released May, 2012, you must see Thor: not only is The Avengers' villain, Loki, from Thor, but the Marvel Comics' super-super-hero film is laying out what might prove to be the most thorough examination of modern American identity on the world political stage since, . . . the 1950's? And with all the amazing films being released, that is really saying something.
So what is it about Thor that is so important?
Kenneth Branagh's directing? Anthony Hopkins' reputation and skill in acting? Chris Hemsworth's blue eyes and physique? The CGI? All these elements contribute to what is all ready in the story and works together to accentuate those issues and themes our attention should be drawn to: our motivation is what defines us.
Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. questioning the immortal delinquent. It's not accidental that Thor is covered with mud, wearing "street clothes" instead of his royal regalia; this graphically illustrates for us his personal thoughts on how far he has fallen (or, what he has always been and merely covered up by his royal title) but he's stripped pretty bare now, and the white room, with all the glass (self-reflection) communicates to the audience that he has reached the bottom of the well; the good thing about falling to bottom is that one cannot begin the ascent back up, but without this moment, the "Who are you?" question from Coulson, Thor would never question himself or what it is he really should be doing.
In some ways, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D. questioning Thor (Chris Hemsworth) after Thor fails to free his hammer from the rock, is the most important moment of the film, for Thor and the United States; one can easily argue that Thor's moment of self-sacrifice is the most important, however, without the inner-questioning from Coulson, the confrontation brought on between what Thor is and what he knows he needs to become, he can't make that sacrifice.
No, it's not an accident that this reminds us of the The Sword in the Stone and Excalibur. Just as King Arthur was able to pull Excalibur from the stone and yield its powers, but then lost the sword after Lancelot's betrayal, so Thor has lost the hammer after Loki's betrayal (Loki letting the Frost Giants into the weapons room). Along with the Norse myth references throughout Thor and Captain America, as well as Celtic artwork, the incorporation of King Arthur provides an increasing atmosphere of the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome and that is also intentional.
What specifically does Coulson ask Thor that is so important?
Are you a terrorist?
Actions alone cannot determine loyalty or hostility (consider Loki's actions to have Odin, Loki's adopted father, assassinated by Laufey, his biological father) and that is the question for the United States: when we do something, is it for our own benefit, are we bullying someone into doing something they don't want to do or are we doing it as an act of friendship? For those of us who consider ourselves patriots and lovers of our country, we know what our motivations are in our heart, but does that mean that's why the government does something? The answers lie in the rest of the film.
Thor and Loki, brothers in the same household and, yet, enemies by blood. What Thor suggests, but suggests very powerfully, is that the real enemy in the United States is in the United States, a brother by adoption but a member of the enemy's family, seemingly on our side but actually working against us. 
If Thor could be a new generation of Americans, then Odin (Anthony Hopkins) would be the founding fathers, but a founding father who is half blind. It is always intentional for a character who is blind or half-blind because it will indicate that they have a greater, inner-sight (such as in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Village) or the character doesn't see something they should see. But it's not just Odin who is blind; "blindness" or not being able to see lurks silently throughout the film in very creative ways (this is really due to a great director like Branagh), for example, in the opening, when Jane (Natalie Portman) is in the New Mexico desert and Darcy (Kat Dennings) sees the wormhole opening, she sees it in the rear-view mirror, not before them, and this is an indication of blindness.
Odin with the eye patch, Thor and Loki.
But Heimdall (Idris Elba), the Gatekeeper, also shows dimensions of blindness.
Loki's ability to sneak Frost Giants into the weapons room, and Heimdall not knowing the secret pathways throughout the universe that Loki knows demonstrates his blindness that might be likened to the military's inability to know all the tunnels and hiding places in Afghanistan, for example. Given everything that Heimdall can see, it is surprising what he cannot see, but that is part of the point. Like Agent Coulson, when the Destroyer shows up to kill Thor, and Coulson wants to know if it's one of Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.). Despite the uncanny ability to know and be where everything is taking place, it seems there is more they don't know than what they do (which is perhaps why Nick Fury [Samuel L. Jackson] also wears an eye patch).
Heimdall, the Gatekeeper.
Similarly, "death" takes on interesting dimensions throughout the film.
When Thor is first dropped through the wormhole into the New Mexico desert, Jane (Natalie Portman) says, "Do me a favor and don't be dead," but Thor is dead: he's dead to his family and his kingdom, he's dead to the maturity and wisdom that would have made him a suitable king, he's dead to his friends to whom he should have listened before going to take war to the Frost Giants and he's dead to consequences. Likewise, Odin falling into the "Odinsleep" to recuperate, is in a state of death without being dead. What is most interesting to me, however, about the way "death" works throughout the film is the "Casket" of the Frost Giants and how, the releasing of a deep, never-ending winter is correlated to death and death is thus correlated to power.
Loki with the Casket of Warriors.
What kind of power would bring a never-ending winter to the world?
Nuclear power.
nuclear winter would be the result of any number of nuclear devices being set off to alter dramatically earth's environment for an untold length of time. I've been sounding pretty pessimistic lately, and I apologize for that, but I don't want to take all the credit: the doomsday clock, which measures the risk of nuclear or climatic disaster, was moved one minute closer to midnight. This rather seems to be what Thor is about. Blindness will lead us to taking power away from one and giving it to another who will use that power against the country.
Is it a wormhole, tornado or nuclear attack? Pillars from the earth's ground up to the sky appear in The Darkest Hour as well as Jack the Giant Killer and this kind of "stormy weather" takes center stage in Take Shelter, so I think we should prepare ourselves to see more, rather than less, of these kinds of images.
The last point.
Numerous elements in the film--the Celtic art, the date of the Frost Giants attacking earth (965), the references to King Arthur and the overall aesthetic of Asgard--invokes the "Dark Ages." Are we in some kind of a dark age now? Those of us not pleased with the current political administration might not hesitate to answer yes, but this year's crop of films, including The Avengers, may invoke class struggle as being a part of  the darkness; the two important aspects, blindness and death, go together well in Thor, and we must learn the lesson, as Thor himself did, and try not to be blind to those that will be happy to do us in.
Blindness leads to death.