Thor


The fourth film in the first phase of the MCU is Thor (2011), directed by Kenneth Branagh. At first glance, it seems strange to see a great Shakespeare actor and director attached to a superhero film, but Branagh has been a enthusiastic Thor fan since childhood. His zeal certainly shows in the character development in the film. Branagh also saw a lot of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in Thor, which he was able to utilize to fully develop and elevate the characters and world of Asgard.

How do you even approach a film about comic book superhero-gods based on Norse mythology and make it successful? Branagh certainly had a lot to do with it. He infused the film with full-fledged characters. Chris Hemsworth also had a lot to do with it. He creates a character that has all of the regality, strength, and assurance of a god while also blending in charisma and humor. He’s completely believable as a force for good, passionate in keeping the realm safe, who rallies his warrior friends behind him to do what must be done. He’s also incredibly endearing when he’s ousted from Asgard and lives on Earth as a mortal, interacting with human folk and learning their ways and customs. Branagh and Hemsworth brought life and empathy to the character, whose unexpected behavior still keeps audiences laughing in all his future films.

The rest of the cast is fantastic. A great protagonist flourishes against an equally great villain, and Thor’s “brother” Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the best MCU villains out there — so good that he comes back as the villain for The Avengers. What makes Loki’s villainy so interesting is that he is learning about and dealing with the truth of his childhood. He feels betrayed by his family yet close to them. He feels spurned to embrace the malicious instincts he feels, yet he can be good. He is very much a conflicted villain, which sometimes is even more interesting than a conflicted hero. He isn’t a purely wicked character; he spends the film fighting it, exploring it, coping with it. Hiddleston’s performance is absolutely finessed and breathtaking. He can interact with Thor as a brother and, just as naturally, challenge him as an enemy. Odin (Anthony Hopkins), their father, is an equally strong force, overseeing both of their shenanigans and teaching them important lessons. Both Hopkins and Hiddleston put on performances that steal the show, with their emotional depth and on-screen presence.

Jane (Natalie Portman) is a scientist, incredibly smart and gutsy, but a little tangential to the scientific community. She pursues science that fascinates her, but her peers do not appear to support her ideas. She is probably the opposite kind of personality that Thor would ever meet in a woman in Asgard. She’s strong, smart, and wild, which really piques his interest. S.H.I.E.L.D makes another appearance to push forward to The Avengers. Here, they mostly are just trying to understand the bridge between Earth and Asgard so that they can establish a communication with the gods. Clark Gregg makes another appearance as Agent Phil Coulson who mostly irritates Jane.

Overall, Thor is a fantastic edition to the MCU, even more brilliant after the lackluster chapter of Iron Man 2. Characterizations were polished, performances were excellent, and direction was masterful. Patrick Doyle lends a majestic score with themes that represent the rugged power of Mjölnir and the wonder of Asgard. Thor flourishes because Branagh sought out to create characters not shells. What sets Thor apart from the previous MCU films and many that came after is the decision to humanize the villain. Villains that the audience can commiserate with are scarier, because it forces everyone to recognize the villainy inside us all.

The Avengers


The Avengers (2012) is an epic superhero film written and directed by Joss Whedon. It is an origins story, following the events of S.H.I.E.L.D to develop The Avengers Initiative, which leads to the coming together of The Avengers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and is the third-highest-grossing film, over $1 billion.

The expectations for the film were nothing shy of brilliant once Joss Whedon was announced as director for The Avengers. An avid comic book fan and an amazing writer, the coming together of multiple superheroes into one film was in very good hands. Whedon has commented on The Avengers as a group, saying: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room let alone on the same team—and that is the definition of family.” He delves deeply into that sentiment in the film, exploring the conflicts between strong personalities and haughty egos. Whedon is well-known for fleshing out characters, and that’s the most interesting part of this film. He makes the joining forces of these various superheroes feel real and believable. Most of the film is set up as scenes with pairs of characters, which gives the actors a chance to perform with different personalities as well as the audience the chance to see the characters interact with everyone. Examples of this include: 1) when Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) meeting with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in India to convince him to answer S.H.I.E.L.D’s call for help or 2) when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fight each other to (try to) show their dominance over the other. These scenes are incredible because they show a side to the characters that aren’t seen very often in these characters’ solo films. Tony Stark is always in charge in his films, but now he has to work together with others. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is the ultimate soldier but has to come to terms with the fact that everybody he’s ever known or cared for is dead and learn to interact with people “of the future”. The way Whedon creates these scenes is insightful, as it deconstructs the illusion that groups of superheroes, like The Avengers or the Justice League, would automatically come together in selflessness for the greater good. Egos must be thrown aside (in Stark’s case) and personal conflicts must be embraced (in Banner’s case) in order to work together. The basic goal for these scenes is for Whedon to show the journey for the characters to build trust, for trust will be the most important force linking their chain together.

Another classic Whedonism found in The Avengers is the witty banter and clever writing. The film’s popularity and high praise has a lot to do with the writing, elevating the “superhero genre” up to match various other genres in terms of quality and artistry.
On the topic of classic Whedonisms, Black Widow’s character must be discussed. Whedon has created a myriad of strong female characters, including Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Echo in Dollhouse (Eliza Dushku), and Zoe Washburn from Firefly (Gina Torres). He promotes and advocates for strong women in media, and he delivers yet again with Black Widow. Her introduction scene has her tied to a chair, being interrogated by Russian criminals. She appears to be in a weak and helpless position, as if she were captured and at their mercy. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls the Russian criminals and asks to speak to Romanoff. She talks to him like he’s interrupting her interrogation, not that she’s helpless and in need of saving. He urges her to come in, saying it’s urgent, and she consents. Then, she shows the audience that she was always in control of the situation. She begins a fight, disables the Russian criminals, and walks out calmly, after picking up her heels. This is classic Joss Whedon, who sets up scenes with a particular female stereotype and destroys it right then and there. A classic example is the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A high school boy is taking what appears to be a timid high school girl somewhere private after school hours. She’s hesitant and timid. Whedon sets up that scene as the high school blonde girl who gets herself in a powerless situation, but the high school girl turns out to be Darla (Julie Benz), a vampire who was in fact seducing the high school boy. Black Widow and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are incredibly strong women who are perfectly capable and in control of their situations. Hill does follow orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but she basically runs the organization and makes things happen. Romanoff, like Darla in Buffy, plays around with female stereotypes in an incredible scene with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the film’s big bad and adopted brother to Thor. She’s speaking with Loki, and he begins to simmer in his masculine intimidation, picking apart her intentions as she buckles under the harshness of his words. In his hubris, he lets slip his next move. Immediately, Romanoff resumes her strong posture and stoic face and we realize that she was playing him the entire time. Whedon keeps destroying female stereotypes. With so many modern reboots in popular franchises, there are attempts to modernize female characters who were previously stuck in antiquated female stereotypes, like Uhura in Star Trek. In J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009, the entire cast got a jumpstart, including Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who at times was the catalyst for the plot continuing forward. Unfortunately, half way through the film, Uhura was tossed aside as merely a romantic interest for Spock (Zachary Quinto). While there are teases and hints at something between Romanoff and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in The Avengers, Romanoff’s character place in the group is never diminished or looked down upon. As Johansson has said about her role in The Avengers, she always felt like one of the guys, not the only woman in a group of guys.
Whedon’s vision for The Avengers is a masterful balance of character development and excitement. He blends together a modern realization of his characters with clever writing and a smooth and realistic filming style. He succeeded in bringing together a group of ultra-strong personalities, both in character and in person, while also elevating the “superhero genre” up to challenge other “respected” genres. The sequel, which is will be released in 2015, will no doubt be just as exciting and successful.