Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor: A Psychologist's Review

Like many people, I saw the film Thor this weekend, in 3-D. Full disclosure: Thor has never been one of my favorite superheroes. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to the film, because film versions of comic book heroes often provide interesting variations on the stories, particularly the origin stories.

The acting was very good, but I was disappointed. The film seemed very formulaic, with a lot of explication at the beginning--so much explaining of the characters and their "mission" that even if you didn't know Thor's origin story when you sat down to watch the film, you could accurately predict the rest of the story.

The adult Thor that we see at the start of the film is full of himself and his power; he is a prince ever ready to fight, caring nothing for diplomacy and little for the lives of others who are put at risk by his adventures. He has power without wisdom. His "friends" may be loyal, but they are sycophantic. (I suppose we can't blame them; Thor will one day be king, so they don't want to give him news he doesn't want to hear.)With this quote and Thor's banishment, the stage is set for his mission, his goal, his task in the story: To become a mensch--a decent, worthy person. The middle part of the film shows us Thor transforming from a privileged jerk to a more humble god of Asgard who, literally and figuratively, serves others. (There is a scene in the middle of the film, as he becomes a mensch, when he serves breakfast to the good-guy team. But serving people breakfast doesn't make someone a mensch.) The story boils down to this quote from the first 15 minutes of the film, said by Odin, Thor's father, to Thor before his banishment: "You are nothing but a boy trying to prove himself a man." That's the rest of the story--he becomes and then proves himself a man.

Thor's transformation from jerk to wise mensch occurs within a couple of days--remarkably fast. What caused the transformation? It's not clear. Yes, there are many possible events that could have triggered or contributed to it: Banishment, losing his superpowers, being unable to use his hammer (when banished, he is unable to wield it because he's not wise enough), the sense of responsibility that he seems to feel after he's told that his father died after banishing Thor, or being in love--or at least heavily in like. All these are possibilities, but we don't get a glimpse of what happens inside of Thor as these events take place. The loss of his powers is played for laughs when that alone might have been a humbling experience. But Thor remains a two-dimensional character.

I contrast Thor's almost miraculous transformation with the Tony Stark's in the first Iron Man film, in which we see another jerk (Stark) transformed into a mensch, albeit it a egomaniacal one. In Iron Man, we see and understand Tony's transformation as arising because he is held captive, his colleague Yinsen sacrifices his own life to save Tony's, and Stark's weapons end up being stolen and used for nefarious purposes. (Click here for my blog post about the first Iron Man film.)

Thor's story is rich with opportunities to plumb the lead character's psychological depths, which were missed opportunities in this case. Here are some examples:

  • The experience of being raised in privilege and losing that privilege. For Thor, this would mean his powers, his status and role as Prince, and access to his hammer. Given the economic downturn, most people can personally relate to the concept of losing things that you once had and took for granted. Exploring this topic could have been fascinating.
  • When you lose your place in life, you have to rethink your purpose in life. Ultimately, we can assume that this is what led to Thor's transformation, but it would have been fascinating to see Thor struggle with this issue more: If he's not Crown Prince of Asgard, who is he? Many of us can relate: When our life plans go haywire (we get laid off, a relationship dissolves, we don't get in to grad school, who are we and what is our purpose?
  • Family secret: Adoption in the family. In the film, the big family secret is revealed that was previously known only to Thor'sparents: Thor's brother, Loki, is adopted (and is of a different race). The issue of adoption, and the revelation of adoption, follows a formulaic pattern: child feels betrayed, get angry and wants to strike back, reconciles. Much more could have been done with the psychological impact of the revelation on Loki, Thor, Odin, and Frigga, Thor's mother.
It's possible that the script allowed for more exploration of these and other issues and that those scenes were cut--either before shooting or on the editing floor.

Speaking of editing, I've been a big fan of 3-D, at least the films I've seen in 3-D. But I don't think that Thor should not have been released in 3-D, and I'm not alone. The beginning of the film was uncomfortable to watch in 3-D, with too many quick cuts; for 3-D to work, shots must be longer, and converting a film shot in 2-D into 3-D, unless a lot of care is taken in the process, doesn't provide a great experience. (Click here for an explanation about this.)

The Christopher Nolan Batman films and Iron Man were such hits, in part, because they allowed us to glimpse what it might actually be like if such characters existed. Thor tells the tale with some modern trappings incorporated into the story, but we never get inside Thor's mind or his heart. Maybe that's the way it is with gods.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved. 
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is

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