‘What are you doing for the rest of your evening?’ asked the waiter in Byron, as we were paying the bill.
‘Going to see Thor 3D,’ I replied, excited, in spite of the meat slump that inevitably descends after a good burger.
‘Oh,’ he said.
‘Have you seen it?’ I ask.
‘And? Was it good?’
‘Well I read the comics you see, so I was bound to be a bit disappointed. But it was enjoyable, I guess, just not absolutely brilliant.’
So my expectations, as we went into the cinema, were somewhat lower than they had been pre-burger. But there’s something about going to the cinema that I find irresistibly exciting. First there’s the bigness – the huge multiplex screen, the vast seats, the gigantic drinks and popcorn; then there’s the thrill of the trailers – all those short, sharp clips, reducing films to their most exciting essence; and then that hush of anticipation as the film begins, the shuffling back in the seat, knowing you’ll be absorbed in entertainment for the following ninety minutes. And when it’s in 3D, there’s the added comedy of looking at each other wearing eighties shades in a darkened room, and the added wow of all those special effects dancing out in front of you.
So, by the time Thor 3D was beginning, I’d forgotten all about the burger boy’s scepticism and was once again somewhat childishly over-excited.
Now, unlike the burger boy, I haven’t read the comics, but I wasn’t coming to Thor devoid of any cultural references. From the age of around six to twelve, I was quite obsessed with ancient myths. I had this brilliant book called Gods Men and Monsters, which related stories from the Greek myths, with fantastic, epic illustrations After a year or so my parents discovered there were other books in the series, and, over time, I collected several, including Druids Gods and Heroes, from Celtic mythology; Gods and Pharaohs, from Egyptian mythology; and, yes, you’ve guessed, Gods and Heroes, from Viking mythology. (Sadly these books are all now out of print.) So I had dim memories of Thor and his hammer Mjölnir, the mischievous Loki, and the beautiful rainbow bridge Bifröst.
And, of course, my humble childish imaginings were nothing like the high-tech mythological world which floated out of the cinema screen. The latter was far more impressive. Bifröst looked magical and beautiful, and both Asgard – the realm of the gods – and Jotenheim – the realm of the frost giants – were imaginatively and convincingly rendered.
So I saw the film with a tiny bit of half-baked childhood knowledge of the Norse myths, but I also saw it with a tiny bit of knowledge of Shakespeare. And director Kenneth Brannagh, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors, has brought a great deal of the Bard’s influence to the film.
The epic register in which the Gods speak goes almost unnoticed until it is contrasted with usual speech when Thor is ‘cast out’ to Earth to comic effect:
‘You dare threaten me, Thor, with so puny a weapon?’
This leads to him being tazered by the (quite annoying) Darcy, ‘What? He was freaking me out.’
‘This drink, I like it. Another!’ says Thor, before smashing his coffee cup on the floor of the diner.
Again, Darcy responds, ‘This is going on Facebook. Smile,’ snapping him with her mobile phone.
Let me fill you in a bit of plot – Odin is King of Asgard, and Thor, his son, is successor to the throne. On the day of Thor’s succession, frost giants from the enemy realm of Jotenheim mysteriously breach Asgard’s defences and disrupt the ceremony. Thor, arrogant and keen for battle, decides to go to Jotenheim, with his brother Loki and The Warriors Three, to cause trouble, and ends up starting a war between Asgard and Jotenheim after a long-held peace. Odin rescues them, but is so furious with Thor for his arrogance that he strips him of his strength and his hammer, and banishes him to Earth.
Coming back to the contrasting registers of the language of the Gods and the humans, we can see the language of Earth-dwellers makes Thor’s language sound ridiculously bombastic and elevated. Thor must lose his pride, grow humble, see himself as a man, before he can be a true, worthy God, and this is reflected in his speech. But just as the register of mortals makes Thor’s language seem silly, the register of the gods makes that of mortals seem weak, thin, pathetic, sarcastic. I’d much rather talk like Thor than Darcy. There’s far more beauty in the epic language of Shakespeare than the feeble language of Facebook.
There were a few phrases that struck me as particularly influenced by Shakespeare. When Odin is about to banish Thor to Earth, Thor tells him, ‘You are an old man and a fool.’ This is not a million miles away from ‘Old fools are babes again,’ or ‘I am a very foolish fond old man,’ from King Lear.
In both Lear and Thor, the King is old and weary and seeks to pass on his Kingdom. And, in both, he is disappointed by the actions of his children. Lear banishes Cordelia and Odin banishes Thor. As soon as Cordelia has lost favour with her father, her two sisters, Goneril and Regan, turn against her: ‘Prescribe us not our duty,’ says Regan, sharply. And Loki, Thor’s brother, wastes no time in turning against him, visiting him on Earth to tell him painful lies about their father Odin. This is also similar to the subplot in Lear, in which Edmund tells his brother Edward that he has enraged their father.
But, when it comes to Loki, another Shakespeare play comes to mind. Othello. A play in which Brannagh has played the antihero. Thor has the same nobility as Othello, the same phenomenal success in battles, the same ‘true and open nature’. And Loki shares many traits with Iago. Loki could say of Thor, just as Iago does of Othello, ‘In following him, I follow but myself.’ They are both cleverer, craftier than their heroic counterparts, spinning their complicated webs of deceit to bring the others down. Coleridge famously described Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’, and, similarly, it is hard to see what it is, beyond jealousy and a plot twist about his birth, that is truly behind Loki’s malignity.
Iago has fascinated audiences, readers and critics alike for hundreds of years. I’m not sure Brannagh has pulled off quite the same feat with Loki, but he has definitely created an ambiguous, complicated character – played with quiet magnificence by Tom Hiddleston – that gives this blockbuster far more subtle depths than most.