Friday, April 22, 2016

The Old Religion and Story Structure in Superhero Movies

As we are all aware, the modern cinema has moved beyond the giant robot to embrace a far richer and more diverse metaphor to better represent the totality of our civilization, that of comic book superheroes. I have recently taken it upon myself to review the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe of 12 films (so far) in order to prepare myself to analyze both the text and subtext of this pillar of popular culture and in so doing was surprised that there were actually some very entertaining movies in this torrent of cinematic excess in the service of art or at least commerce.

Among these 12 were numerous films that fulfilled all the best expectations of the graphic novel whether that involved destroying entire worlds or the threat to life in the galaxy and managed this intense mayhem without being overly burdened by humor, character development or any of those other old-fashioned story elements. But even in the most excessive of these there were moments that were really well done in a non-kinetic fashion, that is, well written, or well acted, or clever. There were four films in particular that had actual humor including Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Ant-Man (2015). 

It was Thor (2011) in particular that completely surprised me. This is the film which is, of course, loosely based on the pre-Christian religion of northern Europe, as documented in the Icelandic Poetic and Prose Eddas as well as other sources. In particular, the film's lead character is the eponymous Thor of Asgard who was said to wield a hammer that destroyed his enemies and would make the sound of thunder when it was used.

There are two movies in one in Thor (2011), one that takes place in Asgard which is boring and stupid and one which takes place on Earth, or Midgard, which is very entertaining. This essay discusses some of the elements that the filmmakers used to achieve their aims: a brilliant director, excellent casting especially of the lead, an appealing and classic story structure, and a story itself that incorporates humor and human values but fails to rely on digital visual effects (how could that be?!)

Thor after his shower and without his shirt....

makes quite an impression on the research assistant.

The fundamental reason that I believe that the “Midgard/Earth” portion of this movie works so well is that it is based on a classic story structure that is sometimes called “setup and payoff”. In “setup and payoff” the audience knows something early on that the other characters in the drama do not know. So as the story proceeds we know that there will be a time when the truth is revealed and that can be very entertaining. "Setup and Payoff" is used on a regular irregular basis in the West as a fundamental element of storytelling and especially of comedy.  One movie that comes to mind is Galaxyquest (1999) which makes very good use of this technique.

In this case, the setup is that we know that the homeless person who seems deranged *is* actually Thor, at least in a modified Marvel Cinematic Universe sort of way, that he is from Asgard, and that he has been banished for his irresponsible behavior. We know this, but *they*, the mere mortals of earth/Midgard, don't. When he saves the lives of his friends at the expense of his own we share in the tragedy yet we know that still all may be well, and indeed, being worthy, his mighty hammer, Mjornir, is restored to him, with his armor, and in full view of everyone he defeats evil.

This of course makes use of another important trope of storytelling one that has been called "He's Back!" and goes by other names as well.  (1) 

The elder scientist tries to convince Natalie Portman that no one will believe her theory without evidence, when Thor's friends arrive to Midgard by way of the Bifrost.  Setup and payoff.

It helps that the main characters are cast so well. In particular, Chris Hemsworth both looks the part, looks great in armor and a pair of jeans, and can play the part straight yet with a touch of humor.  It also helps that the film is directed by Kenneth Branagh slumming here for his first superhero movie. An entertaining script, good actors, well directed, and very few digital effects that do not serve the story.  No wonder Hollywood finds it difficult to make an entertaining movie.

Its a shame they did not emphasize the human sacrifice which is so a part of indigenous European religion, but this is a comic book, after all.  Maybe the sequel of the sequel will make more use of "kennings".

A classic text on the Old Religion

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Kenneth Branagh

Thor (2011) on IMDB

1, There are several extensive lists of storytelling tropes on the Internet, almost all of which are aimed at popular culture, but they could also be applied, with some modification, to classical culture as well.


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