|Thor director Kenneth Branagh (AP Photo)|
Of course, I understand that the movie is based on the Marvel Comics version of Thor, not on the ancient myths themselves. As a longtime reader of the comics, I also know Marvel has increasingly incorporated elements of the original mythology over the fifty-year history of the series. My questions for Mr. Branagh relate to choices he made as director and what those choices mean for the film as a cultural artifact of the early 21st century.
What follows is my half of an interview that never happened. To turn my notes into an article, I have expanded the questions and elaborated the context of each topic. I (hopefully) wouldn’t have gone on quite so long during an actual phone conversation!
|"Sif's Golden Hair" by Willy Pogany (1920)|
|Poster of Sif from Branagh's Thor|
Why did you choose to portray only the most violent aspects of the mythology? What do you think this choice says about Western culture in the 21st century? Are we more violent than we were a millennium ago? Are we less able to understand complex issues? Has our expression of spirituality degraded down into physical violence?
2. SEXUALITY – In recent years, Loki has become something of a culture hero to some members of the LGBT community. Unable to find themselves in Judeo-Christian mythology, they are attracted to Loki’s penchant for changing gender and his open attitudes towards sexuality. Like other Norse gods, Loki is a complex and contradictory character who is neither wholly good nor completely evil. In several myths, his changes of gender and unashamed embrace of sexuality are directly responsible for saving the gods from destruction. Over the course of a lengthy storyline that began in 2007, writer J. Michael Straczynski incorporated Loki’s gender-switching ability into Marvel Comics. Loki spent many issues in the body of Thor’s beloved Sif, and the other characters didn’t seem to bat an eye at the change from male to female.
|Marvel's female Loki by Dylan Teague|
In your 1991 autobiography, you quote your mother’s hopes that acting school won’t be “full of nancy boys.” In 1996, you told The Advocate (“The World’s Leading Source for LGBT News and Entertainment”) about your experiences in dance classes, saying that male students were uncomfortable wearing tights because “it's not quite a butch-male thing to do.” When a critic wrote that there were “several ambiguously gay moments” in The Road to El Dorado, your 2000 animated buddy-film with Kevin Kline, you replied, “No, it was a butch-butch thing . . . I was so butch, I woke up in the mornings and frightened myself.” In 2007, you described your reaction to a character’s intense desire for revenge in Harold Pinter’s screenplay for your Sleuth remake: “It started to make me think, well, is he gay? Is this happening in the moment, or is this part of a kind of provocation which will lead to an ultimate and yet-to-be-discovered humiliation, which we don’t get a chance to see because Jude [Law] turns the tables and says, ‘F--k off, you big poof!’"
|Chris Hemsworth grips his hammer in a popular shot from Thor|
Why did you decide to ignore the “ambiguously gay” elements of Loki’s character, despite having J. Michael Straczynski as a collaborator on the film? Are American comic books more socially progressive than Hollywood movies? Are our attitudes on sexuality more or less advanced than those of the ancient Norsemen?
3. RACE – Your casting of black British actor Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall has led to much reactionary sound and fury, signifying nothing. Others have already written eloquent rebuttals to the racist rants of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and its call for a boycott of the film. In the system of Germanic runes, one symbol stands for both C and K, so – in the culture this extremist group claims to defend – CCC is equivalent to KKK. ‘Nuff said.
|Icelandic image of Heimdall from the 18th century|
However, your casting decision should be seen in the context of recent releases based on Marvel Comics. Perhaps to make up for the lily-white cast of Spider-Man (2002), the Kingpin was changed from white to black in Daredevil (2003). Of all the Marvel characters that could have been portrayed by an African-American actor, the director chose the leader of a violent criminal gang. For the Fantastic Four films (2005 and 2007), Ben Grimm’s girlfriend was likewise changed from white to black. In the original comics, she is a pivotal figure in the story of Galactus and the Silver Surfer; in the films, her role has been minimized to almost nothing. Are these choices progressive or reactionary?
|Poster of Heimdall from Branagh's Thor|
You sidestep the issue of history and culture by portraying the Norse gods as technologically advanced space aliens that humans mistake for gods. This idea goes back to Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law” (1961): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It is also connected to Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, Erich von Däniken’s 1968 bestseller that claimed Earth’s ancient civilizations had worshiped visiting space aliens as gods. By taking cues from these writers, you have managed to completely remove the Norse gods from the culture that created them. Thus, the race of the characters is not an issue.
If the gods are space aliens to whom human conceptions of race do not matter, why not make a more meaningful casting choice and change the race of Thor’s human lover, Jane Foster? If Thor is sent to Earth from beyond the stars, couldn’t he fall in love with an Aborigine, Arab, Haitian, Native American, Peruvian, Saami or Tuareg woman? What message are you sending with your choice of Natalie Portman, an actress who has repeatedly played the love interest of comic book, fantasy, and science fiction characters? Sagas, history, and DNA research show that ancient Norsemen married and mated with women of every culture that they explored in their travels; are we more afraid of racial and cultural difference than these “primitive” people were? Forty-three years after Kirk kissed Uhura on Star Trek, are you still worried that an interracial romance will hurt distribution numbers?
Maybe these questions are too serious to ask the director of a Hollywood adventure movie. In this case, I think they are perfectly appropriate. Given Mr. Branagh’s three decades of involvement with “serious” film as both actor and director, it is reasonable to expect him to have more to say than the usual Hollywood hokum. Marvel has been using Mr. Branagh’s involvement with the project to lend some gravitas to what would otherwise be a disposable action film based on a comic book currently ranked 35th in North American sales – behind more popular Marvel characters such as Fantastic Four, Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Wolverine, Captain America and Iron Man. In a few days, we will find out what Branagh’s past experience has brought to the film, and we will see whether his Thor is an art-house admixture like Ang Lee’s Hulk or a nonstop action scene like Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.