Monday, April 25, 2011

(Almost an) Interview with Kenneth Branagh

There are three topics I had hoped to discuss with Thor director Kenneth Branagh regarding his film’s relationship to Norse mythology. My request for an interview made it past media representatives for Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures but was denied by Paramount’s Director of Interactive Marketing. It’s a shame, since I would have loved to hear Mr. Branagh’s answers to some questions the film has raised even before being released in American theaters.

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)

1. VIOLENCE – Norse mythology is, in large part, the literary record of northern Europe’s pre-Christian religion. It presents the Norse gods as complex characters of multivalent meaning. Thor is an idealized version of the rough and self-sufficient freeman as he defends humanity from terrifying natural forces, yet he also sanctifies marriage, ratifies contracts, and provides rain for farmers’ crops. His wife Sif, a goddess of fertility and the harvest, is a fitting mate for a sky-god who brings life-giving rain. The myth in which Loki cuts Sif’s golden hair down to stubble and then magically causes it to grow anew is a typical Trickster tale, but it is also an allegory for the harvest and regrowth of grain. In Norse myth, Odin may be a war-god, but he is also the god of poetry, prisoners, writing, magic, cargoes, journeys and more.

Poster of Sif from Branagh's Thor

Previews for the Thor film show the title character solely as a sullen and violent warrior, and you have described him as “this hero with primitive brute strength.” Promotional posters for the movie tag Sif as “the goddess of war” (and a brunette). Odin is shown as an angry and vengeful god – more Old Testament than Old Norse. Much like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, your film focuses on the physical violence of an ancient religious corpus while glossing over more complex meanings and messages.

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

At the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, you said that your version of Asgard, home of the Norse gods, “had a heft and wasn’t kind of airy-fairy.” This led one of my readers to joke, “There will be no airy-fairy Asgard! It will be a very butch Asgard!” I initially thought I had misread your comment but soon realized that it fits squarely with your long record of public statements about homosexuality. Protestations of straightness run through your interviews and writing, and a “butch Asgard” seems to jibe well with your worldview.

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

Butchness (as opposed to nancy-boy-ness and poof-ness) seems to be very important to your personal and artistic self-image. However, despite your efforts to make a macho movie, the Thor film threatens to become a camp classic even before it is released in the United States. Gay websites have started posting stills from the movie with “nudge nudge, wink wink” captions such as, “Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has arms worthy of his hammer.”

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

I have no doubt that Mr. Elba will bring power and intensity to his role, as he always does. In his gracious response to the knuckle-draggers protesting his participation in Thor, the award-winning actor said that your casting “was genuinely color-blind.”

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

Given Marvel’s casting record, I question why this particular character was chosen to exemplify your “genuinely color-blind” casting. In the comics, Heimdall stands outside the locked gates of Asgard and waits for enemies to attack. Inside, the rest of the deities drink, feast and engage in other godly activities. Your statement on the casting was that Elba “provides all the characteristics we need from Asgard's gatekeeper, the man who says, ‘Thou shalt not pass.’ When Idris Elba says that, you know you're gonna have a problem.” In an echo of the Kingpin casting, the one character from the comics you chose to portray with a black actor is the Bouncer of the Gods. Again, is this progressive or reactionary?

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.


Jude said...

I used to belong to a Branagh fan group on Yahoo where we were always able to contact him through his manager, Tamar. We wrote to him at Shepperton Studios. It apparently still exists and is called Ken-Friends. Maybe because we were his major fans, he wrote to us each year when we donated to his preferred charity. I bet he'd love to *really* answer these questions.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Jude - Thanks for the message, but Tamar is actually the one who denied my request! Ay, well.

Erik A. Evensen said...

Great article, Karl. I've always had mixed opinions about Marvel's version of Thor, but I'm nonetheless excited to see this movie. Marvel has always played fast and loose with the culture(s) from which these stories have grown, and I anticipate Branagh's take won't be any different. At least that is in line with Marvel's product.

My own thoughts on Loki don't really consider the idea of sexuality as WE know it - more appropriately, I think Loki just does whatever Loki wants. Sometimes it's to fuel his own goals, sometimes it's just to provoke, but I don't see him as being concerned with pesky mortal constructs such as sex or gender identity. In Lokasenna, he even calls out Odin for his practices of seidr, pretending to care for the sake of provocation.

Your comments on the violence ratio and race are spot-on. Frankly, even if Idris Elba as Heimdall is a simple case of stunt casting, it's worth it to see the knuckle-draggers froth at the mouth, and to present to the public that white supremacy is NOT inherent to Norse mythology. But I do agree with you that the context of the character of Heimdall carries less meaning (or perhaps more negative meaning) than it would with other characters.

Matheus Eichelberger said...

Awesome article Karl, was a very interesting read. When I heard about that Elba had been chosen to play Heimdall, I was a little bit furious. I did even write about it in my blog: (it is pt-br, but you can google-translate it via a widget in the site :)).

I found your points to be much more valid than mine, actually. It seemed to be a greater lack of respect than I originally had seen.

Laura said...

That's awesome. I think I may have been the one to transmit on the "butch Asgard" comment my friend Jennie had. It has become a catch phrase in my social group.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Laura - I couldn't remember who said it, and I couldn't find the original comment on the Norse Mythology Facebook Page. So, consider yourself cited! Cheers, K.

Anonymous said...

I saw the film yesterday, and have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it! Yes, of *course* Marvel (and Branagh) are a million light years away from the Lore and the myths, but they are a Hollywood film company setting out to shift box office tickets - which I think this film will do. Yes, they concentrate exclusively on 'action' elements, but it's an action movie they have set out to make. What *did* come through for me, though, was the code of honour, the 'chivalry' (wrong word, I know!) shown by Thor in particular towards humans, and the loyalty shown by the Norse Gods towards one another. I don't think it was a bad job all things considered, and I certainly didn't go expecting to receive an exposition of the myths. Good harmless fun, I would suggest, and more importantly, it's possible that a few people (older children?) may decide they want to look closer at the myths themselves...which would be a good thing, would it not?

Laura said...

It was shiny. Fun fight scenes. Loved the Ice Giants. Believably terrifying. The Rainbow Bridge was very rainbow-y.

It was not perfect. Odin was less Odin-y and way more King Lear-y; Loki was less Loki-y and way more kid with daddy issues-y than they should have been.

Not the deepest Marvel based movie ever. There was some allegory about the Bush administration in there, maybe. At least about attacking the wrong enemy and having compassion for all the victims of war, but it was sorta waved at the way the third X Men movie waved at the problem of inclusion and exclusion in a pluralistic society with genocidal potential. (Well, the X3 movie Ian McKellan was in was an AWESOME exploration of that issue; the movie released around those scenes, not so much.)

Thor’s moment of moral triumph came when he was willing to let himself essentially be executed to save some random desert town. Not go down fighting in glorious battle; to stand unarmed before an executioner and take the blow. Which never should have been delivered. That was . . . a little surprising.

It was oddly wee. Thor, God of Thunder, fights ice giants, American what-ever-the-hell-SHIELD-is agents, a robot, a brother god, and the Rainbow Bridge itself. Only the Ice Giants seemed emotionally credible as a worthy opponent to Thor, God of Thunder.

Asgard was gorgeous in an airy fairy sort of way. Not particularly butch. Thor fights the Rainbow Bridge, which now that I come to think of it, is kinda like the polymorphus perverse rising up through the text despite Branagh’s best efforts. Snicker.

Donnita Rogers said...

So many of these concepts echo throughout my work. I have not yet seen the film, but hope to soon. Great information, thank you!

CE Patrick said...

As revolutionary as Marvel was in the 60s and 70s, its hard to imagine that they have slipped so far into corporate grasp. So far, that all black actors are portrayed as police officers. Its almost like you can't be black, and you can't be good, unless your a cop. And often, many of the black cops end up as badguys anyhow.

Moselle Green said...

I thought you might like to know I linked and discussed this post on my tumblr.

Unknown said...

This article was thought provoking. I agree with Laura that Loki was less like Loki in the movie. I saw him as more complicated and mysterious, you know? Just maybe less forthright about what his plan was going to be. I think that Idris Elba portrayed Heimdall's demeanor very well. The strong, silent type. Again, very informative article.

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