What Thor Taught Me About Character Motivation

I saw Thor Thursday night. While a fun popcorn flick, it’s not up to the level of Iron Man. What’s more, I have no idea why some characters did what they did.

As a writer, this bugs me.

Plot Summary

(This is a spoiler-free review. Anything I reveal you’ll have seen in the trailers or can guess.) Thor is a god in the Asgardian pantheon, son and heir to Asgard’s king, Odin. Arrogant and brash, Thor breaks the peace with Asgard’s enemies, the Front Giants (no, really). So Odin banishes him to Earth, sans powers, via the rainbow bridge that connect Asgard to other realms. If Thor can learn to become wise and noble, he can regain his powers and return.

On Earth, Thor meets Jane Foster who believes the rainbow bridge she saw Thor arrive from is an Einstein-Rosen Bridge (aka wormhole). Luckily, she’s a physicist.

Meanwhile, Thor’s brother Loki is hatching a scheme. So when Odin falls into some kind of regenerative coma, Loki becomes King of Asgard.

Some of Thor’s friends go to Earth to look for him, a big battle ensues and Thor, having learned his lesson, regains his powers. He kicks ass, gets the girl, and upsets Loki’s plans.

So What’s Wrong With That?

At a number of turns, I don’t know why characters did what they did.

First, when Thor arrives Jane is in the desert looking for… something. Have there been other wormholes arriving on Earth? Something else? We never know, just that she’s in the right place at the right time. (And this coincidence happens twice more.)

And there’s Loki. While there are several twists, changing how we see him and his scheme, we don’t know what’s driving him. Is he selfish? Destructive? Power-mad? Is he a villain or just an antagonist? We do get a final confession to explain why he did what he did, but that confession could be one more lie. While a villain that we never truly understand (Heath Ledger’s Joker, Iago from Othello), is compelling, here is feels muddled.

Then there’s Jane’s and Thor’s “romance.” Sure, they trade glances and giggle and share a moment talking about physics (no, really), but I kept waiting for some conflict that would move their relationship from infatuation to love. As with Loki, it never happens. There’s (of course) the climatic kiss between them (and a number of rude “hammer” jokes made in the theatre), but it’s Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman’s acting (and the swelling music in the background) that kept the kiss from being a truly WTF moment.

And while Thor regains is powers, we never see what suddenly makes him noble. Then there’s Jane’s mentor Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who puts his neck on the line to help Thor when in all previous scenes Selvig has considered him dangerous and mad. Not to mention Thor’s sudden alliance with SHIELD when the whole movie has them at odds with one another.

A Lesson For Writers

Thor shows how important it is to not just tell, but show, and not just show, but demonstrate.

Thor never has an “ah-ha” moment where he realized his brash aggressiveness causes harm. Think of Superman 2 where Clark is beat up in the diner. Seeing his own blood, Clark realizes that every human can bleed and suffer just as he is doing. No matter what it costs him personally, Clark knows he must regain his powers to stop this kind of suffering. (Yes, a Christ reference.) That is a great scene. It shows how a profound transformation can come about.

So, if you’re writing superhero films or just a story with a guy who needs to become a hero:

  • Simply choosing to become a hero is not enough. The hero must try, then fail, learn from that failure and try again.
  • Putting the hero next to an attractive woman will not make them fall in love. What would draw these two people together? What do they have in common? Why do they need each other to change and improve?
  • If your bad guy is a schemer, has he set his scheme in motion a long time ago or making it up as he goes? Either way, what motivates him? What does he want? And what will he do when he gets it.

While I didn’t love Thor, I am still looking forward to The Avengers!

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1 Response to “What Thor Taught Me About Character Motivation”


  1. 1 tk421 June 22, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    [Editing out some ad hominem B.S.] All your questions were actually answered in the movie. Some were sort of vague but all in all answered. Jane explains before Thor arrives that she has witnessed some (17 if memory is correct) anomalies similar to Thor’s arrival. Not the same thing because when the “portal” opens it is bigger than what they were researching.

    Answered.

    Loki was shown as a child being jealous of Thor and all his so-called greatness and obvious that Thor was Odin’s choice for King.

    Answered.

    Yeah, I might agree with you on the whole Jane Thor love thing but these damned Marvel movies have to spend way too much time explained where our hero came from, so time is not on their side to make a love involvement long and intricate. So they fell for each other. Oh yeah. Thor gave his life to save Jane. Any girl will love a guy for that.

    Sort of answered.

    THOR GAVE HIS LIFE IN A COMPLETELY UNSELFISH WAY. He did it to save earth. Probably what Odin wanted out of Thor in the first place. Obviously. That was the most “Ah-ha” moment in the movie.

    Answered.

    Sorry, but I needed to say that. Granted it was definitely no Iron Man (And I think Iron Man 2 was even better than the first) but all these so-called issues you had were there in a tight little hour and thirty minute movie. I suppose if Thor could run on two or three movies like Spiderman then it could have been deeper. But come on, Thor was only made to introduce Thor to the general public so they can understand why some guy with a Hammer is flying around talking like he’s better than everyone along side Ironman.

    Personally, I hope Avengers has some real good story cause otherwise the public won’t find it interesting. Even if its the version of the Avengers that has Thor, Ironman, Hulk, Ghostrider, and a few others whose names are eluding me right now.

    Avengers will be epic to the comic book crowd but I feel pretty sure that the general public will not fully understand why so many superheros are in a club fighting for the good of mankind.

    Peace!


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