One of the things I found most impressive about the 2011 Thor film was the way it gave actual value to the lives of a Monster Race.
Think about it: at both first and second glance, the Frost Giants are your standard, classic Monster Race. They stand something like 7 to 8 feet tall, they dress in a primitive and brutal fashion even at the height of their interplanetary empire, they’re a shade of blue that resembles a frozen human corpse, their eyes glow red and they’re covered with what look to be ritual scars. More importantly, they engage in genuinely villainous behavior, unleashing technomagical WMD’s on helpless civilians – helpless human civilians, needless to say. They are conquerors bent on conquest. In most stories we would be cheering as such a race was exterminated.
Instead, we see hints that the Jotun aren’t as “monstrous” as we might assume. Laufey, for one, seems no more eager than Odin to revisit the horrors of interplanetary war…until Thor stomps into his throne room, shouting threats, demands and insults. Even then, Laufey continues to behave in an amazingly reasonable manner for an Evil Overlord and gives the Asgardians a chance to walk away. Instead, Thor takes the bait from a single mouthy guard and slaughters most of Laufey’s court. No king could do anything but declare war at that point.
Still, we don’t see a lot of signs of any particular goodness in the Jotun, either, so it may come as a bit of a surprise that when Thor has become a True Hero, he proves his newfound heroism by defending the Monster Race from genocide, while Loki proves that he has finally fallen to true villainy by attempting to commit that genocide.
There are plenty of stories where we see members of “monster races” who are somehow separate and better than than their people – a certain drow ranger is perhaps the most famous example of this – and we rail against the bigots who harass such characters. Why can’t they see that this character is Different?
This movie takes it a step further, a step that shouldn’t be as rare and startling as it is: the Jotun aren’t “reformed” or “repentant” or “Different” or misunderstood in any way. They’re big and scary and the only reason they stopped their wars of conquest is because they’re still licking their wounds from losing the last one (“wounds” which include the loss of their primary weapon and the devastation of their infrastructure). It’s still not right to massacre them.
For a Fantasy/Action movie, that’s amazingly nuanced moral thought.
Now, this has been discussed before elsewhere, and if that was all I had to say on the topic, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this post. But as I’ve pondered this theme I’ve come up with a different question.
The trick of the movie was to get us to see a Monster Race as People. But here’s the rub: the protagonist of the movie isn’t any more human than the Jotun are. It’s easy for us to see him as People because he looks like us…but who does he see as People? Or rather, since Thor seems to be extraordinary in a lot of ways (both good and bad) who would Asgardians consider to be people?
At first, you might think this would be an easy question. Asgardians and humans look alike, and there’s no history of hatred between the two. But once you get past superficialities, you realize that Asgardians and Jotun share a lot of traits that humans don’t.
Both races have vastly greater lifespans than humans: Loki was an infant at the time of the Jotun invasion of Earth; 1,000 years later he’d grown to full but young manhood (Tom Hiddleston was 30 at the time Thor came out). In the same time, Odin had gone from robust maturity to retirement age.
(Incidentally, I first saw Thor in the theatres with a friend from Sweden. She was very upset that Movie!Odin lost his eye in battle.)
In other words, for both Asgardians and Frost Giants, a millenium seems to be equivalent to 25-30 human years. Odin and Laufey can both probably trace their ancestry back to well before the human race even existed. This alone would be enough to create an unbridgeable gulf between the perspective of our species and the perspective shared by theirs, but that’s just the beginning.
Both races have strength and endurance far beyond human – Loki, a frost giant runt no stronger or tougher than the average athletic Asgardian suffers a beating from the Hulk with no permanent injury – to say nothing of other superhuman abilities (Frost Giants all seem to share their cold-based powers. Odin and Heimdall’s powers are more unique, but seem just as innate.). And of course, both have an understanding of the universe that seems to erase the differences between science and magic, and not just because their science is so advanced (Mjolnir doesn’t seem to have a lot of moving parts, for example).
In the end, the Asgardians and the Jotun probably see each other like the USA and USSR saw each other during the Cold War: enemies, even monsters, but all the more terrible because they’re Like Us, equals to Us, a dark reflection.
Meanwhile, humans are a weak, fragile, pathetically short-lived and primitive race, which one side considers theirs to slaughter at will, the other theirs to protect.
Asgard has a treaty and diplomatic relations, however tenuous and hostile, with Jotunheim. Asgard’s relations with Earth consist of the crown prince unilaterally declaring himself Earth’s protector. Loki kills, torments and enslaves humans not because he hates us for our own sake, but because he wants to upset Thor. And it apparently used to be a Thing among young and adventurous Asgardians (Thor and Fandral at the very least) to visit Earth and wow the locals with”Godlike Powers” that wouldn’t impress anyone in a world where people really know what’s going on.
So who are the real people here? Not us. To the average Asgardian, even Thor until recently, we’re pets.