Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Marvel, where I go through the Marvel movies over the next few months.
The Marvel movies have always been an interesting mix of genres. You have capitalist wish fulfilment, a war movie, a spy thriller, a space opera and this film. But to say that Thor: The Dark World is a fantasy movie is doing it an injustice… as is calling it a science-fiction movie. So what is it? And why is the science-fantasy genre as a whole often so criminally overlooked? Well lets find out.
So before we start, lets do the obvious bit of housekeeping. When I say science-fantasy, what exactly am I referring to? Well lets look at the two sections that make up this concept. Firstly you have science-fiction, which primarily deals with taking technologies available today and putting a fantastic spin on them. We have spaceships, so the fantastic spin is spaceships that can travel to different worlds. We have guns and lasers, so combining the two makes perfect sense. Science-fiction is very much grounded in the real world: These technologies are things that could possibly exist either in the future or an alternate present. To quote literary genius Isaac Asmiov, there are three types of science-fiction:
â€œGadget: The focus of the story is the invention itself: How it comes to be invented, how it works, and / or what it is used for. The invention is the end result of the plot.
Adventure: The invention is used as a dramatic prop. It may be the solution to a problem, or it may be causing the problem itself, but the main focus is on the caper and how the invention’s presence helps or hinders it.
Social: The focus of the story is on how the presence of the invention affects people’s daily lives, whether for good or for ill. The chief distinction between this and the other two types is that the presence of the invention influences the plot rather than causing it or being the goal.â€
Or to steal from TV Tropes to really simplify it:
â€œGadget sci-fi: Man invents car, holds lecture on how it works.
Adventure sci-fi: Man invents car, gets into a car chase with a villain.
Social sci-fi: Man invents car, gets stuck in traffic in the suburbs.â€
So that’s the science-fiction side of the equation. What, then, is fantasy?
Well the obvious knee-jerk reaction is that fantasy is all elves and dwarves, but this isn’t entirely true. Firstly, the ‘elves and dwarves’ concept is only as old as The Lord of the Rings, the trope codifier of what fantasy is. But fantasy existed long before that. Take William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A lot of the magical events happen in it, so it can easily be called a fantasy. Or take Homer’s Odyssey. Again, lots of fantastical elements. So what is fantasy if it isn’t all elves and dwarves? Well while science-fiction is something that could exist, fantasy deals with things that can never exist. You can’t have a dragon, it goes against all the rules of science. You can’t have magical artefacts, those things don’t exist. Magic is a fantastical element in which there is no room for science. They’re incompatible. Fantasy, more often than not, deals with imaginative things that work within the realms of imagination, not real world logic. Not that it’s bad, mind you, just that it has an entire different foundation when compared to science-fiction. So where does Thor and its sequel fit into this?
Well science-fantasy is a way of ‘doing the wizard in’. Let us be honest: if they just straight up said that everything in the Thor films was magic, none of us would have battered an eyelid. â€œOf course it’s magic,â€ you’d say, â€œit has no grounding or basis in fact.â€ But the story is very quick to mention that it is scientific. Everything that happens in Asgard is technology, not magic. Could this be the case? Well to quote another great writer, Arthur C. Clarke, â€œAny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.â€ There’s more to it than that, but this is often served as a basis for many sections of science-fantasy. Hell in the first film Thor himself admits that to his culture, technology and magic were the same thing. It’s the way of the writer having his cake and eating it too (though what else you’re meant to do with cake eludes me). You can have all the fantastical stuff you want and hand wave it away as being a really, really, really advanced type of science. So when, exactly, did this genre start?
Now one of the biggest examples of ‘science-fantasy’ in human history is Star Wars. I mean it’s clearly a fantasy story with science-fiction overtones. Take away the space elements of the story and you have a fantasy story sitting underneath. But did science-fantasy start there? Well, no. No if I had to pick the exact moment that science-fantasy started… it would have to be with H.G Wells. Now I know what you’re thinking: â€œH.G Wells can’t have been the one to invent science-fantasy. He invented science-fictionâ€. And that is true. He invented many terms and concepts found in later science-fiction stories. But I’d argue that his first work, The Time Machine, contains more fantastical elements than science-fiction ones. He invented the concept of the time machine, yes, but the story itself is almost a fantasy story. It is about a man that travels to distant lands and encounters two very strange races. It’s almost like elves and dwarves, but with the characteristics swapped around. But, while H.G Wells may or may not have invented science-fantasy, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the one that solidified it. As I’ve gushed about before, A Princess of Mars is a fantastic book that all young boys should read. It is primarily a fantasy story set on Mars, using fantastical ideas mixed in with real world concepts. It could essentially be known as ‘swords and planets’, a play on the idea of ‘swords and dragons’ found in things like Dungeons and Dragons. It is both fantasy and science-fiction at the same time. But, to tie it all back round, how does this relate to the film that started this discussion?
Well it’s interesting, since Thor and Thor: The Dark World are science-fantasy stories at their core. But it’s one of the few times that we’ve seen the genre successfully planted on the big screen. Besides from Star Wars, science-fantasy has never really been seen all that much. Most stories tend to prefer science-fiction, the grounding in real world logic that is in the vein of Star Trek than anything else. Even my favourite TV show, Doctor Who, is a mix-match of many things aside from just ‘science-fantasy’. So why isn’t science-fantasy as popular as it could be? Well I think it comes from the audience watching it. We want an explanation for what is happening, even if the explanation is pure nonsense. Throw in words like ‘quantum’ and we’ll accept the explanation, even if that’s not how the concept works. We want the rules laid out for us nice and clear. Science-fantasy doesn’t lay out the rules, instead just giving us broad concepts to have fun with. But the Thor franchise proves that we don’t always need an explanation. We can happily accept what is happening on screen, even if it doesn’t make any real-world sense. So does science-fantasy have a future on the big screen? Perhaps. Hopefully one day we’ll see another Star Wars that really helps define the genre properly. But a ‘films that fall into the science-fantasy genre’ is a blog for another day.
So there you have it. My look at the science-fantasy genre. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.