(Originally posted May 21st, 2011)


Many storytellers, including myself, often fall into the dangerous pitfall of Deus Ex Machina.  That is, instead of creating an interesting and unique way to have your hero get himself out of a jam, a writer will instead hand him a way out.  We see it all the time when a hero is given that crucial piece of knowledge, tool, or ally at just the right moment.  Minutes before the patient dies on House M.D., Wilson says something seemingly irrelevant, leading House to a diagnosis; the hero is flung across the room and lands within reach of a gun; Scotty fixes the transporter just in time to beam Kirk away from trouble, etc.  But I want to address another DEM device that was annoyingly prevalent in the Thor film: Magic.

In most cases, the audience needs an explanation of a particular type of technology before the hero actually uses it (i.e., Stark explains that the thingy in his chest keeps shrapnel away from his heart, Fox tells Bruce Wayne that the tumbler can jump ravines, Steve Rodgers is told that the serum will be like the best steroids ever, and so on.) But when the science of a story is explained as the perception of magic—as is the case with Thor—some storytellers feel they have free reign to do whatever the hell they want.  

In the film, it appears that Odin is dead (only we find out later he’s in some sort of regenerative sleep).  Heimdall looks like he’s about to take out Loki (only we find out later Loki had the Jothunheim casket hidden in his … well, in his something—it’s never said what).  Thor, having just mystically risen from the grave, whips up some bitchin’ weather to take out The Destroyer (two things we really haven’t seen him do, but because of loose nature of the setup, we have no reason to believe he can’t do it).  When the characters of a story are given so many convenient outs, it becomes difficult to appreciate any sort of stakes.  When characters die, are they really dead?  When the hero has his back against the wall, is he really in trouble, or does he have another tornado in his pocket?

Even Harry Potter — a world which establishes itself as steeped in real magic and the science-y kind — sets the rules early in each of its respective installments.  Hermione, Harry, and Ron sit down and basically say, “Here’s what we can do, here’s what we can’t do, here’s what we need to do, and here’s how we’re going to do it.”  Rowling cleverly adds a new layer of magic to the universe in each of the books, but only after she explains the rules through one of the characters.  The audience knows what the stakes are when the dramatic moments occur.  The only time the audience wouldn’t understand the effects of a curse or spell is if our character doesn’t understand, which, again, establishes stakes.  

Things like this don’t keep me from enjoying movies like Thor, but they do prevent me from enjoying them as much.  I simply don’t feel as invested when I know, at any moment, the hero could be seconds away from a cheap rescue or mind blowing power that the storyteller just hasn’t revealed yet.  Deus Ex Machina is forgivable if it’s kept to a minimum, but repeated use is the result of simple laziness or a rushed narrative.