Hollywood's rubbish Tube geography in Thor 2 is an unnecessary distraction

Londoners know the Tube map off by heart, so why do scriptwriters test their patience with needless mistakes?

The recently released film Thor: The Dark World is a huge fantasy epic spanning nine intergalactic realms, following the story of an alien creature with god-like powers fighting to save the universe from the powers of darkness. But what really killed the film’s gritty realism for me was the poor Tube geography.

Londoners are not known for their willingness to talk whilst on public transport, or their politeness, but it’s an unspoken point of pride that when asked by a tourist that they will give the quickest and most accurate directions. The London Underground is so central to the city that even if you’re not a native (I emigrated from Leicester a few years ago), Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map will become ingrained into your mind. So when Thor gets on the Tube at Charing Cross and is told by a fellow passenger he is three stops from Greenwich, it’s intensely frustrating.

Why couldn’t they have just fixed the script? Surely the actor who they employed for just that one line was a local who would know? Unfortunately for Thor, the correct route isn’t quite so simple. He’d have to leave the Tube station, hop on the national rail train from Charing Cross mainline station, and change at London Bridge. And even then to get to Greenwich Park, where shit was going down, it might be quicker to go to Maze Hill station, one stop after Greenwich.

Or how about taking the short walk to Embankment, taking the District to Monument, changing to Bank and taking the DLR to Cutty Sark? Or there’s even the number 53 bus - though if he takes this latter option, the odds of him turning up just in the nick of time are going to be significantly reduced.

Thor 2 isn’t alone though in getting London wrong. Last year’s Bond film, Skyfall, had Bond board a train at Temple station that aficionados (that’s how I’m choosing to refer to train spotters) will be able to tell you was actually a deep-level Jubilee line train rather than the sort used on the District and Circle lines. And this isn’t even to mention the fact that in Bond’s world, the District line apparently serves the Spitalfields (EDIT: Smithfields) area.

Similarly, the cerebral thriller Fast & Furious 6 at one point has a fight in the tunnels at Aldwych station only to emerge in what Vin Diesel’s character later refers to as Waterloo station - though this is perhaps forgivable in comparison to the film’s utterly bizarre street race sequence above ground. In this case, they hold a loud party literally next to the Foreign Office (how did they get a permit for that?) before racing along a bizarre route up Whitehall, skipping Trafalgar Square, emerging at Piccadilly Circus from the wrong direction before, umm, somehow heading north up Whitehall again. Though I guess this is a film that also tries to pass off a barely disguised Lambeth Bridge as Moscow (some onion domes have been added to buildings in post-production), and Senate House as Interpol HQ.

Perhaps the worst London geography fail I’ve seen, though, is in the 2009 Bollywood film London Dreams. At the start of the film a boy called Arjun and his uncle come to London in search of stardom. When they arrive at Heathrow, Arjun runs away... and manages to run all the way to Shad Thames. Just over 20 miles away. Impressive.

Okay, so London geography errors are pretty common - but why do they persist? It’s such a trivial thing, why can’t filmmakers get them right?

In the case of the Tube, the reason is practical. The two most common filming locations on the Underground are the disused station at Aldwych (seen in Fast & Furious 6), which used to be on a branch of the Piccadilly line until it closed in 1994, and the similarly disused Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross (used for Skyfall and Thor 2), which were used until the line was extended to Stratford via Westminster in 1999. It’s much easier to film on some closed track than upset thousands of commuters.

Now, am I kicking up a fuss over something essentially trivial? Well, yes - but what I don’t understand is how millions of dollars can be spent on making a giant spaceship appear to hover over the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, yet for some reason the budget doesn’t extend to fixing a few rogue signposts in the a Tube station.

And given how London is home to six million people - many of whom presumably like to watch films - can’t a little more care be taken? This can’t be unique to London either - I imagine residents of New York, Los Angeles and many other cities must find this maddening. Am I the only person who finds rubbish geography distracting?

If you want to find me to argue, I’ll be on platform 12 at Clapham Junction. I’ll be the guy with the notebook and the anorak.

Thor in Greenwich, which is not three stops from Charing Cross. (Image: Marvel)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era