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'Thor' comes to the big screen: What's a Norse god doing in a Marvel comic?

The summer's first blockbuster, 'Thor,' takes a character from the Norse pantheon to the big screen – by way of the Marvel stable of superheroes.

By Guest blogger / May 6, 2011

In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, the god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) meets Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in a scene from the film, 'Thor.'

Zade Rosenthal / Paramount Pictures-Marvel Studios / AP

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Los Angeles

The first of the big, summer comic-book-hero movies, “Thor” thunders into theaters this weekend. Not only the first of the summer, “Thor” is also the first comic-book hero actually based in a real – that is to say, ancient – mythology, in this case the pantheon of Norse gods.

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His tale comes to the big screen replete with the tony trappings of entertainment royalty, from the Shakespearean directing pro Kenneth Branagh to Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman.

But, as one of the rare action figures drawn from existing myths, the question arises: Why this god and not any other – and what does the historical link add to the tale?

Comic-book characters were born as a sort of alternate, adolescent mythology, points out comic book maven Stephen Fishler of New York’s Metropolis Collectibles. So when Marvel’s Jack Kirby imported Thor from the traditional tales, back in 1962, he did so with a very specific purpose, Mr. Fishler notes. Instead of the usual, Marvel figure of a human who accidentally becomes super-human, “he was looking for the equivalent of a super-hero, like Superman,” lodged firmly in the pantheon of Marvel’s rival, DC Comics, he says.

Nonetheless, says Julian Chambliss, associate professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, the Norse mythology is just the launching pad for the character. Thor's 1962 debut in the Science Fiction/Fantasy anthology “Journey into Mystery #83” introduces the “lame" doctor who discovers his true identity “just in time to fight off an alien invasion!!” he says via email.

In creating Thor, Professor Chambliss notes, Marvel’s Stan Lee, who also worked on the character, wanted to explore a different kind of archetype. By introducing a god, he was able to find a character that was powerful and noble, but at the same time tied to the human experience in a way other Marvel characters were not.

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