'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

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    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.'
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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.

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?

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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.

Struggle between the god and the man

Many of the gods in big mythologies “are gods of say, wisdom or justice, but not necessarily an all-around super-hero,” Fishler says.

Thor’s burden, Fishler adds, is to learn humanity.

This quest has made Thor a hit. According to a recent compilation by the gaming site, IGN.com, Thor ranks number 14 in the list of top 100 comic characters of all time.

“He has been a key force in the Marvel mythology for decades,” says Chris Carle, entertainment editorial director at IGN.com, via email. Thor’s appeal, Mr. Carle notes, is directly tied to the problem, “How does a god live and fight alongside mortal man for what is true and right?”

Carle points out that Thor has worn many forms on Earth, ranging from a mere mortal to a very powerful, god-like figure, “but what’s more intriguing is the reason he is on Earth in the first place. Cast out of the mythical realm of Asgard by his father – Odin, the All-Father – due to his arrogance, he comes to live on Earth to learn lessons about humility.”

Thor’s tale, Carle says, is “one of learning and redemption.”

Gods don’t worry about fitting into the mainstream

“For all the popularity of character's like Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Hulk,” notes Chambliss, “those characters each explore issues of anxiety and alienation from the mainstream. Thor provided an example of someone deeply engaged with the society.” Indeed, he adds, Thor's desire to stay on Earth and protect it becomes a recurring source of tension between Thor and Odin.

Beyond this, says Chambliss, the juxtaposition of the disabled-doctor-with-a-god-inside played on the idea of lost masculinity being rediscovered, part of the public narrative in the early 1960s. “The same feeling framed John F. Kennedy's presidency, and we can see this trope in many Marvel characters,” he adds.

“Thor” thunders onto the big screen

With a strong box office showing at midnight screenings – over $3 million – “Thor” looks poised to sweep the weekend, says Fandango spokesman Harry Medved. “This is not your typical superhero movie,” he says via email. “The film combines the mythological fantasy film genre of a ‘Clash of the Titans’ with the superhero-fish-out-of-water genre,” he writes,, and brings “a high-brow Shakespearean pedigree with such Bard interpreters as director Kenneth Branagh and Titus himself, Anthony Hopkins.”

“It’s also the second-most anticipated comic-book movie of the summer,” adds Mr. Medved. “Right behind ‘Captain America.’ ”

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