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Thor 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Marvel’s Thor…

Another year, another slew of massive comic book adaptations. While most people are familiar with Batman or Superman, I think that we’re moving away from the more popular comic book properties being adapted for the big screen. Last month I wrote a brief introduction to the Green Lantern mythos, as Martin Campbell’s blockbuster approaches. The response was good enough that I thought I might take a look at Marvel comics’ upcoming blockbuster Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Anyway, here’s the trailer.

Q: So… he’s like the “real” Thor? God of Thunder and all that?

A: Yep, pretty much. Marvel’s iteration of Thor is pretty much a take on the classical Norse god. Many will recognise the name from their histories classes. Being a public domain character, the Viking deity tends to get around – there are any number of popular works featuring alternative versions of the character.

However, the version of the character that Kenneth Branagh is bringing to the big screen is the version originally “created” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, appearing in Journey into Mystery in 1962.

Q: Okay, enough with the history lesson. So, he’s a superhero, then? Well, I suppose his Viking get up looks a bit like a costume…

A: Yep, reportedly Thor was created as Marvel’s answer to Superman. Apparently the only way that Marvel could “one up” the competition was to make Thor an actual god rather than an alien. He’s a super-strong character who can fly, control the weather and do all manner of impossible feats. The comparison is more obvious in earlier comics, where he used Superman-style powers like “freeze breath”. He’s moved on since then.

He also has a hammer, just in case you thought that his long flowing blonde locks made him less of a manly man. It just screams “grrr… I do DIY in my spare time…”

Its Hammer Time!

Q: So he’s just a flying brick?

A: Well, if you want to put it like that.

He is also the undisputed smack talk champion of the Marvel Universe.

Q: “Smack talk”?

A: Yep, whenever you need a character to say something ridiculously arrogant and grandiose while swinging a giant hammer and speaking like Shakespeare writing Hulk Hogan, he’s your man. His greatest hit (ha!) is literally knocking down a wall and declaring “Ultron, we would have words with thee.”

Bringing down the house...

Hell, it even appears that being around Thor grants other characters the ability to talk good smack. Confronted with a race of interstellar zealots, Nick Fury isn’t comforted by the knowledge that their god loves him. “Yeah? Well my god has a hammer!

Notice how Iron Man cant really come up with a witty follow-up...

Boom! Somebody got served!

In fairness, he has not, to my knowledge, ever said “It be hammer time!” (although other characters have made the reference)

Q: Okay, so he’s like Superman with a bad attitude?

A: Not really a bad attitude, just smack talk, but yeah. Kinda.Thor has a tendency to get quite self-righteous, but he’s a really decent guy underneath it all.

It’s funny you mention that, because the production stills and trailer suggest that the movie might look a bit like Richard Donner’s Superman, the original superhero film.

Wow, somebody shared a chief architect...

A lot of people think that Asgard looks more than a corny, with all the gold and crystal, but it brings to mind Donner’s crystal Krypton. Never a bad thing, if you ask me.

Q: Asgard?

A: Yep, so Thor’s a god…

Q: Yeah, I meant to ask about that. If Thor exists in the Marvel Universe, does that mean that all the gods in the Marvel Universe are Vikings? Is the religion undergoing something of a resurgence in the fictional universe?

A: Well, you see, a hole host of various pantheons exist in the Marvel Universe. For example, among Thor’s allies is Hercules, from Greek mythology. There’s even an implication that an entity very similar to the Judeo-Christian god exists in the Marvel Universe. My favourite iteration of this divine presence had him drawn to resemble Jack Kirby, the artist responsible for a lot of the Marvel universe.

Q: And they all just hang out together?

A: Yep. This is a world where a guy in a silly purple suit flies through space eating planets.

Q: Okay. Anyway, so back to this Asgard thing?

A: Asgard is the home of the Viking gods. The nature of Asgard is something that is subject to change from to time, but it’s safe to describe it as an alternate dimension of a sort.

Q: “Alternate dimension”?

A: Yep. Thor is set on something of a sliding scale between “swords and shields fantasy” and “soft science fiction”. The fantasy interpretation suggests that these characters are all actually gods, after a fashion, interacting with the modern world through mysticism and magic. The science fiction approach makes the argument that these creatures are simply different forms of life – like sufficiently advanced aliens using technology that simply looks like magic to our puny comprehension.

My god, what have you done?

Indeed, the trailer seems to attempt to reconcile both portrayals of Asgard. “Your ancestors called it magic,” he remarks to the human family which has taken him in, “but you call it science.” So a tipping of the hat to both schools of thought on the subject matter. If you’re into fantasy, they are gods. If you’re into science fiction, they are aliens. Everybody goes home happy.

Q: Yeah, while you’re quoting Thor…

A: … You read somewhere that he only speaks like a Shakespearean reject?

Q: Yep. In fact, you quoted him using “thee” above.

A: Good spot.

Q: Thanks.

A: Yep, so – in the comics – Thor traditionally spoke like a Shakespearean character, using “thee” and “thou” (not necessarily correctly, I might add). Stan Lee had a passion for corny dialogue, so it was a match made in heaven.

More recently though, writers have moved away from this. For example, J. Michael Straczynski had him speak like a slightly elegant normal person during his run on the title. However, the character is still so badass that he speaks in his own font.

Font of all wisdom...

However, Branagh has stated that the film won’t have Thor speaking like a Shakespeare reject. He’ll sound like a perfectly normal human being – with, from what I can see in the trailer, a pronounced English accent.

Q: Well, when you’re playing Anthony Hopkins’ son…

A: Yeah, I suppose.

Q: By the way, in a summer flooded with blockbuster superhero films, why do I care about this one?

A: Kenneth Branagh gave us the best big screen version of Hamlet ever made (take that Olivier!), so anything he does is worth your attention. Especially when he’s given a huge budget to do it and actually seems to care about the character. I would have loved to sit in on that meeting where Branagh reportedly actually acted out the script. Screw the CGI – I want that movie.

I hope I have an eye for quality...

And, being Branagh, he’s got a superb cast lined up. Anthony Hopkins plays Thor’s daddy, Odin. Rene Russo plays Odin’s current wife. Natalie Portman is Thor’s love interest, Jane. Stellan Skarsgard is her the movie’s token Scandinavian. And actors like Idris Elba and Ray Stevenson are also along for the ride, because they’re deadly.

And, you know, it’s also a lead-in to next year’s huge blockbuster, The Avengers.

Q: So, he’s going to be hanging out in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers with Captain America and Iron Man, right?

A: That’s the plan, along with Jeremy Renner as the archer Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as the spy the Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Q: Thanks for the pitch.

A: You’re welcome.

Q: Anyway, so what does everyone else on that team do? I mean, their teammate is a freakin’ god. Do Captain America and Iron Man just have a coffee break while Thor sorts out whatever needs sorting out?

A: Avengers plots are typically so large that there’s something for everybody to do. However, in recent years, Thor has been somewhat isolated from the Avengers team in comic books, perhaps because the books have taken a more gritty and urban turn. However, he is featured in the recently relaunched Avengers title written by Brian Michael Bendis.

Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about how the group is going to work together. Thor is typically “the muscle” of the operation though – with Iron Man as the brains of the operation and Captain America as the team leader.

Q: Still. Surely it’s a bit awkward…?

A: Yep, it’s an interesting dynamic. Captain America is a super soldier created by science. Tony Stark built himself a weapons suit. They’re both fairly technological heroes, so putting them on a team with a diety seems a bit… odd.

Out of this world...

Interestingly enough, the modern reimagining of the team – The Ultimates – got around the rather weird mish-mash of science and magic by suggesting that Thor was a well-intentioned nut bag who simply thought he was the Norse God of Thunder. It’s a very good read, and one of the more interesting takes on the character of Thor.

Q: So, what’s Thor’s back story?

A: Well, he’s the Norse God of Thunder. In the comics, he was exiled to Earth by his father for acts of extreme arrogance and to learn humility – I guess the Asgard gods don’t get the concept of a “boarding school”. In recent years, various revisionist takes suggest that Thor was a bit of dick before he got sent to Earth by his father. Anyway, though I doubt he’ll appear as immature and jerky here, the movie seems to follow that angle – with Thor’s dad sending him to Earth to learn his place.

Q: And what about his secret identity?

A: This is an interesting one. In the comics, when Thor was sent to Earth, his father hid his essence inside the body of a young medical student, Donald Blake. This was essentially an entirely new persona. Blake had no idea that he was Thor until he picked up his hammer and was suddenly a Norse deity.

Anyway, Blake isn’t like a normal secret identity – Thor doesn’t pretend to be him. Blake is actually his own person. The two have been known to converse and discuss matters and have something akin to a “joint custody” arrangement over the body. Blake has none of Thor’s abilities, and needs the magical hammer to transform.

Ah, the hammer in the stone... I think I know this one!

Blake is one of those elements of the back story which comes and goes, depending on the writer. Some authors have something to say about the relationship, while others would just happily focus on Thor being a Norse god.

Reportedly, the movie won’t explore this plot angle – Thor will know that he is Thor when he is stranded on Earth. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a shoutout or two to the secret identity, even if it’s never explored in particular depth.

Q: What about the hammer? Talk about phallic! Have you seen Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog?

A: I have. “And these… these aren’t the hammer.” In fairness, that comes from Norse mythology. It’s called “mjolnir”.

Q: He named it?

A: Somebody did, yep.

Q: Wow, somebody’s overcompensating for something. Maybe the blonde hair and the wings on his helmet… by the way, the wings aren’t in the movie are they?

A: Nope, the wings don’t appear. In fact, the wings are also gone from Captain America’s wardrobe. There must be some sort of anti-wing agenda at Marvel.

Q: Yeah, that’s it… so, his hammer?

A: It stores his power and essence. It grants Thor his mystical powers. Without he’s just a normal guy… with killer abs. Damage the hammer and he’s powerless. Separate him from the hammer and he’s powerless.

Q: So the movie is going to focus on Thor reclaiming his hammer?

A: Yep. There’s an interesting caveat with the hammer. Because it’s mystical, it can only be lifted by somebody worthy.

Q: Somebody worthy?

A: Yep. For the geeky out there, the inscription reads:

Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.

Anthony Hopkins reads it aloud in the movie. And, having heard it, it is epic.

Its the inverted commas and dramatic pauses which earn the Asgardian blacksmiths my respect... Somebody loves their job...

Anyway, anyone can hold the hammer, if they are worthy. However, the hammer appears to have pretty high standards. Captain America, for example, has been shown to be able to carry the hammer (as has Superman). Iron Man on the other hand, doesn’t quite meet the standards. Maybe it’s the alcohol abuse. Or, you know, the way he was turned into a fascist a few years back

I suspect that a major element of the plot will be Thor attempting to prove himself “worthy” to carry the power of his hammer again.

Q: Hmm… Interesting… So, who is this Loki character?

A: Loki is the Norse trickster god. He’s Thor’s half-brother (although the comics have stated that he’s actually adopted). Anyway, he is forever jealous of his big brother – there are a variety of reasons, but the most frequently cited explanation is that Loki is a very brainy individual living in a culture which values physical prowess over intellectual accomplishment. So he’s bitter. He’s typically trying to secure the throne of Asgard or undermine his brother or both.

Hes a little bit Loki...

Interestingly, some writers suggest that Loki genuinely loves Thor, just as much as he is jealous of his brother. Deep down there is some affection, and it’s not uncommon for Loki to realise that perhaps he has gone a bit too far in his schemes. that doesn’t stop him from continually wounding and tormenting his brother.

Q: I understand that Loki is somehow linked to The Avengers?

A: Yep. In the comic books it was Loki’s actions which led to the formation of the Avengers, provoking a rampage of the Hulk. Yep, he was hoisted by his own petard there.

Q: What’s a petard?

A: I have no idea.

Anyway, there’s a suggestion that Whedon’s Avengers may follow a similar plot. After all, Mark Ruffalo will be starring as Bruce Banner (our third in so many years) and Tom Hiddleston (who plays Loki in Thor) has been all but confirmed for the massive crossover.

Q: Cool. So, let’s say – hypothetically – I wanted to read a Thor story. What would you recommend?

A: Marvel are actually very good at keeping their material in print for movie releases. They typically flood the market with a whole range of hardcovers and trade paperbacks of upcoming releases, in the hopes of snagging a few straw movie goers. truth be told, I wish DC were half as effective – where’s the slew of reprints of Green Lantern hardcovers for the release this year?

Anyway, once the company has saturated the market to breaking point, it becomes an issue identifying the good material. Marvel releases “Omnibus” hardcovers, which can contain anything from fifteen to forty-odd issues of a series. They are typically used to collect entire runs – as you can collect four years worth of comics in a hardcover. There’s a Stan Lee Thor omnibus being released for those interested in seeing where Thor got started, but it’s perhaps a bit too corny for modern readers.

Book em...

The definitive Thor run was written by Walt Simonson in the eighties and that is getting a mammoth hardcover release. I am very much looking forward to it, even though it may have dated a little in the years since. Readers looking for something a bit more modern could do with the J. Michael Straczynski Thor omnibus, which covers most of his recent run. It has its problems, but it’s a good run and introduces pretty much everything you need to know.

If you’re looking for something other than a giant and expensive hardcover, there’s the re-release of the Robert Rodi miniseries Loki, which casts a look at the dynamic between the brothers. It should be more affordable. You could also pick up The Ultimates in softcover for a reasonable fee (though I’d advocate springing for the omnibus). Hopefully there’s be a hardcover collecting the complete run of Thor: The Mighty Avenger, the short-lived but well-loved series which takes place out-of-continuity.

Q: Cool, thanks.

A: No, thank you.

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4 Responses

  1. Good begginers guide.

    If you would like to read some more about Thor please check out some of my Thor fan fiction:

    http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1276881/David_Scholes

    Cheers

  2. Some corrections:
    The wings are on the helmet in the film, only they are not feathers as in the comics but are made of the same metal as the rest of the helmet. They have been shown on posters and in the trailer. However it appears he rarely wears this helmet.

    All gods in the Marvel Universe are explained as follows. Mythological gods are extradimensional entities, each pantheon belonging to their own dimension. They are vastly powerful and have had contact with earth in the past. Due to their power they were once worshiped as gods by people, but none are actually responsible for the creation of human beings or Earth. Asgardian and Olympian culture, therefore, influenced the Norse and Greeks (not the other way around). So, it is more correct to say Vikings emulated Asgardians in dress, not that Asgardians dress like Vikings. As humankind developed the pantheons agreed to pull back from contact with mortals of our dimension. But as you can see, contact still occurs from time to time.

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