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Thor: Ages of Thunder (Review/Retrospective)

With the release of Marvel’s big-budget superhero action movie Thor this summer, we’re taking a month to celebrate the God of Thunder. Check back each Wednesday for a Thor-related review.

Matt Fraction is currently writing the main Thor title, taking over from Keiron Gillen, who stepped in at the last minute to tie up most of the loose ends from J. Michael Straczynski’s much-loved run. Fraction’s time on the main book has been somewhat divisive, however there’s a broader consensus around the early Ages of Thunder one-shots that the writer worked on, a series of three single issues taking a look at the immortal Odinson before he became the Marvel superhero we know and love.

Hammer to fall...

I have to admit, while I do appreciate a lot of the good work Fraction does here, I’m not entirely in love with his take on the world of Asgard and the gods who inhabit it. His big ideas are actually grand, and – in some cases – quite insightful and clever. However, it’s some of the smaller moments that end up feeling just a little awkward. During a huge and epic confrontation with his father, the best retort that Thor can come up with is, “Shut. Up.” Dealing with a smart-ass Loki, it seems strange for Odin to utter the line, “It. Was. Rhetorical. You condescending ass.”

There are quite a few examples here, where the gods of Asgard talk like hard-nosed punks, the kind of people Batman crosses paths with. It’s strange, because quite a lot of Fraction’s narration is epic and almost poetic. Even when he inserts humour into the narrative captions, it’s typically very wry and sarcastic – restrained almost. There’s a sense that Fraction is telling us an epic saga. It’s a nice touch to set the narration in stark contrast to the visuals, and I appreciate that he was probably attempting the same with the dialogue – to contrast the pomp of these kinds of tales with the rather thuggish nature of the characters – but it doesn’t work quite so well.

A frosty reception...

What does work relatively well, however, is Fraction’s particular slant on the Thor mythos. Thanks to the trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s rather impressive big screen adaptation, we know that Thor is banished to Earth (Midgard) for being “a vain, greedy, cruel boy”, in the words of Anthony Hopkins. In Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s establishing take on the mythos, Odin sends his son here to learn the subtle art of humility, only allowing him to earn his godhood on becoming a good person. It’s Earth that teaches Thor to be honest and compassionate and selfless, even if his arrogance and self-righteousness do shine through on occasion.

Fraction toys with the reader’s expectation just a little bit. Odin, of course, still accuses his son of being “cold and arrogantly cruel” and punishes him for a particularly violent outburst. However, there are two sides to every story, and Fraction wonders what kind of culture could have produced a warrior like Thor. He does, after all, live in a fictional paradise populated with Viking Warriors, a class of individual not exactly renowned for their humility. Fraction plays on the subtle connections that most Western readers will make to Judeo-Christian ideas of divinity, conflating godhood with sainthood – illustrating that the norse deities were worship as much out of fear as out of love.

The crowd will eat him up...

Simply put, the norse gods are dicks. Not dicks in the sense that misleading Silver Age comic books might lead you to belief Superman was a dick, but actually horrible individuals. They were the ultimate rowdy neighbours. These three one-shots are essentially a collection of stories in which the inhabitants of Asgard cause all sorts of bother for the inhabitants of the other eight worlds. “Once more bested by the bright and beautiful ones of Asgard, they left Odin’s hall,” Fraction narrates of three trolls, who are clearly used to being screwed over by the gods. Odin invites a foreign dignitary to his court from another realm… and then cuts her in half. Even the bars in other worlds are subjected to the loutish behaviour of Asgardian warriors, like the loudest drunken tourists you’ve ever seen. “Can’t they be loud in Asgard?” a patron asks. “Why must all of us be subjected to their revelry?” The resulting bar fight “only” ends in the death of a dwarf.

It’s not so much their actions as their sense of entitlement which disgusts Thor, and understandably so. The entire collection is a series of messes created by Odin and Loki and the Enchantress, where our hero is forced to step in and save the day. Usually by doing a lot of killing. One can understand why Thor resents his peers. “Some of us have been killing Frost Giants today and aren’t in the mood to have a tea party,” he explains to his father, who takes umbridge at the remark. As Thor confronts his father, “there are no words to express the loathing he feels for his father, for the pantheon of which he is a part, and for the games they all play with the lives of those that pray to them, that work for them, that give sacrifice and tribute in their name…”

Mr. Frost Giant, tear down this wall!

It’s interesting to note how incredibly sexist the men of Asgard seem to be, treating the Enchantress as a token to be bartered and gambled. Odin wagers her on a bet with the mason, while Loki trades her for food. “No one asked the Enchantress how she felt.” Of course, she turns out to be just as shallow and petty and vindictive as Odin and Loki, trading sex for a pretty necklace and raising an army of the dead because Odin took it off her. It’s telling that the only other female with a speaking role is Thor’s concubine – Asgard is clearly a society where something is very fundamentally wrong.

Odin is really a very unpleasant figure here. Note how he treats the Enchantress, labelling her a “tramp” and a “trollop” for sleeping with men other than him, after “she had always denied Odin the pleasures of her flesh.” That’s incredibly petty and vindictive, not to mention hypocritical. Indeed, Odin is unlikely to win father of the year. The only meaningful interaction he has with Thor comes on the battlefield, while he repeatedly brutalises and bullies Loki. “You will solve this,” he warns his adopted son, “or I will bind you to a stone with the entrails of your own children, beneath the dripping venom of the unsleeping serpent…” He will, too. No wonder Loki’s so messed up.

Giant, smash!

It’s also remarkable how trusting the inhabitants of Asgard are of Loki, and it’s quite telling that they actively seek to capitalise on his talents for lying and cheating (especially with the mason). This is the type of corrupt and hypocritical society that Asgard is. Even where Loki is frequently bruised and beaten by his own father, and threatened by his kinsmen, he’s still exploited and used by them to their own ends. It’s no wonder he grew to hold them in such contempt.

However, while one understands the sources of Thor’s frustration, one must question his own method of self-expression. He sulks and pouts, hording his resources like a miser while keeping to his bed with his concubines. He is jerk-ish and stand-off-ish to those around him. When he finally snaps, Odin remarks that he acts “like a toddler throwing a fit.” Of course, it’s a pretty serious fit, as Thor seems intent to level the nine worlds in the hopes of confronting his father. This is the man who lives in the same castle of him – surely there’s a way to communicate him without such a massive wave of destruction. Thor is acting out in order to earn his father’s attention, but is still very childish. As horrible as those around him might seem, perhaps he could learn a lot from humanity about putting aside his arrogance and anger.

A nice father-son moment...

A lot of this is quite clever, but some of it is rather heavy handed. In particular, it seems that virtually every member of the cast is a horrible person completely devoid of any charm. While it makes sense in the context of the story – as Fraction picks apart the myth that was Asgard – it does make the arc seem just a little bit depressing and heavy. Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint, as the ideas are smart enough to carry Fraction’s take on the norse pantheon.

It’s certainly not too difficult to see why Fraction got the job of writing the title on a regular basis after this collection of one-shots. There’s some nice story-telling in here, and Fraction understands a lot about character dynamics. Indeed, it’s hard not to see the opening sequence of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor as something of a reference to an early section of this story, as an unprovoked Frost Giant attack causes Thor to demonstrate how immature and violent he is. It certainly seems to have echoes of this take.

Thor hammers the opposition...

Fraction wisely avoids getting too bogged down in the continuity of Thor. If it wasn’t for the fact that the bulk of the cast are completely unlikable, this hardcover would make a wonderful introduction to the mythos. There are sly references to many aspects of the long-running series – from Odin planning to have words with his son to a cameo from the Destroyer armour to the presence of famous “Kirby Dots” – but they don’t overwhelm the reader and they don’t distract from the story.

Ages of Thunderis a fascinating take on the origin of one of Marvel’s core heroes. It’s smart and it’s generally well-written, although the dialogue is a little too casual at times. Still, it’s a good Thor story, and hopefully Fraction’s best work on the character is still ahead of him.

2 Responses

  1. I own this also, and once again a great review. I enjoyed this different take on Asgard. It was refreshing to see Thor as an arrogant jerk, who abuses his power, but still got the dirty work done when needed to. I I enjoyed the dark feeling, and the artwork fit the book perfectly.

    • Thanks man. I liked it. It was clever and it was fresh. The idea of a bunch of gods acting like entitled douchebags is a good one (and a reasonable one). Still, I think the fact they were just such horrible individuals made it tougher to get entirely on board with.

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