'Thor' comics -- and movie -- a bravura mish-mash of old and new
Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Thor, which arrives in theaters May 6, has been running in Marvel Comics since 1962. But the story has been around a lot longer than that.
Thor is part of the Norse pantheon of gods, whose origins go back through the mists of time to the Indo-Europeans who are believed to be the root stock of European genealogy and languages. “Donar” – one of the many linguistic derivations of Thor’s name – first popped up in print around the first century AD, courtesy of the Romans. He got very popular in Scandinavia during the Viking era, roughly 700-1000 AD, until Christianity stamped out polytheism in Northern Europe. Most of what we know of him comes from the “Elder Eddas” – the 13th century compilation called the “Prose Edda,” plus the “Poetic Edda,” which turned up later.
Thor (from whom we get Thursday) was the god of thunder, among other things, and the son of the sky king Odin (or Woden, from whom we get Wednesday). He was the most powerful warrior of the Norse gods, wielding his war-hammer Mjöllnir against frost giants, Jörmungandr the World Serpent, Surtr the fire giant and other threats to the home of the gods, Asgard. He was also erratic, impulsive and none too bright, a red-haired and flame-bearded berserker whose temper caused no end of problems for his pop – and anyone foolish enough to get in his way.
Needless to say, those latter qualities were dropped when Stan Lee launched his version of Thor in 1962. Thor had appeared in various comics before – he’s in the public domain – but Lee and co-creator/artist Jack Kirby came up with a distinctive new and completely heroic version at the ground floor of the newly named Marvel Comics. Thor was only the fourth superhero concept in the “Marvel Universe” (after Fantastic Four, Hulk and Spider-Man), and a founding member of the Avengers (1963). He was blond, not red-headed, and neither prone to anger nor stupid. And for no other reason than he liked the sound of it, Lee wrote Thor’s dialogue as Biblical/Shakespearean.
Lee lifted most of the other concepts of the Elder Eddas intact, including the nine worlds of Norse mythology (of which Midgard, or Earth, is one), and Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods that formed the basis for Wagner’s famous opera Das Ring Die Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). But Lee added a lot, too, including Thor’s buddies the Warriors Three: comedic, corpulent Volstagg (think “Falstaff”); dashing swordsman Fandral (Errol Flynn); and dour Hogun the Grim (Charles Bronson). And for some reason, he gave Thor’s girlfriend raven tresses, whereas in the myths Sif was emphatically blonde.
Lee launched Thor in Journey Into Mystery #83, with lame physician Dr. Don Blake discovering a walking stick in a Scandinavian cave that turns into Mjöllnir – and Blake into Thor – when struck against the ground. Eventually the explanation for how this came to be was that Thor had been banished to Earth to learn humility – transformed into the weakest of mortals – to learn humility after his temper started yet another unnecessary war (with the Storm Giants of Jotunheim).
Which is essentially the plot of Thor the movie. Wise, one-eyed Odin will give the Thunderer a comeuppance, thereby teaching him to help the helpless – and to become an Avenger (for the movie in 2012). We’ll also get to see a few other Lee inventions, including Blake’s love interest Nurse Jane Foster (now a doctor in the comics, and an astrophysicist in the movie), the Destroyer (an invincible robot created by Odin as a Ragnarök failsafe) and – yes! – the Warriors Three.
We’ll also see a lot of the grandeur of the old myths, which will explain why they were so popular for so long. Shining Asgard should be impressive, with colorful Bifröst, the Rainbow Bridge, connecting it to Midgard. And we’ll see scheming Loki, the trickster god and Thor’s half-brother, who is the Thunder God’s eternal nemesis in the comics, and in the myths the god who is destined to bring about Ragnarök. In fact, two of Loki’s children, Jörmungandr and Fenrir Wolf, are predicted to kill Thor and Odin, respectively.
Which was unique – only the Norse expected their gods to die. But even that fatalistic philosophy had the seeds of hope, a prediction of rebirth after Ragnarök.
And all it took was the magic of movies – and comic books – to make it happen.
Art above: Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Idris Elba as Heimdall. Both photos by Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios
Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios
(From left) Tadanobu Asano as Hogun the grim, Joshua Dallas as Fandral the dashing and Ray Stevenson as Volstagg the voluminous. Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster. Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios
Tom Huddleston as Loki. Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios
Jaimie Alexander as Sif. Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.