Tuesday 15 October 2013
Thor: Myth and Marvel
by Marie-Louise Jensen
In my family, we are looking forward to seeing it; Thor: The Dark World. In cinemas in just 15 days' time. It could be anything from fabulous to trashy Hollywood. The first film had elements of both. I thought the intelligent direction by Kenneth Branagh definitely shone through and gave the production some moments of real quality in among the superhero stuff. And who could play the powerful god better than Chris Hemsworth with that wonderful (almost certainly studio-enhanced) divine voice?
What is fascinating to me above all is tracing the similarities and differences between the Norse mythology I grew up reading and the Americanized Marvel superhero.
In mythology, Thor is the strongest of the gods. To aid his divine power, he owns Mjölnir, the mighty hammer, the belt of power, Megingjörð and the iron gauntlets, Járngreipr ('iron grippers'). These three possessions work together. The belt is said to double Thor's already prodigious strength, the hammer is a mighty weapon and he needs the gauntlets to wield it.
In the first Marvel film, Thor, the story has been simplified and only the hammer remains, plus some rather fancy and fashionable armour to aid the god-like screen image. Perhaps divine armour was made of plate metal in Asgard, who is to say? In Midgard, the armour of the Vikings was usually leather as iron was difficult to smelt and extremely valuable - too valuable to wear when it was the fates (the Norns) who decided your fate in battle. If it was your day to die, you would die and no amount of protection would help you. So while the amour is not in keeping with the mythology, as Natalie Portman (AKA Jane Foster) so rightly says: 'It's a good look'.
Then there's Jane Foster herself. Thor's wife in Norse mythology was fair Sif the golden-haired. In the Marvel film, Sif is recast as a fellow warrior and friend. Well, a wife would be highly inconvenient to the on-screen romance with the giggling scientist... Let it not be forgotten that the Norse gods frequently took human lovers (as did the Greek and Roman gods). But Hollywood prefers its superhero lovers to be faithful.
Asgard, the realm of the gods, is set on another planet and the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between Asgard and Midgard, has been made, science-fiction like, into an interplanetary high-tech teleport between planets. But I rather like all that. Somehow it is in keeping with the mystical original tales.
I was also amused by Heimdal, the 'white god', being played by a black actor (Idris Elba) - he is completely splendid as the lonely watcher.
There is so much that is utterly wrong in the Marvel version, such as Thor being heir to the Kingdom. The idea that Odin will die and leave him to be King is mortal, not divine and unchanging. On the other hand, there are so many charming nods to the real mythology. Thor is reckless, delighting in danger and battle, careless of consequences.
Thor was not a sophisticated god; scholars and Kings might have looked to Odin, but Thor was the favourite god of the working man. Simple, straightforward and not always the brightest, he was worshipped by farmers, fishermen and other men who lived by labour. This is often captured in the Marvel character, even in among the formulaic 'lesson to be learned' script writing. He is still a god who overturns an entire banqueting table in temper, who relishes a good fight, who flings his Starbucks coffee cup on the floor to smash, calling for another. As you can tell; I had a good time watching the first film. Several times...
And what of Thor's mighty chariot, drawn by two goats, whom Thor regularly kills, roasts and eats and then resurrects the next morning? All these elements are entirely missing from the Marvel Thor. One can quite see why. It might sound good in a story, but the very thought of transferring it to the screen is like the bunny sled in The Hobbit - too horrible to contemplate.