Thor is the first of a trio of Marvel superhero movies to hit the screen this summer, and it’s an entertaining start. Though not in the same league as Iron Man, there’s some excellent action, some decent character development, and the script does a capable job making sense of a massive amount of back story on why a Norse god ends up on Earth. It also has the usual shortcomings of big budget comic book movies: hiring extraordinary character actors (Anthony Hopkins, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo) to do little more than stand around and wear costumes; and spending a ridiculous amount of money on overblown sets and visual effects.
The best reason to watch Thor is the immensely appealing Chris Hemsworth, who (as in his 7 minutes as George Kirk in Star Trek), makes us care deeply about him, whether he’s being a headstrong spoiled godling or a broken and powerless orphan. On balance, I found Thor well worth the price of a movie ticket (though not the price of the reverse engineered 3D, which adds virtually nothing to the experience).
What interests me most, though, is how much Marvel’s Thor mythology, as shown in this movie, alters the original Thor myths(I am assuming the movie is a reasonable translation of current Thor comics mythology to the big screen; Thor comics never came my way back when I was voraciously reading superhero comics).
There are a number of changes large and small in the movie’s mythology, such as making Loki Odin’s adopted son so that Thor and Loki can have a Cain and Abel relationship; portraying the Frost Giants as blue skinned aliens instead of fearsome Scandinavian giants; suggesting that Odin lost his eye in battle, rather than sacrificing it to gain wisdom; giving Thor blond hair instead of the god’s famous red hair and beard (surely the origin of the traditional association of red hair and quick temper!); and blaming Thor’s youth for both the temper and the reckless warrior courage which are the traditional hallmarks of the god’s character.
For me, though, the biggest missing piece in this movie was the idea of gods – an immortal, divinely powerful order of beings who have a relationship with humans that demands mutual responsibilities. In Norse mythology, the gods are true heroes, fighting an endless war to protect Earth and humanity from the Frost Giants, the forces of eternal winter, even though they know that in the end they will lose that war, and endless night will fall.
In Thor, the Asgardians are a mighty race from another plane of existence, who have a long history of war with the Frost Giants. The inhabitants of Asgard have little relationship with humans, and Earth seems to be no more than a convenient place to banish Thor when he gets in trouble. I suppose this is a necessary approach to make Thor into just another superhero (after all, if SHIELD has an actual god fighting for it, there’s no need for all the mere metahumans, is there?). But for me, it’s sacrificing an important element of the relationship between Thor and the humans who, in myth at least, are under his protection.
So here are my questions for my fellow worldbuilders:
If we are going to use myth and legend in our worldbuilding, how important is it that we stay faithful to the original? What can we change, and what should we leave alone to keep the essence of the myth intact? At what point does making changes to a myth stop being an adaptation or update, and turn into hijacking a mythical character’s name and applying it to something completely different?
UPDATE, June 19, 2012: The gods of Asgard return in Marvel’s The Avengers. And Joss Whedon takes up my question about relationships between humans and gods, and makes it a central theme, as Loki (the fascinating Tom Hiddleston, whom I should have mentioned in my original post) tries to make himself the tyrant of Earth. While Thor has grown up a lot thanks to the events of Thor, he still gets to be as quick-tempered and battle happy as we expect the God of Thunder to be (just look at his fierce smile as he summons his hammer and prepares to take on The Hulk!). Yet he also gets to act like a heroic god, in contrast to Loki, who is everything we don’t want a god to be. The trickster god enslaves the minds of key SHIELD operatives, makes a whole crowd kneel to worship him, and as Fury says, he kills for fun. And that’s before he summons an alien army to level Manhattan. Thor, arriving on Earth to fetch his errant brother, never once demands that the humans treat him as a god. Instead he takes responsibility for protecting Earth from his brother’s violence; accepts SHIELD’s people as worthwhile allies (like the gods of Norse myth, choosing the bravest viking warriors to fight beside them in the final battle); and at one key moment, shows us the god’s compassion when he almost weeps over the destruction Loki has caused, as he gives Loki a last chance to help him end it.