Even before its release in the US market, Thor: Ragnorok, the final instalment in the Marvel trilogy featuring the Norse God of Thunder, topped the international box office with US$107.6m and earned more money for an October release in Britain for any movie other than a James Bond film. A thunderous launch, then, if you are given to clunky puns.
But beyond being a dose of action-packed entertainment, the film raises a number of questions on how ancient myths are incorporated into contemporary superhero franchises. Thor: Ragnarok’s mix of Nordic myth, apocalyptic visions and popular science fiction fantasies makes it hugely entertaining but also problematic where the use of myth is concerned.
Thor is of course not the only superhero blending ancient myth and comic book characters. Earlier this year, the new Wonder Woman movie showed us how Greek myth can be adapted into the comic universe. As a demigoddess drawn from a range of classical sources, Wonder Woman highlighted the “pick-n-mix” mentality with which myth is being used in superhero films (and their comic book sources).
It is undeniable that modern superheroes and the gods and heroes of mythology have a lot in common. Apart from superhuman powers, they also live by their own moral codes – often outside of human society. When adapted into a comic universe, new rules apply. The focus shifts from largely self-interested desires towards the protection of mankind as a central aim.
Thor, however, is a particularly interesting case as he is drawn from Norse rather than Greek mythology. Unlike Greek mythology, whose key players and stories are widely familiar to audiences not least from numerous small and large screen versions, Norse myths are generally much less well-known. This might make their appropriation easier as fewer people are likely to bemoan potential inaccuracies – but also means that you cannot draw on the audience’s background knowledge in the same way.
In this latest instalment, Thor faces his evil sister Hela (a variation on the goddess Hel) played by Cate Blanchett, who has taken over Asgard – the mythical home of the Norse gods (at least in this simplified version). He fears that she will bring about Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods”. Yet, in the end, it is he who causes rather than prevents it, in order to destroy the evil villainess and protect his people.
The mixing up of different mythic realms is many centuries old – the 13th-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, who is the source of much of Norse mythology, conflated Asgard with the mythic city of Troy. Although he later revised this, in Sturluson’s earlier Prose Edda, Thor is the son of Tróán, daughter of the Trojan king Priam. This might go some way of explaining his reincarnation as a gladiator halfway through the film, his new look more akin to Spartacus, Leonidas and the like than his previous longhaired, Viking-inspired appearance.
Sturluson also wrote at a time when Christianity gradually took over as the dominant religion and, as such, his recounting of the old Norse myths is diffused with Christian undertones. Interestingly, hints at this replacement of the old myths by a new, Christian world order can also be found in Thor: Ragnarok. When Hela first returns to Asgard, she destroys a ceiling painting that depicts the Norse gods in a distinctly Christian manner, complete with golden halos around their heads. Hela blasts the ceiling away, revealing the images of a much darker past, where Odin is shown as brutal conqueror rather than benevolent ruler.
However, despite the epic title, very little of the film actually deals with this ultimate battle of the gods. While in the myth the whole world goes up in flames, the film contains its destruction to the floating island realm of Asgard. In contradiction with myth, first Odin then Thor claim that “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people”. These 21st-century sentiments reframe Ragnarok as a refugee crisis, in which the people of Asgard become a group of migrants now in search for a new home.
While myths have always been adapted to make sense of contemporary issues, limiting these to a particular place and a small group of people somewhat jeopardises their universality. Moreover, the modern superhero genre generates mythic heroes that are no longer part of a specific mythic realm. The films are, of course, always linked to other parts of the Marvel Superheroes franchise and the Avenger films provide a chance to bring them all together.
But first and foremost, superheroes and heroines are just individuals that battle their own issues – and mythology is used merely as a back story rather than a guiding principle for the film’s narrative. In the end, everything is smothered in irony, robbing the mythical elements of their meaning – myth is reused, recycled, and ultimately reduced to superficial entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s funny and nostalgic, in particular the nods to 1980s and 1990s film and television. The tongue-in-cheek approach and the New Zealand sets all reminded me of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999), which incidentally also dealt with Ragnarok in its fifth season. The difference is that for Hercules, human beings were always central, and he was happy to let the gods destroy each other if needed.
While Thor also ultimately saves the people of Asgard, the main focus is on the battle between him and Hela, the super-villainess. In these battles between superhuman beings, ordinary people often end up as collateral damage – which rather challenges the notion of superheroes as the protectors of humankind.
Another Marvel film, Captain America: Civil War raised this central ethical question as part of its story: is it ever justified to sacrifice human beings for the greater good? I’m not sure I can find similar significant issues being explored in Thor: Ragnarok. Or maybe the filmmakers have simply shied away from giving us a clear moral message in the way Hercules used to do. Decide for yourself and enjoy the ride.