One of the central ideas of this blog is that superheroes are our modern-day gods and demi-gods. They serve many of the same purpose for us as the pantheons of gods served for their respective cultures.
I’m speaking here from a cultural and psychological viewpoint, not a theological or metaphysical one. Myths are about more than theological questions and existential dilemmas. They’re about social and ethical problems too.
Characters such as Marvel Comics’ version of Thor, Hercules and Sif are gods who become superheroes. As such, they serve as the semantic bridge between modern superheroes and the gods of yore. They symbolize the resurrection of an ancient language (gods, demigods and classical heroes) and its translation into a modern tongue (comic book superheroes).
The 2011 film Thor not only captures this cultural translation perfectly, it also whispers a great, hidden secret into our subconscious:
You know all these gods? They’re really just us.
Follow me on this short journey and you’ll hear that whisper in your heart become ever louder.
[Caution: spoilers ahead]
The Fall From Grace
When the film begins, we see Thor as a brash, arrogant and headstrong young god and heir to the throne occupied by his father Odin, king of Asgard.
When Thor’s arrogance and immaturity lead him to make a huge mistake that threatens a precarious truce with an old enemy, an enraged Odin strips him of his godly powers and banishes him to Earth as an ordinary human. He casts an enchantment on Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, that forbids anyone but the most worthy to wield it.
(While some may consider this blasphemy, I believe Thor’s heroic journey parallels both that of Jesus, another god who was made to suffer as a human, and Lucifer, an angel-god whose pride led to his fall).
When Thor awakens on Earth, disoriented and surrounded by strange people, the first thing he does is summon his hammer but it does not come.
The shame, frustration and impotence that he experiences upon finding himself stripped of both his powers and his weapon are the disturbances to his Ordinary World that set him on the Road of Trials in his version of the Hero’s Journey.
These two things – Thor’s godly powers and his hammer – are the primary symbols we need to take a closer look at.
Ye Are Gods
I have said, You are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. –Psalms 82:6
Increasingly, the once-fanciful idea that superheroes represent an ideal that human beings can aspire to and even realistically attain is gaining acceptance in our culture. I’ll go so far as to argue that even godhood is something we can aspire to.
I don’t mean that literally, though. By “godhood,” I mean the highest potential, symbolically, that humanity can fulfill as symbolized by a character like Thor.
Thor’s journey from god to mortal to god again and then finally to superhero parallels the journey of anyone who aspires to become a hero in her own life. It’s about what it means, and what it takes, to truly be a hero.
When the film begins, Thor is a god by birthright but not yet a superhero. This is extremely important to note. Even though gods and superheroes serve similar symbolic purposes in our culture, comic book mythology places the superhero ideal as a step above even godhood and we shall soon see why.
The Journey From Childhood to Adulthood
ODIN: You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!
THOR: And you are an old man and a fool!
ODIN: Yes, I was a fool… to think you were ready.
Let’s say that gods symbolize that which is sacred and divine. Then let’s say that the word “sacred” simply means that which is precious, valuable and meaningful in life. We then have a secular definition of “sacred” that both religious and non-religious people can momentarily agree on.
Now, let’s go further and say that life itself is inherently sacred (i.e. precious and meaningful). This belief is most pronounced in most cultures in the presence of infants and children. Most people, regardless of religious or political persuasion, instinctively seem to feel that the life of a child is precious and should be valued, if need be, above the lives of adults.
In the film’s beginning, Thor is an adult infant, glorious and magnificent in his cherub-like beauty but selfish and immature. When we are babies, we are like gods, worshipped, served and protected by the values of our culture. We quickly learn that we only need to demand something strongly enough to usually get it (as does Thor).
But growth and maturity is about learning that we can’t have everything our way all of the time. What once worked in infancy no longer does and, in fact, often leads to regrettable consequences. As we outgrow infancy and eventually childhood itself, we find, to our chagrin and frustration, that we have become ordinary human beings just like everyone else, subject to the same limitations.
Thor’s confusion and impotency on Earth are basically that of a growing child learning that the ways of childhood no longer work, that inborn status and privilege can only get you so far, and that it’s what you do, not who you are on the surface, that defines your destiny.
“For the first time in my life,” Thor says in one scene, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.” It’s a feeling that we’ve all experienced as we grow out of the ready-made lives of childhood and become adults who must determine our own outcomes in life.
Echoing the mythos of King Arthur and Excalibur, it’s only when Thor learns the value of responsibility, humility, cooperation and, ultimately, love and sacrifice, that he gets his hammer back. He is now an adult and ready to wield his power with genuine authority and wisdom.
By the film’s end, he has not only reclaimed his godhood but has now become a superhero who swears to protect the Earth he has come to love and honor. He can, moreover, be counted on to do so because he has the wisdom now to use power protectively rather than destructively.
If this applies to even a god, then it applies to even the most privileged human beings who will, sooner or later, realize that they must earn their power and respect, not demand it out of a sense of inherent superiority. This is also good news for those of us who are not as privileged in the material sense because it means that when it comes to being a hero, we’re all on a level playing field.
The Hammer of God
Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor. –Odin of Asgard, Thor (2011)
Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, is the focal point of his power. And what does a hammer do? It forges. It creates. It also mends and, if necessary, destroys. The forces of creation, sustenance and destruction are therefore all contained in this symbol of power which is essentially an inner power, the power of your creativity and will.
No amount of physical or political power can give you this inner power. This is why Thor, despite being a god (the most physically and politically powerful kind of being there is), nevertheless loses Mjölnir.
He must “come down” from his lofty heights and reclaim his power as an ordinary human being in an ordinary town out in the middle of nowhere. Inner power is therefore a power available to anyone regardless of how humble your station in life (again pointing to the underlying truth that the gods are basically ourselves).
Our will and creativity are birthrights which we can do with as we please. We can use them to build things, things that help or things that hurt. We can also use our will and creativity to destroy those very same things. Both are necessary at different times in different situations, but the hero generally builds more things that help and destroys more things that hurt.
What Makes a God a Superhero
Under the doctrine of the Marvel Comics religion – of which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are the high priests – neither humans nor gods are inherently born as superheroes. That distinguished title must be earned, and it depends on the extent to which the human or god in question can wield their creative power with maturity and responsibility.
It’s worth noting that, in the comics, Captain America, a very “weak” hero when compared to all the more powerful characters like Iron Man and the Hulk, was one of a tiny smattering of individuals deemed worthy of wielding Mjölnir. It was, of course, Cap’s inner virtues, not his external strength, that enabled this. And so it is in the film that Mjölnir returns to Thor only after he has learned the value of humility, love, service and, ultimately, sacrifice – not as an omnipotent god but as an ordinary joe (again, the Christ-like symbolism).
“But why should gods have to be humble and self-sacrificing?” you might ask. “And why, by extension, should we?”
It’s a good question.
At first, Thor’s temperament resembles the ancient Greek gods or the Abrahamic God of the Old Testament, full of fury, vengeance and unbridled emotion, constantly seeking to validate and reaffirm his political power.
To see what happens to even a god when these qualities remain unchecked, we need look no further than Thor’s brother, Loki, whose abuse of his power and lust for even more of it leads to his own downfall, twice, in both Thor and again in Avengers (2012).
The fact that Thor and Loki are siblings is very appropriate. It symbolizes how both potentials lie within ourselves: greed, selfishness and the lust for power coexist in our hearts with the capacity for courage, sacrifice and heroism.
Both Thor and Loki, at the beginning of the film, are selfish and power hungry. And both, in their different ways, try to mask what’s essentially an inner core of insecurity – Thor with his machismo and bravura, Loki with his sanctimoniousness.
Their paths diverge when Thor is made human but both of their paths mirror humanity’s own quest to grow from just average or mediocre to heroic ideal.
Philosophers throughout history have disagreed about the best way to do this. Some schools of thought believed that the path of Loki defined the heroic ideal better than the path of Thor, and that those who opted for the latter at the expense of the former were fools.
To that I can only say that each person needs to study the evidence and results in human history for themselves and come to their own conclusions as to which human qualities within themselves that they’d most like to cultivate.
The gods and idols we once used to worship embodied the path of Loki. Humanist philosophers like the Buddha and Christ later came along and taught that the path of Thor was the one that led towards true peace and happiness, and that the selfish needs of the ego needed to be balanced with forgiveness, sacrifice and, most of all, love and consideration for the other.
There are plenty of real-life historical figures as well as people around you who represent examples of both. It comes down to which inspires you more. Will you take the path of Loki or the path of Thor? It’s up to you but it’s clear which one comic book mythology holds up as the true heroic ideal.
Seek power for its own sake and, like Loki, you will be perpetually seeking it, losing it and then trying to get it again. Moreover, you will never fill the hole of insecurity that obsessively drives you.
Seek, instead, to first become the best human being you can be and then, like Thor, your self-worth will no longer depend on who or what you are but on your words and actions. And you will no longer need to seek Mjölnir for Mjölnir shall come soaring to you.
Thor’s heroic journey is thus your heroic journey – your journey from child to adult, from god to human, from human to superhero.
Mjölnir, to me!