Thursday 5 May 2011

A Scandinavian Messiah

I grew up reading Marvel comics and still retain an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the brand’s output from 1960 to 1970. I’ve been fascinated by the spate of Marvel superhero films that have hit the big screens over the last ten years or so. Some (notably the three Spiderman films) remain faithful to the original comics in both letter and spirit whereas others are true largely to the spirit of the originals.

Almost fifty years ago, three secular American Jews (Stan Lee, his brother Larry Lieber and artist Jack Kirby) recreated Thor, the Norse god of thunder, for a comic book. Lee’s writing, with its cod King James Bible/Shakespearian dialogue, and the imaginative artwork of the late, great Jack Kirby were a winning combination.

Mild mannered, lame and weedy Dr Donald Blake could, when circumstances demanded, turn into the thunder god by striking his walking cane on the ground. When he wasn’t doing battle with villains like “The Cobra” and “Crusher Creel” (an escaped convict who could absorb the attributes of whatever he touched) Thor was fighting his evil half-brother Loki.

Thor has now come to the big screen in an adaptation directed by Kenneth Branagh (no less) which retains only the basic concept of the original comic book.

In the film, Thor is stripped of his supernatural powers and banished to earth from Asgard for rebelling against his father Odin. Here, among mortals, the thunder god quickly learns humility and gains wisdom, making him worthy to once again wield his mighty hammer Mjölnir and save himself, his faithful friends and (of course) the world from the evil schemes of Loki.

What I’ve also noticed about the superhero blockbusters (both Marvel and DC) is the shameless borrowing of Christian concepts: Superman’s death outside his Fortress of Solitude, his death, resurrection, ascension to heaven and second coming in Superman Returns; and Spiderman’s “conversion and baptism” in Spiderman 3.

In Thor, the parallels with the Messiah come thick and fast.

Just as Jesus is the Son of God, Thor is the son of the “All-Father” king of the gods, Odin.

Jesus was sent to earth by his Father (John 3:16), albeit not for rebellion, where he learns obedience (Hebrews 5:8).

Jesus, in an act of self-humiliation, laid aside his glory as the Son of God only to be exalted by God after he accomplished his Father’s mission (Philippians 2:5ff). In the movie, Thor is humbled by Odin but is granted his powers and his hammer after he has proved himself worthy of them.

While he was on earth, only a few recognised Jesus for who he was, and though Thor speaks with the dignity of the son of Odin, no one recognises him as such until he saves a small town from a devilish (I choose the word deliberately), fire-breathing machine.

In battling his demonic adversary, Thor dies only to be revealed as the son of Odin with power by his resurrection, reflecting what is said of Jesus in Romans 1:4.

Having conquered his enemy and saved the world, Thor returns to Asgard, promising Jane Foster (the love interest, played by Natalie Portman) that he will return for her. At the end of the film, Jane is still waiting but believes “with perfect faith” that the Norse messiah will come and, though he tarry, she will wait for him.

Are all these parallels intentional or am I just reading Jesus into the movie? At least some of the parallels were intended for one good reason: Thor’s hammer Mjölnir bears the symbol of the Christian Trinity! And when Thor is banished to earth to become a mortal, the symbol fades, only to return following Thor’s “resurrection” which reveals him to be the son of Odin.

It is the “gospel” spin that makes Thor such a satisfying film, as it does with The Matrix, Superman Returns and Spiderman 3. The CGI special effects are stupendous but without a strong storyline the film would fail to satisfy. Which is why, increasingly, screenwriters seem to be borrowing from the plot of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

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