Why Thor is Marvel’s Most Important Superhero

The God of Thunder is nothing like his costumed counterparts

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Jay Maidment / Marvel

In the incarnation that returns as Thor: The Dark World, the hammer-wielding Asgardian lays claim to the role of central hero in what’s now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just as Marvel’s The Avengers relied entirely on elements set in motion by the previous year’s Thor movie, so do events in The Dark World set up threads that will be followed through Guardians of the Galaxy and beyond (To explain more would be a spoiler; suffice to say, stick around for the post-credits scenes this time around). What makes this particularly notable is the fact that, in many ways, Thor is the antithesis of a Marvel super-hero.

When Marvel Comics officially launched with 1961’s Fantastic Four #1, there was a unique selling point that the publisher had to offer, separate from anything DC or any other publisher had: Marvel heroes were purposefully far removed from the perfect, untouchable figures that dominated the comic-book landscape. Instead, they were characters saddled with problems its readers might relate to: being unable to pay the rent, having a complicated (or entirely nonexistent) love life, or even being picked on by bullies.

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Moreover, Marvel super-heroes lacked the rigid moral code of a Superman or Wonder Woman, nor their immediate ability to know what to do in every situation. They lacked the ability to get along with each other, as if to underscore that Marvel heroes were as imperfect as their fanbase (That Marvel’s super-heroes would be suspicious enough of each other on first meeting to end up in a fight before the misunderstanding was resolved became cliche before the publisher was ten years old).

Whereas readers may have been used to super-heroes who went on regular patrol to ensure the safety of their chosen city, Marvel’s heroes regularly found trouble intruding upon their plans; all they really wanted was a quiet life. These, Marvel was eager to reassure a skeptical public, were heroes just like you — well, except for that golden-tressed Thunder God.

Just as DC Comics has a flagship hero who doesn’t quite fit with his crime-fighting brethren (That would be Batman, who comes from a place of angst and trauma unlike any of his fellow Justice Leaguers), Marvel has Thor, a hero that just doesn’t fit in with the stated aims of making its characters more human. Thor, after all, literally isn’t human and as a result, even attempts to “Marvelize” the character fail due to their melodramatic scale. He has family troubles, just like us — well, except for a half-brother out to take control of mythical realms and gain power unimaginable. He has a difficult love life (as his earthly form is as a mortal due to a curse that his father put on him to learn humility).

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In a way, that last element sums up why Thor stood aside from the other Marvel super-heroes. Whereas other Marvel heroes had to overcome their own shortcomings in order to fight the good fight and save the day, whether they were physical (Tony Stark’s ailments that caused him to become Iron Man for the first time, say, or Daredevil’s blindness) or emotional (Peter Parker’s social anxiety, the Hulk’s anger issues), Thor’s shortcoming was that he knew he was great. What kind of reader could root for a guy like that — especially when they likely knew guys like that in their every day lives, and called them “bullies” or “jocks”?

For better or worse, Thor stood apart from the other super-heroes in the Marvel canon because he lacked the idea that, but for the grace of God, the reader “could have been.” Instead, Thor actually was a god (even if, as he would point out in some stories to reassure nervous parents at the time, he wasn’t “the” God). The character did, in theory, have a secret identity who acted as a point of view character for the audience, but Dr. Donald Blake proved to be lame in a sense of the word that went beyond his need for a cane, and ended up mostly ignored in favor of sending Thor to Asgard, space or Avengers meetings, none of which required him to swap places with a New York physician.

Eventually, an alternate reading of Marvel’s own Thor mythology was found that allowed an empathy the character had always lacked. By the time of 2010’s enjoyable Thor The Mighty Avenger series, he had been recast as a well-meaning, if somewhat buffoonish stranger in a strange land — a take that closely resembled the movie’s version of the character when he debuted a year later. Nonetheless, Marvel’s Thor remains more alien than the other Avengers and, perhaps, less of a draw — until you place his adventures at the center of the whole shebang. After all, who needs empathy when you can have hints about the movies you do care about?