Friday, October 16, 2009
Marvel Comics and their Responsibility to History
I am not well-versed in the Marvel Comic Universe. I am not un-versed per se, but I do not follow the story arcs, nor do I actually read the comics. Well, many of the comics; I get frustrated when they don't give me a conclusion so I don't start. But my father and I do bond over superheroes, as there is nothing I like better than a good superhero movie.
I, for what may be obvious reasons (see my profile), have a particular interest in Thor. At the moment they are trying to make a movie for nearly every Marvel hero. Even I know that they have to make a Thor movie before they can make the Avengers movie, because you can't have the Avengers without Thor.
What I find particularly interesting is that the movie has absolutely no obligation to the original Norse legends. Nope, instead it has obligations to the ever evolving comic strip and character as it was created by Stan Lee. I found this quote on Wikipedia: "[H]ow do you make someone stronger than the strongest person? It finally came to me: Don't make him human — make him a god. I decided readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends.... Besides, I pictured Norse gods looking like Vikings of old, with the flowing beards, horned helmets, and battle clubs."  The television shows Hercules and Xena Warrior Princess almost had more obligations to the original history/literature because they were (very) loosely based on an original source. This is based on an even looser intermediary.
Nor would I really want the producers to get bogged down in the original mythology. None of the other Marvel heroes have this particular problem (that I can think of), and you are more likely to make historians and literary theorists upset if you try for original Thor and miss. Hard core comic book fans are going to be a tough enough audience to appease.
But a couple of interesting things about the original Stan Lee Thor (I don't know about his later incarnations); he does look a bit like a star in a Wagnerian opera, so kudos there, but that is really far from anything actually Old Norse. They do hit on some key points, like Heimdal, Odin, the Bifrost bridge and certainly Loki, but beyond that it is entirely the imagination of the prolific and thoroughly entertaining forces of Marvel.
However, some points about original Thor which make us all too willing to accept any of his incarnations in popular culture, save for a few places, like the portrait painted in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the image of Thor is fluid and seems to have been different depending on the region. For instance, some areas seem to have had Thor as the primary deity, and others Odin, but our sources for this are flimsy. And because our sources are flimsy no historian/literary theorist would attempt a definitive Thor.
But because I am also engaged lately in trying to understand how the public perceives our history, most of me knows that the general populace is entirely aware that The Mighty Thor is another Stan Lee creation, loosely based on an Ancient Myth. The other part of me knows that for a great portion of that populace this will be their only exposure to that particular myth.
So I don't really know if the Marvel franchise should consider reviewing its responsibility to history as they make this movie; I've sort of landed on no, as it is not necessarily better for the myth, and because in the end it is faithfulness to the comic that counts. But that will have consequences.
And, since I do read a wee bit, what prompted this was I came across this comic. It is in the Marvel Comics Essential Thor, Vol. 1. When I came across it, trying to think about this instance in regards to the movie that they are making, and in reference to the original Norse history and mythology, was making my head hurt. Needless to say it is slightly veiled in irony.
Sorry for the poor quality, and the need for excessive zooming.
Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (Fireside, 2002; ISBN 0-684-87305-2), by Lee and George Mair}