Thor, a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly funny thrill ride of a movie, is the kind of cinematic legend where the only word that truly seems to fit is "epic."
Director Kenneth Branagh, best known for bringing Shakespearean classics such as Henry V and Hamlet to the big screen, is pitch perfect with his celluloid reimagining of the superheroic story of Thor, God of Thunder.
The Norse god was first introduced to pop culture by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the pages of Marvel comic books back in 1962. The genesis of the Thor legend, however, dates a bit further back -- about 1,961 years further back, to be precise.
Before he became a comic superhero and joined Iron Man, the Hulk and Captain America as a member of Marvel's Avengers, Thor was immortalized by the Vikings as one of the mightiest and most venerated Norse gods; the first recorded mention of the hammer-wielding deity was actually by the Roman historian Tacitus in 1 A.D.
Branagh's Thor depicts the eponymous character as a sort of alien-god-superhero hybrid, following neither the Marvel story line nor the ancient myth with any obvious devotion.
For audience members whose memory of the comic book or ancient Thor legends may be a tad hazy, the line between myth and moviemaking is difficult to discern.
The film, however, is as much about ideas of theodicy, free will, and the relationships between fathers and sons. Here's a brief primer on Norse mythology that might help separate the gods from the (super)humans:
In Norse mythology, Thor is most often described as a hulking, mighty, hot-tempered god with red hair and red beard. In addition to being the god of thunder, he is also, variously, credited with being the deity responsible for lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, destruction, fertility, healing and the general protection of mankind.
His primary divine weapon is a huge hammer called Mjollnir, but he is also equipped with a belt, gloves and a staff that also possess special powers. The cinematic Thor (Australian actor Chris Hemsworth) just has his hammer, which he misplaces (or rather, his father, Odin, misplaces for him) as he is exiled from the celestial Asgard to Midgard (Earth). In the film, he sets about reclaiming his hammer by proving himself worthy in his father's eyes.
The Norse Thor travels in a chariot pulled by two magical goats and is married to the golden-tressed goddess Sif. In the film, Thor is an eligible bachelor whose love interest is a fetching human astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman. While Sif does appear, she is a brunette and more a partner in crime (she battles alongside Thor and a trio of other gods) than in romance.
Hemsworth's Thor is more funny than fearsome, while the Thor of Scandinavian legend had a significant flare for the homicidal and never discovered his softer (perhaps more "mortal") side because he didn't have one.
Known as the "All-Father," Odin is the most powerful god and Thor's father. In the film (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) he rules Asgard with great wisdom -- he has only one eye, having traded the other, according to myth, to the Fates in order to drink from the "well of wisdom." Hopkins' Odin also has a certain tenderness that eludes the Norse Odin.
Hopkins' Odin is at times more Cosby than cosmic in his relationship with his difficult sons, Thor and Loki, who both are vying to succeed him. Odin is married, in legend and on-screen, to Frigga, who is revered by all as the mother of gods and the queen of the heavenly realm.
Odin is the most compelling of the gods in Branagh's film, ruling with tough love more than an iron fist. He is thoroughly beneficent, yet fully embodies his Norse personality as a fierce and victorious warrior. Hopkins' Odin has more of the qualities of the Christian God (grace, justice, mercy, love) than the Norse deity.
One critic described Loki, the Norse "trickster" god adopted into Odin's family as Thor's "blood brother," as "a mythologically epic pain in the ass." That certainly describes the Loki depicted in the film, as well as a pretty fair assessment of the general picture painted of him in Norse mythology.
According to the film, Loki was a child of "frost giants," the archenemies of Asgard, whom Odin rescued as an orphan. Odin raises Loki as his own and doesn't reveal his true paternity until the roots of Loki's jealousy and troublemaking are immovable.
In the ancient myth, Loki is a frost giant, but the All-Father brings him into this fold in a debt of gratitude. The ancients (and the film) believed Loki to be a troublemaker and a shape-shifter who wreaks havoc wherever he goes. He famously cut the (magically powerful) hair of Thor's wife Sif, and slayed Baldr, another of Odin's sons and the "god of light," renowned for his pretty-boy looks and gracious demeanor.
Baldr doesn't appear in the Thor movie, but perhaps he'll make an appearance in the sequel that will surely follow. (Word to the wise: Stay through the credits at the end of the film.) And if he does, for the love of gods, please cast Brad Pitt.
This column appears via Religion News Service.