I don’t see movies in the theater very often, but every summer I find myself feeling a little giddy about the new slate of superhero/comic book movies that have become a staple of the blockbuster movie season, and inevitably I’ll find my way to the theater a couple of times before fall comes. Part of this attraction is the thrill of visually awesome action sequences; part is also nostalgia for childhood when figures like Iron Man and Green Lantern occupied my imagination. I think too that there is a deeper meaning to these stories that I am drawn to. These superhero tales very much function the way myths and legends functioned in ancient times. In many ways they are indeed modern myths: they are stories of grand adventure that teach moral lessons, giving us a sense of moral order in a sometimes dark and chaotic world, and assuring us of the triumph of good over evil.
The story of Thor is unique in that it is a modern superhero myth that is also based on an ancient Nordic legend. The Thor of Viking lore was known as the “god of thunder” – beloved by humans for his protection against the forces of evil, which he battled with the power of his mighty hammer Mjollnir. The movie Thor builds on this basic identity but has Thor living in exile on earth (banished by his father Odin) and on a quest to return to his home realm of Asgard to save his people from their archenemies – the “Frost Giants.” My purpose here is to reflect on some of the moral lessons of the movie version of Thor’s story and on their consistency with the moral order established by God as revealed in Scripture.
The Perils of Pride
Thor is on the cusp of inheriting the throne from his elderly, ailing father when the king banishes him to exile on Earth. Thor is banished because he led an unauthorized attack against the Frost Giants, an act of provocation which risked plunging his people into war. In leading this covert invasion, he ignored his father’s admonition that while a king should at all times be prepared to go to war he should never seek it. Thor justifies his actions in the name of protecting his people, but he really is motivated by the pride of conquest and to prove himself as a powerful, courageous leader that ought to be feared. It is because of his arrogance that Odin cannot trust him with the throne.
The Power of Self-Sacrifice to Deliver from Evil
The plot of this film centers on the superhero’s character transformation. While in exile, Thor discovers that he is not worthy to weld the mystical hammer Mjollnir when he cannot lift it from a rock (in a scene reminiscent of King Arthur and the Sword of the Stone). He is unworthy not because of his lack of achievement but because of deficiency in his character, namely his arrogance, manifested in his willingness to put his own ambitions for power ahead of the welfare of his friends. Profound changes in Thor’s character are revealed in two opportunities for self-sacrifice for the good of others. First, he sacrifices his life for the safety of his friends by placing himself between them and a killer, indestructible robot send to destroy him. Second, he sacrifices the possibility of reunion with his beloved, not for the sake of his friends, but in order to save even his enemies from utter destruction. Both instances unleash extraordinary forces for good that turn back dramatically the march of evil.
C.S. Lewis once described the incarnation of Jesus Christ as an event in which myth became fact:
Myths were like it [the Gospel stories] in one way. Histories were like it in another, but nothing was simply alike. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time… yet also so luminous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god — we are no longer polytheists — then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.
– Surprised by Joy (1955)
Myths and legends, while not actually true in a factual or historical sense, may be nonetheless true in a moral or spiritual sense in that they reveal truth about the ultimate moral character of the universe. Lewis is saying that in life of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the Gospels, this ultimate reality to which myth points entered into history and became fact – tangible. The story of Jesus is the true story of all mythical tales are shadows and archetypes.
While Jesus himself was without flaw and perfect in character, his story admonishes us against the folly of pride for it shows how the greatest being of the Universe – the King of king and Lord of lords – one who had reason to be prideful instead embodied the essence of humility:
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
– Philippians 2:5-8
Jesus’ humility was manifested chiefly in his sacrificial death on the cross on our behalf. On the cross, he not only endured unimaginable bodily suffering, but he experienced the physical agony of being cut off – abandoned – from his loved one, the love of God the Father. And he did this, not merely for his friends, who abandoned him, but for his enemies – yes, you and I – that they might be rescued from impending doom. Thus, his act of self-sacrifice unleashed enormous power for good over the forces of darkness. Jesus is the fulfillment of the ideals Thor represents and is also greater than Thor: while Thor uses thunder as an instrument of wrath to protect his people and even humanity, Jesus takes upon himself – into His own heart – the thunder of God’s wrath that his enemies would never have to bear it themselves.