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Future Fragments: Ghosts of Superheroes Past

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor


We live in an era of great superhero movies. Seriously, we’re spoiled. Think about it: it used to be the best superhero fix you could look forward to in the summer was another Batman movie in the Tim Burton era, and we all know how those ended. But now we’ve got every superhero known (and some barely-remembered) popping up in a summer that ends with none other than Captain America himself. So with Thor dominating the movie theaters in 3D Imax glory, why are we so fascinated? And what’s the future of the cape-wearing, hammer wielding body-builder types when this summer’s flick becomes a faded memory on a dusty bluray?

My first encounter with Thor wasn’t in comics. Instead, I met Thor for the first time as played by Vincent D’Onofrio in the 1987 film Adventures in Babysitting:

Ok, so he was a car mechanic, and not so much the all-out god-like warrior. But he was a hero to a little lost girl who was determined to get her family back home, and trusted that once “Thor” was re-united with his hammer he’d be his usual savior self. I saw this version of Thor around the same time I was watching far too many episodes of a Batman TV show–the kind of preoccupation that is likely to lead to fantasies of dark knights with utility belts sweeping out of the sky to the rescue. This is of course only one step removed from childhood dreams of Prince-Charming types, and it’s the type of character that postmodern flicks are rebuilding with new complications, emo moments, and complexity that goes beyond hammer-as-antidepressant.

Superheroes have evolved a lot since the days of brightly colored costumes and magical hammers. The last few years have brought us a number of movies that have pushed the boundaries of what was once a technicolor genre. When I walked out of Watchmen, I was both impressed and disappointed. I remember thinking how that film almost could have done to movies what Alan Moore’s graphic novel did for comics. A few years later, I saw Kick-Ass, the superhero movie that Tarantino should have built, and I thought that would do it.

Take, for instance, the Kick-Ass repudiation of the ever-famous Spiderman line “With great power comes great responsibility.” Kick-Ass flips that on its head: “With no power comes no responsibility…except that’s not true.” Kick-Ass is a truly postmodern hero whose abilities come from, well, getting beat up a lot. Put him in a room with Thor, and there’s no question who would win…but in today’s movies, it’s guys like Kick Ass that walk away with the girl and the admittedly bloody ending. Kick-Ass is a superhero whose powers come from being beat up and put on YouTube–that’s a long way from divine origin.

But then, Thor isn’t your average superhero either. The professor-type of the movie pulls out a book of childhood myths and points disbelievingly to Thor on the pages, pointing out how ludicrous the very idea is, while the others offered the explanation straight out of Stargate that a powerful alien could seem like a god to “primitive” folks. And yet, despite these absurd powers, Thor hardly qualifies to be called a superhero. The origin story they’ve saddled him with in this latest iteration is remarkably self-involved, as if Kenneth Brannagh has spent so much time with Shakespeare’s Hamlet that he’s channeled the narcissistic prince into this new (and admittedly well-defined) body.

We’re not likely to abandon the superhero complex anytime soon, but we do expect more from them. It was for the best that most of Thor’s story kept him on his home planet, where he could alternately fumble between trying to destroy and save a personality-free but apparently evil race of frost giants. The reinvention of Thor promises sequels with epic battles and the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, but the most he intervened in this first installment is to keep a small town from becoming even smaller.

It’s hard to find an appropriate battleground for a mythic warrior in this day and age. If we think back to the origin of myths, most such stories are fundamentally explanatory–tales that explain the natural order, from vanishing daughters that bring about winter to chariots in the sky that control the shift from night to day. Even Thor is associated with lightning, a destructive force that would have seemed even more powerful when there were no manufactured weapons to compare it to. But the world of superheroes now has to explain a society that is not quite so black and white.

Thor’s not the only superhero to hit this stumbling block. If you’ve followed the drama surrounding attempt after attempt to reinvent the Wonder Woman franchise, you know it hasn’t been an easy ride. It’s difficult to take a character like Wonder Woman out of her natural setting, and the story of an Amazon who comes out to support the fight against evil during World War II is a bit hard to fit into these new genre expectations. If anyone pulls it off, the results will likely look a lot like Thor–a bit lumbering, with a misplaced sense of scale and consequence that’s hard to resolve.

It seems like every superhero is getting a reboot these days. Even the franchises that had already seen some good moments, like Spiderman and X-men, are getting new origins and new talent. Superman’s been reborn so many times it’s hard to keep track, and with Smallville just ending we’ll likely see another man of steel around the corner.

As for Thor himself, he’s no doubt got a sequel of his own around the corner. But integrating him with the rest of the Avengers will be another challenge of epic proportions, as he’s still too larger than life to fit into the more complex human stories that dominate the rest of the crew. Perhaps Joss Whedon will bring Thor the rest of the way into the next dimension–something 3D alone can’t do for any hero.

Author: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

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