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01 March 2011

Gods and heroes

Gods and heroes

Looking for conversation starters, Sophie Lister finds relevant themes in popular culture...

Our hunger for superhero stories seems to be insatiable. Recent years have seen the Spiderman, Batman, X-Men and Iron Man film franchises rake in millions. Comic book fans and cinemagoers are eagerly awaiting this year's plethora of releases, including Green Lantern, Captain AmericaThe Green Hornet, and an X-Men prequel.

Thor, released on 29 April, has a twist to set it apart from the rest. Its huge hero (played by relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth) is no mere human with superpowers - he's a Norse god. Banished from the divine realms by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor is sent to earth, where his supernatural abilities get him noticed.

"How do you make someone stronger than the strongest person?" muses the character's original creator, Stan Lee. "It finally came to me. Don't make him human - make him a god." But like Lee's other comic book characters, what makes Thor interesting isn't his strengths - it's his flaws and weaknesses. At the beginning of the story he acts more like a villain than a hero, his reckless behaviour threatening the peace which his father has so carefully maintained. "You are a vain, greedy and cruel boy," Odin tells him, casting him into the human world. There, he hopes, his son will learn some humility. 

Flawed deities

Thor is not the only flawed god to have descended onto cinema screens recently. Last year, Legion cast the god of the Bible as its villain, portraying him as a tyrant who unleashes his fury on undeserving humans. Myth-based Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief both had their share of ineffectual or scheming deities. These films speak of our tendency to envision divine beings in our own image: more powerful, yet no less susceptible to vice.

Humans are often shown to emerge as the truly heroic party, demonstrating compassion and courage where the gods fail to. This holds true in Thor, where love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is the one who leads Thor out of selfishness to become earth's defender. We tend to cast ourselves in the role of hero whenever we can - hence our love of the 'everyman' who rises from obscurity to achieve great things. If we can identify with shy Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), perhaps we can more easily imagine ourselves being as brave and honorable as Spiderman.

There are shades of doubt, though, as Peter's journey throughout the Spiderman films demonstrates. He misuses and neglects his powers, and in Spiderman 3 becomes something close to a villain himself. Murky protagonist Batman (Christian Bale), meanwhile, perhaps embodies our fear that being a force for good in a dark world requires moral compromise. Much as we long to see ourselves as champions, we cannot avoid acknowledging the weakness - and the darkness - within us.

Culture struggles

It looks as though our culture struggles to have faith in both gods and heroes. But nevertheless, we're unable to resist telling tales about a powerful, self-sacrificing figure who comes to our rescue. Doctor Who, back on our screens again this spring, is a case in point. Even last year's satire Kick-Ass, which started out parodying the concept, morphed into such a story. Deep down we long to be defended, fearing that we are not strong enough to be our own saviours. If stories like Thor betray our human vanity, then they also, conversely, betray our frailty.

Faced with the evidence of our own shortcomings, we struggle to imagine a god or a hero who is unfailing. Perhaps this accounts for many of our difficulties in truly seeing God for who He is. We are made in His image - but in many respects He is vastly unlike us, and unlike anything we would naturally conceive of. Jesus is like no hero we would have created, and as such, we're likely to envisage a lesser version of Him.

Thankfully, we can return to His words and actions, asking the Holy Spirit to show us where we've been making ourselves too great and Christ too small. And we can speak this truth, too, into a culture that sometimes casts God as the villain and men as the ultimate heroes. The good news is that our rescuer has come - and that He's greater than we ever could have hoped.

  • Thor opens in UK cinemas on 6 May.

Sophie Lister writes for Culturewatch.org

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