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“Thor” is a Religious Experience Ruined By Science

"Thor" is a Religious Experience Ruined By Science

Sarah Silverman joked that Jesus was magic. “Thor” makes the suggestion that religious deities are a combination of magic and science, that they originate from some distant planet with physics unlike what we understand on Earth. And these aliens were worshiped as gods by ancient peoples who couldn’t comprehend the uncanny things they did. Of course, we’ve all heard such theories, and we’ve also thought of superheroes as godlike for decades. In the movie version, Thor isn’t too different from Superman, for instance; he just arrives here as an arrogant adult fish-out-of-water instead of as a strangely strong and innocent toddler kind. The main point of contrast is that Thor is based on an actual religious icon of yore while Superman and many other characters are treated as modern Christ figures.

And so the adaptation of the Marvel comic book, which first co-opted the pagan Norse religion-turned-mythology almost forty years ago, may imply that Jesus (and equivalents, as well as the monotheistic God of Judeo-Christian sects and others) could also be of extraterrestrial origins, that they could one day be the star of a major superhero comic and that later we’d get the obligatory blockbuster cinematic treatment of this comic. Even without all that, though, I can’t help but wonder; if Jesus came back today, would a government organization (such as S.H.I.E.L.D.) attempt to recruit him as a super soldier or for a team of heroes, Avengers-style? If he were indeed “magic,” I suppose.

Thor doesn’t have a whole lot in common with Jesus, otherwise. But the new movie does present Asgard as less of a polytheistic universe than the ancient Scandinavians knew it as (and contrary to cultural depictions, no, not just the Vikings believed in them any more than today’s armed forces are the only religious people now). As far as moviegoers can tell, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is the almighty primary God, Frigga (Rene Russo) his rather insignificant wife and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Liddleston) their sons. It’s a pretty pared down version of the comic mythology, let alone the original religious fables. Even if viewers decidedly accepted all the other citizens of Asgard as minor gods in the fold, it’s doubtful the movie will actually turn anyone onto neopaganism.

One of the few interesting aspects of “Thor” is where it starts to go with the magic and science discussion, which could be taken also as a religion and science discussion. Thor doesn’t battle any school boards or provide Americans with a compromise on the creation vs. evolution debate. But he does tell a young scientist (Natalie Portman) that there is a place (his world) where the two things can coincide. I apologize, by the way, if I offend anyone by linking up magic and religion, but in the context of an ancient religion being turned into a mythology and then turned into a comic and then turned into a movie, that is a reasonable pairing. Thunder and lightning were created through the “magic” powers of Thor (or other god depending on where you were) until these phenomena were explained scientifically as something more natural. It’s just that currently practiced religions (those largely recognized, I mean, since some people do currently believe in Odin and co.) don’t like to think of their deities’ powers as “magic” so much as “miracle.”

The scene where this comes into play is rather complicated but mostly silly (it has a slightly “hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo” feel). Thor, banished to Earth and somewhat revoked of his “magic” by his father, is having a romantic moment with astrophysicist Jane (Portman). She is all about (as in all her character development allows) the idea that unexplainable phenomena is eventually understood through science — earlier she paraphrases Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law stating that advanced technology is just like magic until its scientifically understood. He kind of negates the idea by stating that he comes from a place where magic and science “are one and the same.” Though it sounds a little like Clarke’s rule, it’s more of a cop-out explanation for his fantastical existence, the simple notion that Asgardian powers merely are what they are. Jane wants to know more, but it’s probable that Thor can not explain further and she is just to accept it all on faith.

In that way, “Thor” almost comes off pro-religion over pro-science, yet the whole concept of the heavens and gods being classified as planets and aliens already sides with the position of scientific explanation rather than mystical or religious consideration. It makes sense, I guess, for a confused-if-not-mindless blockbuster that exemplifies the evolution of ancient pagan religions from culturally defining narratives to pop-culturally disposable ones. Just as the movie pares down the mythology it’s based on, it also pares down the overall storytelling to something even more thinly and broadly familiar and accessible than the already comparable elements of worldwide mythologies and theologies permit (anyone who says it is “Shakespearean” has no idea what that should mean). It’s no wonder critics are easily comparing it to numerous other superhero movies before it.

I grew up with the stories of Norse mythology — not like Stellan Skarsgard’s (presumably Swedish, like the actor) character; I was simply taught them in elementary school and then became obsessed — and there was always a tremendous wonder about them. Yeah, I’d call them magical. And I’d even consider reading them a religious experience, not because I devoutly believed in them (I didn’t) but because they gave me a sense of divine and moral fascination with how the world works, particularly at an early stage in man’s curiosity, imagination and interest in/need for storytelling.

I never could get into the “Thor” comics as much as I wanted to, probably because in my youth I thought them a bastardization of the myths I loved. Now the movie goes a step further in stripping the spirit of those marvelous tales for something so scientifically precise — as in formulaically machinated to certain enjoyment by a mass audience — and so scientifically constructed — from the computer effects to the 3D presentation, a movie like “Thor” involves more technological input than creative. What was once considered movie magic seems now completely movie science.

As a cinephile, I guess I should admit that movies can be magical and religious experiences for me. But “Thor” is as far from that as they come. I wish that I could at least appreciate the little bit of chaos I see in the movie, the ways in which I often felt someone had put the scripts for all the (’70s onward) “Superman” movies into a shredder and then randomly pieced together strips from the pile to form this film. Unfortunately too much of the bad parts of that franchise seem to have been selected (Thor more often resembles Nuclear Man than Superman, for instance).

And “Thor” is obviously more methodically planned out, with its “Avengers” set ups and tie-ins that both string us towards future franchise installments (I love that A.O. Scott likens the series to a Ponzi scheme) and means to conform to and/or adapt the disposable seriality of comic books. The problem with that is comics are by nature a more disposable and cheaper medium. If we’re going to pay $20 a piece for a movie like “Thor,” it has to do a lot more than a comic book does, and I don’t mean just turning the stationary 2D drawings into animated 3D computer art. There are probably a number of old “Thor” comics I’d rather re-read than watch the film adaptation again.

“Thor” is now playing in theaters worldwide.

Recommended If You Like: “Masters of the Universe,” “Clash of the Titans” (remake), “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”

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