We all have friends that we consider specialists on certain topics. These are generally the people that we turn to if we are struggling to understand a particular problem, from fixing iPhones to flustered tourists wailing in Mandarin. As became apparent following the recent announcement that a new character will be lifting Thor’s hammer and calling it her own, apparently my friends see me as their specialist in comic books and gender theory. Since news broke, I’ve found myself having to explain the news and its implications over and over again. It’s been a fun few weeks.
Given that there’s still a little bit of confusion (or transphobia, feel free to decide for yourself) regarding the matter I figured that a blog post explaining precisely what has been announced could save me some time and hopefully shed some light on exactly why Thor is now a woman but still called Thor (as opposed to She-Thor, Thorita or Betty.)
Starting in October, a new Thor series will be launched called ‘Thor’. (Imaginative, y’know?) In this series, a new character will assume the responsibilities, position and (crucially) name of Thor despite not being Thor Odinson, the regular Thor we all know and drool over. Despite this other character not being Regular-Thor, she will also be called Thor. To make matters even more complicated, Regular-Thor will still be around and will still be called Thor. Still following?
The main issue many people seem to be having is that this new character will be adopting Thor’s actual name. While Thor also goes by ‘The God of Thunder’, Thor is his name by birth so someone else adopting the name now that Thor is unworthy of wielding Mjoinir is a little bit like your cat pissing in your bed and you getting a new one and calling it the exact same name out of spite.
However the passing of ‘legacy titles’ is actually quite common in comic books, even if it’s more of a DC thing than Marvel. While there has always been a Green Lantern of Earth, that title has actually been held by a whole host of different characters (sometimes simultaneously) and likewise there’s been numerous Flashes, Batmen, Wonder Women etc. etc. Marvel is also adopting this legacy concept for Captain America as well, come November Steve Rogers will pass the mantle of ‘Captain America’ onto Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Having a new character adopt a superhero identity when the previous individual is no longer able to continue the fight is part of what makes comic books generational, evolutionary and develops key interpersonal relationships between characters. (I’ve also conveniently written a whole journal article (109-124) on this subject if you’d like to find out more.)
This is effectively what Marvel is doing with the new Thor. As previously mentioned, the only issue is that the mantle of ‘Thor’ is also Thor’s actual name — ironically, he’s actually one of the few heroes who actually doesn’t use a sobriquet — but if you can think of the title of ‘Thor’ as not just regular-Thor’s name but also a symbol of hope for Midgard, knowing that ‘Thor’ will always protect them (no matter who Thor may necessarily be).
That’s a broad strokes explanation of how Thor is now a woman but still called Thor but also regular-Thor is still called Thor. Now you’re probably thinking ‘Okay, I understand. But why didn’t they just call her Thor-Girl?’ and this brings us to the why.
The classic argument that comic book purists bring up when efforts are made by publishers to diversify their character line-ups in this way is: ‘Why can’t you just add similar characters that are black/female/an ethnic minority/disabled/gay?’ This very method has historically been utilised by comic book publishers to add diversity to their line-ups through the introduction of minority characters derived from more established white-male heroes; just think of Ms. Marvel to Mar-Vell, She-Hulk to Hulk or Spider-Woman to Spider-Man. The only problem is that the majority of these derivative female characters are far less famous, notable or downright integral to the history of the Marvel universe compared to their male counterparts precisely because they have been derived from another character.
In the case of the original Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk, both of their origins directly show them receiving their powers from their male counterparts and while Spider-Woman doesn’t actually have anything to do with Spider-Man she’s still got to deal with having a name directly derived from his. As great as these characters are, they’re not part of the foundations of Marvel because, by their very nature, they can only come to being as an extension of other male characters. All these female characters are great representations of well-written, heroic, courageous women but they’re most likely going to spend most of their time at the fringes of the main action because that’s where they were conceived. Comic book movie adaptations are obsessed with telling and retelling origin stories and when a character’s origin is entirely dependent upon another character already existing, it often limits that character to existing in that primary character’s world.
The exception to this rule is Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel who reluctantly rose to assume Captain Marvel’s name following his death. By taking over the mantle of the man that inspired her, Carol appears to earn the right to move to centre stage because she’s no longer living in anyone else’s shadow. (Carol actually begins to inspire new heroes herself, such as the Muslim Ms Marvel.)
This in turn takes us back to the new Thor. The female Thor will not be derived from Thor’s legacy, from his powers, from his history but she will succeed him and assume his place right at the core of the Marvel universe. Unlike She-Hulk or Ms. Marvel’s accidental absorption of Bruce Banner’s or Mar-Vell’s powers, this new character is making an active choice to continue the legacy of a central character and, in doing so, transcends her own gender to tell stories that are universal.
As much as Marvel has struggled to convey the specifics of this change to their general audience (although the fact that the news reached such a wide range of people beyond the comic community is an achievement in itself) the central point that they have been resoundingly clear on is that this Thor will be the one and only Thor. She won’t be Thor-Girl, She-Thor, Thorita; she won’t be a derivative version of a male character that can be dismissed ‘as not the proper version’ because she will be the proper version; she will be worthy.