Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the real-life heroes of our day and age, those who serve and care for others, offering even the smallest charitable acts. If being a hero means being selfless, then – to some extent – it follows that such people may be heralded as heroes.

In the realm of the fantastic, “superheroes” are not treated nor expected to be taken as ordinary individuals. Their difference manifests itself most often through unique physical characteristics and abilities which are not inherent to human beings.

Throughout comics and films, superheroes come in an array of forms including aliens and non-human entities, such as Groot from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. It is fantastic characters like these that tend to possess an element of the superhuman.

A superhero is frequently introduced into his or her storyline through the background of mourner, underdog, or penitent. The mourner grapples with loss and grief. The underdog finds a calling, is given a chance, and takes the initiative to become better. The penitent is called to acknowledge the defect of past actions and, moving forward, strive to be better.

Chris Hemsworth’s titular character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thor (2011) is exemplary of the last of these character dispositions. Much to his agitation, Thor is thrust into the normative human condition, no longer being able to wield the tremendous power of his hammer, Mjolnir. Descending from the heights of his royal home in Asgard, Thor enters into the human condition. His extraordinary strength is gone; he finds himself having a physical weakness comparable to that of any other human being. In so many ways, he shares in the helplessness of the people of Earth, thus being taught a lesson in humility.

Humility, as understood through the lens of Christianity, is inseparable from a virtuous life. It goes hand in hand with charity, docility, obedience, and other virtues.

A general definition of humility is designated as that “supernatural virtue by which one attains the correct perception of one’s relationship with God . . . The attitude of humility is: ‘I am good only because of God’s mercy.’ Humility counters pride and seeks to serve God and others, as Mary did.”[1] The Virgin Mary’s example of humbly accepting the will of God stands in stark contrast with the long line of disobedience, disregard, and grumblings of God’s people in the Old Testament. With Mary’s “yes,” a new age is able to be ushered in, and through her collaboration with God, she was able not only to serve Him, but the whole of humanity. A crucial aspect of humility then is helping others rather than looking to one’s own self-interests, while pride seeks the opposite of this.

Not of his own accord, Thor is temporarily cast down into a trial which he finds bothersome, even seemingly hopeless at times. The scenario puts him out of his element, jettisoned from the fullness of his glory by his father Odin. Moreover, his relationship with his father is damaged by his disobedience. In a sense, Odin recognizes the importance of humility in the role of leadership. If Thor is going to be a superhero – not to mention a king – he must adhere to the “supernatural virtue” of humility.

In the script for Thor, though the line is inaudible, Odin tells his first-born son at the coronation ceremony, “Responsibility, duty, honor: these are not merely virtues to which we must aspire. They are essential to every soldier, to every king.”[2]

This showcases just how important virtue is to the role of a just ruler. The king must not be lacking in his duties. As with many Christian virtues, humility is a common link between the marks of authentic leadership that Odin listed. True humility instills a proactive instinct toward serving others as well as a proper sense of self-respect. For a benevolent leader in the public sphere, these are crucial marks of character, ones which Thor needs to uphold.

From the earliest stages of the film, Loki, a figure of sorcery and deception (who is the adopted son of Odin) plays the people around him like pawns, servile pieces in a scheme propelled by his own twisted contrivances. He whispers sweet, seductive poison to Thor, confirming his brother’s inclinations, dissuading him from the will of their father. Notice that once pride becomes a point of control, deception is close to follow. Thor, having taken an oath to cast aside selfish ambition and subsequently disobeying his father’s commandment of non-retaliation, is banished. While remaining physically robust, he faces the consequences of being stripped of his immortality, the supernatural capabilities bestowed upon him, and his honorary decorations. Most dramatically, however, his hammer Mjolnir is no longer in his control. During much of the course of the film, Thor’s newfound frailty is pushed to its limit as he repeatedly falls victim to being pummeled by vehicles, wounded by weapons, and found susceptible to the strength of other mortals. His trip to Earth is a truly humiliating one.

As the plot progresses, Thor interacts more with humans, all the while Loki connives and seeks to supplant the power of Odin and Thor. He would betray his foster father and, at his own hands, murdered Laufey, king of the Frost Giants and Loki’s biological father. His prideful self-interest spurs him on toward the fringes of madness. Pride not only leads to deception of oneself and others, but it also reaps anger.

Throughout the film, Loki confronts Thor, letting his deceptions fall upon his brother’s ears. Eventually, he sends a metallic automaton to Earth to combat his brother in order to eliminate him as a contender for the throne. It is at this point of the film that Thor starts to clearly display elements of humility. Steering away from personal safety, Thor speaks to Loki through the medium provided by the automaton, telling him that such violence should be unleashed not on the innocent bystanders but only upon himself.

Unrelenting, Loki’s mechanical minion inflicts tremendous injury on Thor to the point that his body falls motionless to the ground and stirs neither eye nor limb. In this moment of apparent defeat, having given perhaps the ultimate self-sacrifice, Thor’s hammer returns to him. He has become worthy to grasp and wield it once more. Through humility, this Asgardian becomes victorious.

This first installment in Thor’s side-saga of films not only displays the need and benefits of humility. But it also shows the dangerous drive of the ego and of self-interest through pride. As humbled as Thor has become by the climax of the movie, so too have Loki’s grief and pangs for dominance escalated to the extreme. Like Romulus and Remus, whose monumental relationship was undermined by jealousies, ambition, and petty mockery, Thor and Loki are contrasted against one another. In the end, there is no soothing Loki’s prideful lust for power.

In an allegorical sense, Hemsworth’s Thor could be taken as a Christ figure. He descends from on high, is meant to be a king, lives in a humbled state, lays down his life to save many, and overcomes one of the gravest of mortal obstacles. Apart from being anything but fantastic, Christ’s relationship with humanity differs from Thor’s since He remains humble, and yet His majesty, while sometimes hidden, remains constant. Nevertheless, Thor shares this example of Christ – as we are all called to share in. The purpose is not to be served, but to serve.

In Miracles, the acclaimed writer and professor C.S. Lewis says, “To be high or central means to abdicate continually: to be low means to be raised: all good masters are servants: God washes the feet of men.”[3]

The Son of Man came to serve. His example of poverty and servitude lays a foundation for Christians. He has given His followers an image of humility through selflessness and service. Being a leader now entails being a servant.

At one point, when Thor confronts his brother directly upon his return to Asgard, Loki tries once more to sway Thor’s mindset away from mercy. Loki intends to destroy Jotenheim, the world of the Frost Giants, but Thor – who had earlier instigated harsh retaliation against them – advocates for mercy. He fights against Loki, who has now tossed out any idea of the wellbeing of others. He does not see beyond his own will and gain, whereas Thor has become the opposite to this. Even while Loki is in the act of appealing to his brother’s emotive inclinations, the noble hammer-wielder chooses to sacrifice his own desires for the superior good. Thor destroys the portal which would give Loki the ability to obliterate the world of Jotenheim. This salvific action simultaneously includes the possibility of never again seeing the love of his life. Thor knows this and chooses to sacrifice his own interests for the good of others. Regardless of the pain this may cause him, he decides to thwart Loki’s plans of genocide.

In the end, Thor acknowledges in the presence of his father that he still has a great deal to learn. No longer does he think that he will automatically be some great ruler. He sees the role of a leader as a servant of the people, not a figure who lets himself be driven wherever his selfish desires take him. The self-interested, impulsive character he had at the beginning of the story has been subdued. The lesson of Odin shows that it is not royal blood that denotes kingship but depth of virtue.

Thus, Thor presents two paths in the moral life, attached to which are the consequences of each. The fruit of pride is injury to oneself and others, that of humility – service, charity, and due recognition. To be a good warrior, a good king, a good superhero, Thor had to learn humility. As the penitent sinner, he acknowledges the erroneous path on which he had pursued vainglorious ends. Having learned the importance of virtue, of obedience and dedication, Thor is equipped to become a good and just leader.

Like the sons of Odin, we have two paths to choose from. The general criteria for being a worthy superhero are identical to those of being an ordinary hero: not well-toned muscles, but virtues well-gained.

 


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Citation Information

John P. Tuttle, “Humility Contra Pride as Represented in Thor (2011),” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 243-252.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/humility-contra-pride-as-represented-in-thor/


Endnotes

[1] Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, ed., Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Dictionary (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1993), 257.

[2] Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne, “THOR,” Script Slug, accessed April 10, 2021, https://www.scriptslug.com/assets/uploads/scripts/thor-2011.pdf.

[3] Patricia S. Klein, ed., A Year with C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 150.

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