Many comparisons have been made between superheroes and figures from ancient mythology. Superman can be compared to Hercules, The Flash to Hermes. Batman could be a modern Hades, or a modern Odysseus, depending on who you ask. Within superhero films and comics themselves, these comparisons become more obvious when mythological figures are actually introduced into the superhero universe themselves. Looking at movie adaptations of comic book storylines, this article argues that seeing Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, join the Avengers, or Zeus fight alongside Green Lanterns, has a great impact on the status and stature of the mythological figures, as well as the superheroes themselves.
In 2017’s Justice League, Zeus is represented as part of a larger army made up of Amazons and Green Lanterns. During a flashback sequence in Snyder’s film depicting these forces working together to defeat the alien Steppenwolf, Zeus only gets a short scene. It is more of a cameo; he does not get a significant role. The Zeus you imagine from Greek Mythology should be able to defeat any threat by himself, for he is the supreme being. Yet, he is represented as merely a foot soldier in a larger role. 2017’s Wonder Woman depicts the death and defeat of Ares, the Greek God of War. Whilst this could be considered a weakening of his status, he is at least defeated by another powerful figure from Greek Mythology. DC’s Justice League represents Steppenwolf as such a threat that Zeus needs the help of lesser beings to defeat and trap him during the flashback sequence. Steppenwolf is not a top tier DC villain, forcing us to ask the question what would happen if he were to meet Darkseid. Later in the film, Superman, an alien, defeats Steppenwolf more or less by himself, and does so without struggling. This elevates the power of Superman, arguably the most famous figure of this American superhero mythology. At the same time, it diminishes Zeus’ stature. Much like the God of War video game series for the Playstation consoles, where you can actually beat Zeus to death with your bare hands, Zeus is not represented as an untouchable God sitting on Mount Olympus. Rather, he is a much more tangible being, and far less powerful. Thousands of years ago, he would have been worshipped as the most powerful being in the known world. Today, Zeus barely appears to be a match for a supervillain’s henchman.
More famously (as more people went to see these movies), Thor is a member of The Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He stands alongside heroes such as Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow. Immediately, this diminishes his status from the Norse Mythology. In Norse Mythology, he is a God, worshipped in Nordic countries. Further, he is the strongest God. The strongest being in the mythology. He is only killed, during Ragnarok, by the poison of the Midgard Serpent. He rarely interacts with mortal humans because they are beneath him; when he does meet mortals, it is made clear that there is a profound difference in power and status. The MCU frequently represents him as having a much more diminished status. Yes, he is frequently referred to as a “God”, but he is not portrayed as one. Hulk is strong enough to knock him to the ground in one punch in a humorous and humiliating scene from 2012’s The Avengers. Moreover, the very presence of The Avengers alongside Thor suggests that there are some threats he cannot deal with alone. Whilst he is the “strongest” there is in Norse mythology, Thor needs the help of other human beings in order to defeat such threats as Ultron and Thanos. The only God who can lift Mjolnir in the original mythology, but he is one of many who are capable of doing it in The Avengers films, for Captain America and Vision both do it, elevating their stature. Interestingly, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, there is even a scene where Ultron is holding Thor by the throat. The Norse God of Thunder is completely at the mercy of a piece of human technology, and a superior piece of human technology (Vision) is needed to save his life in that situation. This raises interesting questions about human weapons. Are nuclear bombs capable of hurting the Gods we used to worship and revere? Artificial robots are capable of threatening the life of a Norse God in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is interesting to speculate whether it is more or less difficult to believe in a hierarchy between deity and human, when human beings are capable of creating such powerful weapons. The Marvel films frequently diminish Thor’s status as the most powerful God, for it suggests that there are some threats he cannot defeat, and that the help of human beings is often needed.
Loki gets more embarrassing treatment in his first encounter with the Hulk. In a very funny scene, Loki is slammed around Avengers’ tower by Hulk as if he were a mere toy, immediately after declaring himself as a superior “God you vile creature”. Hulk is at the centre of the frame, and Loki ends the scene silent, flabbergasted and lying on the floor, suggesting his dominance even further. Loki is known as the God of Mischief, and is known for using him mind, rather than brute strength, so it is easier to conceive the Hulk dominating him physically than it is Thor. Nevertheless, Loki is represented as an accomplished fighter who takes part in the battle of Ragnarok, and he often defeats other creatures using his powers of transformation when his strength is not enough. The Avengers’ depiction of the encounter of Hulk and Loki is too one sided. The scene is used for humour, at the humiliating expense of Loki- a God!
The introduction of mythological figures into the superhero canon equates the Gods of the past with the superheroes of the present. It raises the stature, power and status of characters like Superman and Iron Man, whilst diminishing the heroes and Gods of the ancient world. Doing this also serves the purpose of raising the intensity of the villian’s threat levels. If Zeus himself cannot defeat Steppenwolf alone, and if Thor is crushed under the might of Thanos, what hope do the (super)human characters have against these villains? This appears to reflect the growing confidence of us in ourselves and in our society. Before, people depended on pleasing the Gods for a good harvest, for luck travelling across the seas, and to prevent thunderstorms. Now, we are much more confident in our own capabilities. For better or worse, Mount Olympus is no longer considered an unreachable pedestal. The power of the Gods appear much closer to home now.