For millennia, the mythological tales of human civilisation have been a source of artistic inspiration. The storied history of the Norse gods has been no exception.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the opening sequence of Thor has nothing to do with Marvel’s superhero universe. In the midst of Asgard, legendary domain of the Norse gods, Thor, Odin, Loki, Sif and countless other heroic figures held in high regard by the Viking civilisation take their place on the cinematic stage. It’s high drama, and very entertaining. It also sets the tone for the most tonally different Marvel film in the current run. Take a look.
The reason for this divergence is that the concept isn’t completely the brainchild of comic creators, and takes the vast majority of its basic ideas from Norse myth. I’ll happily admit to having quite the weakness for their source material, having read all about Odin and his cohort of mad, blood-drunk, sometimes crafty gods and their various deeds as a child. To see them take their place on the big screen, courtesy of a whopping Marvel budget and starring some genuinely talented and often funny actors was a wonderful experience.
Mythological worlds tends to feature characters with wildly different abilities and personalities, this has always tied in with their being the patron gods of various different things. Thor is a fantastic example of a god who is ripe for turning into a brand in 2013 Hollywood – an iconic weapon, his hammer Mjolnir, an easy-to-pronounce name, and he’s an aggressive, headstrong son of Odin – the Allfather, the Zeus of Norse myth and all-around bad mutha. Loki, by his inherent deceitful, dark, chaotic nature, makes for the perfect villain. It’s a setup I’m surprised has only been taken up by Marvel, so far.
But what’s interesting about Norse mythology is not just that it’s never taken centre stage. It’s that it’s influenced cinema for so long, in the most subtle ways. Take The Mask for example. No, don’t worry, I haven’t lost my mind – The Mask is actually one of the many films that makes use of the same name that used to hold such weight in Viking society – Loki. He is the trickster god of Norse mythology, and his powers being infused into a mask gives Jim Carrey’s character the ability to turn himself into a green-faced mischief maker at will. The sequel features Loki himself, and Odin, too, which are less subtle references, but their appearance still tips Hollywood’s hat towards the legends of old.
Perhaps it’s a sign of what modern cinema has become – an endless rehash of familiar ideas, transporting the legends of yore into the piles of comic book movies and action epics that are so omnipresent every time we look at the box office. Thor and its sequel are exactly that, except they take the more interesting route of transplanting these concepts into a modern setting, which results in a clash of worlds, and a fair amount of comedic moments.
The reason I feel Norse myths are perfect for action cinema, and why they survive alongside other mythology, is because they have such a strong moral basis. Trickery will be punished, heroism will be rewarded, fighting for good involves great sacrifice but results in a worthy victory or at least a tragic defeat.
Vikings, however, find their way onto screens a lot more often – probably because that involves a bit of costume and the capacity to roar and charge around like a bearded whirling death machine rather than a lot of expensive CGI. In this particular sub-genre you’ve got The Vikings, Asterix, Pathfinder, Valhalla Rising and more to sate your hankering for a little Norse swordplay. But their myths are not the focus, here, which is a shame given the interesting dynamic you see between Greeks and their gods when it comes to portraying them in front of a camera.
However, if you are looking for something a little closer to the reality of the actual society in which Norse mythology directly influenced everyday life, then there are options. The Vikings is probably your best bet, as it’s a more human-focused portrayal of the impact this worship had, given curses were apparently delivered by Odin himself. However, the god does not actually appear in a fountain of CGI and dramatic looks, and Norse myth plays a comparatively small part of the overall narrative – there are no tales of hammer-swinging gods, full of high drama, to be found.
Speaking of high drama, the way in which Norse gods are treated in cinema tends to be quite interesting. Thor, in the Marvel cineverse, has his powers taken from him, and I found myself amused by seeing such a powerful character suddenly have little impact, and his bellowing and mug-smashing become comical rather than intimidating. Remove the special powers, and Norse gods are simply angry, violent people. This gives us a better idea of why mythology is such a powerful source of inspiration in action cinema – the gods’ enjoyment of taking physical force to obstacles works well within the genre.
I think this is largely what Norse myth has been boiled down to in the present day – an enjoyable reference, almost like ancient pop culture. We’re aware that Thor wields a hammer before this is demonstrated on screen, and we know Loki is a deceitful individual who prefers the shadows to the battlefield Thor is more at home on. Their names and personalities aren’t going to require as much introduction, having been fleshed-out characters for hundreds of years. For those seeking to tell a story that has this level of impact, they’re a logical choice, and they also hold a greater focus on violence than who’s sleeping with who, as Greek myths are wont to do.
Mythology in general, when it comes to Hollywood, is dominated by the Greeks. Troy, Jason and the Argonauts, O Brother Where Art Thou – the classics are the classics, and their ideal mix of sex, violence and super powers are a sound starting point. They’re also far more familiar to us due to efforts like Disney’s Hercules, and that increased amount of familiarity is why you’ll see less Norse and more Greek myth taking place on the big screen.
Personally, I think it’s a shame – the Greek stuff is great, but Norse mythology is so incredibly brutal and lacks the melodrama found on Mount Olympus. In an age where films aren’t shying away as much from the blood and guts of conflict, this could be the time to rise if you’re thinking of penning a screenplay that covers the legends of those who spend their time flitting about the World Tree battling one another – especially given Norse mythology has an end point in its Ragnarok apocalypse tale.
Norse myth is a fascinating series of tales about well-defined, deep, dark characters. While the more light-hearted stuff you’ll find in Marvel’s output is enjoyable, it’d be nice to see someone tackle some of the real gritty tales, such as the story of where Tyr’s hand went, or how Loki’s offspring includes a serpent so big it encircles the world. You won’t see this stuff in a 12A screening, but it’d be bloody great, wouldn’t it?