Superheroes can be considered the myths of the 20th and 21st centuries. Like Hercules and Odysseus of Ancient Greece, they can be an inspiration, but also an icon of their time (Bland). In both of these capacities, they exemplify the values of their era, showing modern audiences how some qualities can be seen as positive centuries later: self-sacrifice, protecting those in need, wisdom, or wits. Others, however, shift towards negativity within centuries or even decades: strength, power. Such is the case of the rapid change in sex and gender stereotypes, expectations, and presentation in the last century. Thus, as a hero first imagined in the 1940s adapts to similar changes, his or her character, as well as the stories in which they feature, can change drastically. Superheroes such as Marvel’s Thor, himself based on the Norse god, and DC’s Wonder Woman, initially contextualized within Greek and Roman mythology, offer insights into these changes (Ormrod 540-541). Notably, while the expectations from men have changed little since the characters’ introduction, those of women have undergone a major transformation.
Superheroes as Myth
Modern superheroes have significant similarities with heroes of classical mythology. Most importantly, they both serve as moral exemplars, helping their audience “explain and understand both social and individual behaviour” (Mainer 75). Mythical heroes embodied the ideals and morals held by their communities (Mainer 78). Similarly, since their inception in the first half of the 20th century, most American superheroes embodied the ideals of the U.S. culture, such as justice and truth (Mainer 77). These particular ideals are common within the superhero genre, espoused, sometimes explicitly, by many major characters. Beyond embodying and exemplifying a culture’s ideals, both superheroes and mythical heroes are created to reinforce, spread and legitimize such ideals, as well as carry social, political, and moral messages (Mainer 81).
Another major similarity between modern superheroes and heroes of classical mythology is their perseverance through different retellings and versions of their stories. For modern superhero comics, these retellings and versions are the multiple reboots and screen adaptations they have seen (Mainer 78). However, the core features that define the hero generally remain relatively unchanged between versions (Mainer 80). Moreover, superhero narratives often have direct parallels with those of classical myths (Mainer 80). All of these features establish the similarities and inheritance of tradition between classical mythology and modern superheroes.
Wonder Woman is uncommon among superhero characters created in the 1940s and 1950s, most of whom are male. At the time, the character was already entrenched in contemporary feminist ideas, one of her early descriptions “proclaiming her equality with the female gods and supremacy over the male gods (Cocca 26). Her author, W. Marston, was known for his feminist and suffragist partners, while his preferred artist for the early Wonder Woman comic books, was similarly involved in the suffrage movement (Cocca 26). The character’s visual design, contrary to the conventions of the time, was not necessarily stereotypically attractive, and her origin story emphasized goddesses rather than gods (Cocca 26). While characters of races other than white were commonly treated as caricatures in these early comics, the stories generally challenged the time’s ingrained conceptions of gender (Cocca 27-28). Since then, Wonder Woman has been significantly reimagined, particularly in DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths story arc (Ormrod 1-2). Thus, the character already had strong ties to feminism by the time of her 2016 debut in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. However, her character was only explored a year later, in 2017’s Wonder Woman.
The film starts by introducing the viewer to a young Diana, a headstrong girl living in the all-female Amazon society on the idyllic island of Themiscira. From the first scenes, she embraces the heroic stereotype of the character who wants to fight despite his or her elders’ wishes (Wonder Woman). While such rebelliousness is common in coming-of-age stories, its specific expression in a desire to receive combat training is generally restricted to male characters. From one perspective, these scenes establish her as having generally positive character traits of strength and a desire to help others. However, the context of these scenes can significantly change this interpretation. Since the Amazons are a warrior society, and Diana is the queen’s daughter, the rebelliousness can be seen as a desire to conform to society’s expectations. This constitutes significant hypocrisy of the film: presenting the girl’s desires that would likely be viewed as rebellious and non-conformist in the real world but are entirely conformist in the story’s context.
For most of the protagonists, who are never explicitly named Wonder Woman in the film, further characterization comes in the scenes in London. Her misunderstanding of 1918’s British culture is comical but also draws attention to the period’s social inequalities, particularly towards gender roles (Wonder Woman). This constitutes criticism of these norms, most notably, the restrictive and impractical clothing, as well as a clear delineation of men’s and women’s spaces (Wonder Woman). However, the criticism is similarly delivered through a character who is not only an outsider to European society but an outsider to a gendered society in general. She offers less of a woman’s view on the time’s norms and more of a self-reliant outsider’s view (Robinson). As such, rather than a confrontation of extant gender norms, her comments can be viewed as conformity to her society, one that cannot have gender norms because there is only one gender.
While the origin of Diana’s beliefs and attitudes can be seen as the product of her culture and, therefore, their applicability to the real world can be contested, the beliefs themselves are positive. During the first half of the film, she expresses an idealistic desire to not only oppose violence and oppression but attempt to save everyone (Wonder Woman). She maintains an aggressive and stubborn attitude towards fulfilling them, essentially believing that a single source, Ares, is responsible for all of humanity’s evil (Wonder Woman). By the end of the film, her beliefs grow, through disillusionment and finding a connection to humanity, to understand that the human experience encompasses the capacity for both good and evil (Wonder Woman). By upholding these beliefs, Diana herself embodies the ideal of heroic ideals of acceptance and striving to see the best in people.
These ideals combine traditionally masculine aggression and a drive to attack problems with direct strength with traditionally feminine ideals of care and nurture. However, especially in earlier scenes, she in many ways embodies the old heroic male ideal. Because of this, authors such as Cocca (50) argue that rather than developing a female or feminist ideal, she “conform[s] to a male norm”. Nonetheless, despite her portrayal, which can be seen as hypocritical and overly masculine, she is a strong protagonist with the agency in the film’s story, embodying values of resilience and equality. As such, while this portrayal may not represent new feminism, it establishes her as a role model and a heroine of the modern myth, particularly when compared to Marvel’s Thor.
Marvel’s Thor draws his image from the Norse god of the same name. The two share the hammer Mjolnir as their weapon and an association with manliness and lightning. However, modern versions of Marvel’s Thor significantly diverge from his Scandinavian counterpart. In his latest movie adaptation, Thor: Ragnarok, he is portrayed as a comical character who is often clumsy, misunderstands, or is otherwise at odds with his more serious foils.
The authors of this version may have intended to make Thor less threateningly masculine, especially around women. This is evident in the scene where he approaches Scrapper 142 after discovering she is Asgardian. In this scene, he is shown stumbling over his words, commenting on wanting to join the Valkyries, an all-female organization. In the same scene, he points out that it is “about time” for an “elite force of women warriors” and pronounces his love for women “not in a creepy way” (Thor: Ragnarok). These comments underline an attempt to portray him as a less assertively masculine hero. However, they show no commitment to the emerging ideal masculine figure. Although his words are different, the result and obvious intent of recruiting Scrapper to help him are unchanged from what a different character might have attempted. Furthermore, as he ultimately fails and is ignored by the woman, this can be seen as a statement that this less assertive approach is ineffective. Finally, one can view such a subversion of the masculine ideal as a joke.
In the following sequence, Thor’s behavior further subverts the traditional masculine ideal. First, he is shown threatening, then scared of, a man preparing to cut his hair with an intimidating contraption (Thor: Ragnarok). Next, in his confrontation with the Hulk, he attempts to calm his opponent down by appealing to him (Thor: Ragnarok). These two events further subvert the traditional expectation of fearlessness and use strength and power as the first resort in conflicts. However, similar to the previous example, these methods prove ineffective at their presented goal: Thor still fights Hulk and wins (Thor: Ragnarok). Ultimately, this subversion is only superficial and slightly affects the character’s presentation, but not his motivations or actions to any significant extent.
Similarly, Thor’s minor with Loki exposes a more hostile and toxic side of him. For instance, his first reaction to seeing abound and supposedly surrendering Loki is to throw a can at his head — explained by him being a known trickster, like his Norse prototype (Thor: Ragnarok). This action is justified by Loki’s previous assaults on Thor but presents the protagonist as unnecessarily aggressive. In a later scene, he admonishes his brother for remaining static and calls for personal growth after foreseeing and foiling his betrayal (Thor: Ragnarok). While he demonstrates some practical learning in the scene by correctly anticipating Loki’s actions, morally and ethically he does not seem to have grown.
Thor’s motivation through the film remains questionable and never expanded beyond wishing to return to Asgard and defeat Hela. In the previous Thor films, he was motivated by personal reasons (Abad-Santos). In Ragnarok, the personal stakes are largely missing; however, their replacement is vague. The film suggests that he is realizing his identity with Asgardians and his responsibility for them as a worthy heir to the throne, but never elaborates upon the idea. Therefore, the viewer is free to project his or her motivations on the blank slate main character. The authors, while disavowing personal reasons, do not make a sufficiently strong commitment to any greater ideals for Thor’s motivation.
Based on the above observations, Thor in Ragnarok does not demonstrate any traits associated with emerging ideals of masculinity in a positive light. Although the film strips away some of his more traditional traits, it shows no commitment to offering a replacement. Moreover, new qualities and less aggressive approaches are shown as ineffective, comical, and sometimes worthy of ridicule. Thor’s presentation only superficially differs from the traditional macho hero, detracting from it, but offering little back. As a consequence, the character fails at being an exemplar of virtue or a role model, never developing the mythic qualities attributed to superheroes.
Superheroes have taken their place as heroes of modern myths. As two examples of modern superheroes in film, Wonder Woman and Thor, in Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok, respectively, offer a contrasting view of their position as modern mythical heroes. While both examine the issues of gender representation relevant today, they achieve different results. Thor is presented as a superficial variation on the traditional action movie hero, detracting from the stereotype without offering anything in return. Moreover, his less traditionally masculine actions are generally ineffective and shown as worthy of ridicule. Wonder Woman, in comparison, is presented as an idealistic and strong role model, comparable to a classical hero. However, her presentation is fraught with hypocrisy, making her challenge of women’s gender roles and stereotypes questionable in the context of the film’s story.
Abad-Santos, Alex. “Thor: Ragnarok Finally Makes Thor a Hero Worth Rooting for.” Vox. 2017. Web.
Bland, Archie. “Comic Book Superheroes: The Gods of Modern Mythology.” The Guardian, 2016. Web.
Cocca, Carolyn. Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Mainer, Vanessa Del Prete. “Modern Heroes: Classical Mythology and Classical Values in the Contemporary Acquis, the Case of Captain America.” Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, vol. 42, no. S1, 2019, pp. 74-80.
Ormrod, J. “Wonder Woman 1987-1990: the Goddess, the Iron Maiden and the Sacralisation of Consumerism.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, vol. 9, no. 6, 2018, pp. 540-554.
Robinson, Tasha. “Wonder Woman Review: A Tremendous Win for a Franchise That Desperately Needed One.” The Verge, 2017. Web.
Thor: Ragnarok. Directed by Taika Waititi, performance by Chris Hemsworth, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2017.
Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, performance by Gal Gadot, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 2017.