Thors-day Reflection: Does new Thor steal DC's thunder?

Let’s take a moment to give a slow clap to Marvel Comics this week. Just days before San Diego Comic-Con kicks off, the comic-book publisher announced major character changes to Captain America and Thor, and proceeded to win big on the publicity front as the news gained attention from international media outlets. Even more impressive is that they got me to tune into The View on Tuesday.

Joe Quesada's revelation on The Colbert Report that the first African-American superhero, the Falcon, aka Sam Wilson, would be taking over as Captain America was pretty cool. But it's easy to generate coverage surrounding an American cultural icon such as the Sentinel of Liberty -- which is not to diminish the significance of the news. Doing the same thing over Thor news not connected to Chris Hemsworth? Yeah, I’m impressed.

In case you missed it, Whoopi Goldberg and cohorts announced on The View that Thor would be a woman in the Marvel comic, beginning this October. Here’s the tricky part: The dude who was Thor will still be out there, but the power of the God of Thunder -- one worthy of wielding Mjolnir -- will be endowed on a mysterious woman. And it’s a safe bet we’ve met this woman before.

There are questions bothering me about this news. If the hammer makes the man-god, did Beta Ray Bill, Captain America and Storm actually become Thor when they picked it up? If Thor is not “Lady Thor” or “Thorita,” how will we distinguish Thor from Thor, since both are hanging around? Will dude Thor and the separated Donald Blake team-up to solve crimes together as blond buddy cops?

But the questions I have about the new Thor do not include “why” Marvel opted to make a lot of noise with the God of Thunder.

There are a growing number of female comic readers, and reflecting that audience makes sense. I don’t completely agree with Comics Beat’s methodology in arriving at the 47 percent figure of women reading comics (a number arrived at largely by analyzing Facebook likes), but, based on observations at comic cons and in shops, the number doesn’t strike me as unrealistic. Sure, the move is commercial, but that doesn’t make it automatically negative.

This is especially the case because Marvel has been kicking butt with its female-led books lately. Along with Thor, Ms. Marvel, X-Men and She-Hulk, there will now be eight titles with a woman at the forefront. One of the gripes I’ve read from nerd-raging commenters is that Marvel didn’t have to change Thor. They could have altered a lesser character or created a new female hero instead of altering an established one.

Certainly, I always want to see new, strong characters introduced (female and male), but people respond more to what they know. Thor has name recognition and 52 years of history, yet he’s still relatively fresh in the mainstream consciousness. That’s precisely what makes him a great candidate for the switch. 

While a beloved comic-book hero before Hemsworth brought him to life in the 2011 live-action film, Marvel's rendition of the Norse myth wasn't thought of by most people at all.  When I was a kid, he wasn’t even action-figure-worthy until the early ’90s. He got the Mego treatment in the ’70s, but he wasn’t deemed good enough for the Secret Wars toy line I had in the late 1980s. Although not a huge Thor fan, I liked the Asgardian enough to want to assemble him with my other Avengers figures. So this meant making a low-rent Thor by giving the blond Dreadnok Buzzer a cape (courtesy Lord Dread of Captain Power) and hammer (from fellow Dreadnok Zanzibar). And despite being in the popular The Incredible Hulk Returns TV movie, Thor didn’t get enough of a boost to get his own series.

So when Marvel Studios began its lead-up to The Avengers movie, Thor still seemed like a gamble. Even within my nerd circles, we were excited about the shared cinematic universe, but the sentiment about Thor was “How are they going to pull off that one? Will he keep the helmet?”

Well, clearly they did pull it off, and he did pretty much lose the helmet. And now Thor is kind of cool -- and primed for a shakeup. In fact, the more popular the character, the more likely they are to be subjected to some major event.

But I have a sense this Thor change is more than just a temporary stunt, even though I don’t expect dude Thor to stay ungodly forever. And though it's admittedly wildly speculative, I think the new Thor will be positioned as a direct competitor to another warrior goddess in comics: Wonder Woman.

The rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics feels more heated lately than it has ever been. After all, the two big names of comics are in the empire business, building massive movie and television franchises. And the battle is over billions of dollars.

Sure, Marvel has a lot of great female characters, but this Thor feels like a shot across the bow at a third of DC’s holy trinity. The female Thor news overshadows the recent announcement that married team Meredith and David Finch will helm Wonder Woman beginning in November. And the double whammy of the Thor and Cap news this week really sets the stage for a strong Marvel showing at San Diego Comic-Con next week. While I would not say it steals DC Comics' thunder at the con, it certainly is a lightning strike that should make parent company Warner Bros. a little nervous. That is, until Zack Snyder reveals footage from Batman vs. Superman in Hall H. 

Speaking of which, take another look at new Thor’s practical warrior wear of full helmet, metal breastplate, gauntlet and even covered legs. She looks ready to kick some ass while remaining sexy. I have a Bifrost to sell you if you don’t think Thor’s costume will be mentioned in comparison to Wonder Woman’s if, as expected, Warner Brothers does reveals Gal Gadot’s getup at the con (personally, I kind of want to see the traditional WW costume on the big screen, but I nevertheless expect her star-spangled undies to be problematic for the movie at the same time Marvel just showed how it could be done differently).

Staying on the topic of movies, DC Comics/Warner Bros. are way behind Marvel with their world-building, and they are rushing to catch up. The word is a Wonder Woman movie will hit in 2017, but up until now, they haven't seemed much interested in breaking a story for her. Meanwhile, the Marvel movie-verse has built up Black Widow (though she hasn’t gotten a standalone flick yet), and we’ll see Scarlet Witch in next year’s Avengers sequelIf Marvel Comics/Marvel Studios/Disney recognizes there is a growing female readership, and if they continue to play a long game, might we see a female Thor in cinemas down the road?

It's not an absurd thought; Hemsworth has three movies left he must contractually make with Marvel. I doubt the company wants to reboot its characters, and instead sees value in continually growing and expanding their universe. When Chris Evans retires from Cap duty, Sebastian Stan as Bucky (or maybe even Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson) will be ready to take over. If this new Thor gains traction in the comics through solid storytelling and character development (and, of course, good sales), they might have a female hero ready to go should Hemsworth choose to pass on the hammer.

As I said, all this is contingent on whether the storytelling and development are there. If the new Thor stories fall flat, the change will be remembered as a stunt. If it’s compelling, it could redefine Thor in a cool way. But that’s still a big “if.” As impressed as I am that Thor became a headline for mainstream outlets yesterday, the hard work is just beginning for Marvel.

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