The Mighty THOR

By Sean Carroll | May 4, 2011 9:20 am

I know everyone is excited about this weekend’s premiere (at least here in the U.S.) of Thor, the latest superhero extravaganza from Marvel studios. At least I am, for my usual selfish reasons: I helped do some consulting (through the Science and Entertainment Exchange) for the movie. Also, there is a mystical hammer that smashes things; what’s not to like?

Unlike TRON: Legacy, where we came in after the screenplay had been drafted, on Thor we came in near the beginning. Marvel had done a lot of work on the idea, but there wasn’t yet a script. The Exchange set up a consult meeting with director Kenneth Branagh, the screenwriter, and few people on the design and production side of things, along with three scientists — Jim Hartle from USCB, Kevin Hand from JPL, and myself.

We bandied around lots of issues relating to the Thor universe and how it fit in with Marvel’s bigger plans. Once there was a script, I came in to read it and offer some more comments. Since that time, the script was re-written by the dynamic duo of Ash Miller and Zack Stentz, and I haven’t actually seen the film yet, so I can’t speak to what kind of impact we had in the end. Let’s just say that there was one thing in particular that they were planning on doing in the movie that drove all the scientists batty — I think we convinced them to fix it, but we’ll have to see. And once filming started, they recruited Caltech student Kevin Hickerson to help with the tech-gadgetry end of things. So I have high hopes. (Early reviews are very positive. And of course, Agent Coulson returns, with a larger role than in the Iron Man films. Everyone loves Agent Coulson.)

You might be wondering, where is there room for any sort of science in a comic-book movie about a Norse god in a red cape who swings a magical hammer? Well I’m glad you asked. Actually there were a couple of different things where the movie people were very interested in our input. One was constructing a coherent framework for the Marvel universe — ultimately, this story about Thor the thunder god is going to have to be compatible with Tony Stark’s Iron Man world, since the two characters are both part of the Avengers. (I also got to read the script for that, and yes — it is as great as the rumors suggest.)

Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not our world, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long. The thinking here is very much based on Arthur C. Clarke’s “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the trailer above, Thor basically gives exactly this pitch to Jane Foster.

That’s the other area where we science consultants were able to help out: in shaping Natalie Portman’s character of Jane Foster. In the original comic books Foster was a nurse, but they wanted to update her considerably for the movie. So they hit on the idea that she could be a scientist, but what kind of scientist? (I argued that she be an experimental physicist.) What kind of position would she hold? Could there be tension with her academic supervisor? What kind of posters does a young physicist have on her apartment wall?

Again, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m very hopeful that Jane Foster ends up being a strong character and a good representation of scientists. Natalie Portman seems to think so — you can read here and here about how she feels this role was an opportunity to do something different and important.

“Ken and I talked a lot before we started about how to make Jane a realistic scientist on screen — (and) not just make her (like) Denise Richards in Bond who wears . . . glasses and so she’s a real scientist,” Portman said. “We talked about how real scientists are like artists: They are able to imagine things that aren’t there. And to give (Jane) this sense that she’s sort of frazzled and she’s often thinking in abstractions.”

I do know people like that, yes. And who knows what young person might see the movie and get some inspiration? Portman again:

“I got to read all of these biographies of female scientists like Rosalind Franklin who actually discovered the DNA double helix but didn’t get the credit for it,” she said. “The struggles they had and the way that they thought — I was like, ‘What a great opportunity, in a very big movie that is going to be seen by a lot of people, to have a woman as a scientist.’ She’s a very serious scientist. Because in the comic she’s a nurse and now they made her an astrophysicist. Really, I know it sounds silly, but it is those little things that makes girls think it’s possible. It doesn’t give them a [role] model of ‘Oh, I just have to dress cute in movies.’”

Right on. We all know that no amount of superhero blockbusters are going to suddenly create a science-literate public. But a positive portrayal here and there can help lower the barriers between scientists and everyone else. Any movie that can inspire young girls and feature a magical flying hammer that smashes things is okay in my book.

  • http://togroklife.com Greg

    You’re not going to come out after Natalie Portman wins some award and claim that you did 90% of her scenes with science in them, are you, Sean?

  • Todos Manos

    Mjölnir’s handle should be much shorter, re Loki as a fly biting Brokkr on his eyelid. Thor had quite the way with goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. One can only imagine the diverse social impacts of discovering sheep.

  • onymous

    We talked about how real scientists are like artists: They are able to imagine things that aren’t there.

    I love this. It’s a little insulting, but also kind of accurate. And it reminds me of this exchange in a much older movie:

    Kris Kringle: You know what the imagination is?
    Susan Walker: Oh, sure. That’s when you see things, but they’re not really there.
    Kris Kringle: Well, that can be caused by other things, too.

  • Scott

    @Headshots LA, the Rocky and Bullwinkle movie came out like 5 years ago. It was pretty terrible.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Scott, you are responding to a spam message (that I’ve since deleted).

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  • https://picasaweb.google.com/SamBennet1957 Sam Bennet

    I went to see the 3D version on Sunday.
    We were fairly impressed.
    Only thing that grated was how often events were happening 50 miles away.
    Spectacular, especially the last minutes, as everyone was walking out. Worth staying for.

  • Matthew Saunders

    I was looking at that picture of the woman and going “Eww…that’s a really ugly picture…that kinda looks like Natalie Portman and she doesn’t look like that…” and I find out that it is. WOW :)

  • Chris

    To me, Thor will always be the little Asgard we came to love on Stargate.

  • David

    Mjolnir looks kind of wimpy. The head is kind of small, the handle seems too short and he holds it too close to the head. Try hammering in a nail by holding the hammer near the head and see how far you get.

    One more thing, can we get back to real sci-fi and not these silly comic book movies? There are a million good sci-fi books that can be turned into movies; what’s the obsession with comic books?

  • JimV

    Amen, David @ 10. I’ve been saying that for a long time, because even before the comic-book movie era, a lot of bad, so-called sci-fi movies were made by people who had no real respect for the genre, while the masterpieces of the field have yet to be filmed.

    Frankly, I think the efforts that went into “Star Wars” and even “Avatar” would have been better spent on “Merchanter’s Luck” and “A Deepness In The Sky”, respectively, although I know most people won’t agree with me.

    That said, if Hollywood had to go to comic-books for material, they picked the right ones in Marvel of the Stan Lee era.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    So is Thor, like, an honest-to-goodness god, or is he some kind of alien?

  • Charlie Earl Owens

    David: Most people actually read comic books.

  • http://opines.mythusmage.org Alan Kellogg

    Low Math, @#12

    In the Marvel universe Thor is a god. A small “g” god, but a god.

    It’s not the real world, but an alternate one where magic works, radiation causes strange mutations, and deities drop in for a pint and to lay down a wager or two before the game starts on the flatscreen in the corner.

    As for Clark’s Third Law, keep this in mind; Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology

  • spyder

    I am not expecting to be wowed by Thor, the movie. Like much comic history, the art of the books was inspiring to imagination in ways that can’t really be replicated in film. I will always enjoy the art of Kirby, Ditko, Sekowsky, Buscema, et al.

    It will be interesting to see how the scientists handle the transformation of Doctor Strange from the Master of the Black Arts, then Master of the Mystic Arts, to the Sorcerer Supreme.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I somehow missed out on Thor completely growing up. Figured the Silver Surfer was as weird as it got. I stand corrected.

  • http://www.physicsofsuperheroes.com Jim Kakalios

    Cool article Sean. Very jealous of your having read the Avengers script.

    I’m still waiting by my phone for a call from the Ant-Man crew!

    Won’t get to see Thor till Saturday – but will see it with my daughter, who is just back from college, studying to be a scientist herself! When she saw the end of Iron Man 2, and saw the brief shot of the hammer in New Mexico (Land of Enchantment) she exclaimed: “They’re making a Thor movie?!”

    Yes, she is a geek, like her father before her.

    Papa popped a button with pride, he did.

  • rrs0426

    I don’t understand why the producers felt the need to deviate from the comic book in the respect that Thor and the Aesir are indeed “gods” and they use actual “magic”. It’s a freakin’ movie, fer crissakes, why does it have to try and come up with some scientifically-related explanation for those things? Seems like clumsy retconning to me. They’re already in a universe in which gamma rays can cause someone to gain insane mass out of nowhere, where a kid can get bit by a”genetically altered” spider and shoot webs out of sphincters in his wrists, in which a guy can hurtle into the earth at hundreds of miles an hour in “armor” and yet be completely immune to the pulverizing effects of extreme inertia, so how is “magic” any more hard to believe? With all this preposterous “science” already on display, I’d more readily rather believe in “magic” as an explanation for super powers, I should say.

  • Tyler

    That ANSWERS IT! I went to see the film today with my son and per the aforementioned parts from your article above (Arthur C Clarke Quote..tacky) I began immediately wondering who was ruining my fun watching this movie by injecting “Scientism” and “Atheistic Scientific Materialism” into a film about “Norse Mythology”, “Comic Book Characters I.E Fiction” and it didn’t take me long to discover who. Why it was YOU Sean! The question now is “Why”? What MOTIVATES you so?

    To my mind, it would only take the most Militant Atheist to angle on how to get his philosophy into a “Comic Book Film”. And congratulations you DID it! Sean your a great Evangelist for Atheism and a Dogmatic Naturalist, Materialist, Reductionist and apparently proud moral relativist (I must give you props there in your refutation to Harris)…….so WE GET IT…in your world… “Matter is all there is…and you MUST be right about it..you do have a PHD in Physics which allows you to make expert qualifying. statements about anything Metaphysical or Philosophical in nature”….. I’m sure a great many University Philosophy Departments would disagree with your Naturalism is all there is assertions..but they probably should be dismissed anyways right? and besides that is a different topic altogether…

    Anyways…..BUT REALLLYY…bringing your “Dogmatic Naturalism” to world of COMIC BOOKS AND NORSE MYTHOLOGY? Are you a Scientist or a Foaming Mouthed Full Time Atheist Activist? Why bring your “Materialist Dogma” to the world of “Comic Books”? Why? Are you that determined to get to any media source what-so-ever to “Get the all important Message Out..that in your naturalistic worldview life has no objective moral value, no purpose and no meaning”?

    Ridiculous…

    In the meantime I will keep an eye on “The Science and Entertainment Exchange” there are some militant obnoxious Evangelical Atheists with Agendas sitting in that circle and I was wondering where the stupid writers in Hollywood are getting these little nuggets of “Plot Twists”.

  • Charris

    ^Troll

  • Tyler

    ^ Brain incapable of dealing with Criticism or Questions of philosophical nature and agendas…resorts to name calling on “Science Blog”…..

  • Rick

    Tyler,

    “What MOTIVATES you so?”

    Don’t know what motivates Sean, but if it was me, a good deal of motivation would come from reading rants like yours and just deciding it was important to continue to try and correctly explain the world so that more people don’t become so angry, lost and confused.

  • diogenes

    Saw Thor yesterday (5 people in theater) and really liked it. Much better than the last Iron Man. Saw it in 2d as the 3d version is, by all accounts, just a ripoff and an excuse to charge more. Thought it was quite free of science related silliness and obvious mistakes, which made it much easier to suspend disbelief. Wasn’t perfect in that respect but infinitely better than Source Code, for example. Don’t know how much of that was due to the consultants (who have shown they’re quite capable of fecking up explanations to movies like Source Code ) or the fact that Kenneth Branagh is a really smart, talented director.

  • Jackson

    Hey Sean, I saw Thor Friday and thought it was awesome. I’m glad I read this post before I watched the movie so I kept my eyes open for the new take on magic, I thought it was really well done and loved the Arthur C. Clarke take on the ‘magic’ of the Norse Gods. I’m not sure how it will work for Dr. Strange, but it was really interesting and probably made the film more accessible to a wider audience (how many fantasy movies besides Lord of the Rings actually do well at the box office).

    One thing though, Natalie Portman’s character seemed a little too ditsy to be a scientist and over the course of the movie it seemed like she did ever stereotypical love interest mistake that you see in movies. Oh and any word if any of more marvel’s non-male superheroes will be appearing in the avengers or will it just be Black Widow?

  • Pingback: Thor Pays Tribute to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rule About Magic and Technology | Science Not Fiction | Discover Magazine

  • DaveG

    “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

    I cringe a little when I hear that, because it’s circular. Showing more commitment to the concept, one might say “Anything we don’t understand is magic.” What an epic pissing contest that would bring! The first thing that comes to mind is, what is a thought, and how does it make us contract our muscles?

  • Citizen Alan

    Actually, DaveG, I’d almost agree with that second statement. “Magic” is simply a short hand term for something which appears completely inexplicable under commonly understood scientific laws. Technology so advanced it is centuries ahead of contemporary understanding is, by that definition, indistinguishable from magic. “Doctor Who” is a great example of a character who ostensibly uses science but whose knowledge is millions of years ahead of our own and whose actions might as well be the product of magic as super-science. Hell, he uses his screwdriver the same way Harry Potter uses a wand.

  • viggen

    I thought Natalie Portman did a credible job as a scientist. I went into the movie expecting her astrophysicist to be Denise Richards from “The World is not Enough” and I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, I was appalled by Denise Richards as a scientist –considering she might well have been playing a scientologist and not known the difference. The negative expectation of finding another awful Hollywood scientist heightened my positive response to Natalie Portman’s scientist. If you helped to be responsible for that Sean, I say props are in order:-)

  • Dennis

    “The negative expectation of finding another awful Hollywood scientist heightened my positive response to Natalie Portman’s scientist. If you helped to be responsible for that Sean, I say props are in order:-)”

    Sean,

    Now I’m curious. Do you or do you not take credit for Natalie Portman? ;)

  • http://www.freeplaymmo.com God of Thunder

    The movie was not bad but it was not great either. For a supposedly all powerful God-like Hero, Thor doesn’t feel nor look that powerful in the movie.

  • Pingback: Thor Points | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

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  • Bill

    Obvious troll is obvious. Jussayin

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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