The Unworthy Thor
Humility and Worthiness
By Armond Boudreaux
***Major Spoilers follow for The Unworthy Thor.***
“I’ll bet the Hulk could lift Thor’s hammer.”
My oldest son said this several years ago when I first introduced him to superheroes. (It’s a fairly common mistake, thinking that Mjolnir is so heavy that only the very strongest can lift it.) I explained to him that no, the Hulk can’t lift Mjolnir because he isn’t worthy of lifting it.
“What makes you worthy?” he asked.
I didn’t want to get into a discussion of virtue ethics with him and lose his interest (he was four at the time), so I explained it in simple terms.
“Humility,” I told him. “Thinking of others as more important than yourself. Thor became worthy when he became truly humble.”
Though the sophisticated answer (Well, true moral worth depends on whether one has the virtues, and virtues are…) is probably more interesting for academics like me to talk about, the simple answer that I gave my son back then is more profound and ultimately more satisfying. All of the virtues are important, but none of them is enough. Humility is the key to everything. It’s what keeps courage from becoming arrogance; turns sexual attraction into love; keeps rulers from becoming tyrants; moves us to compassion; moves people to sacrifice their time, money, labor, and even lives for the good of others; and it’s what enables us to forgive each other.
So in both the comics and in the film universe, Thor becomes worthy only when he comes to think of others as more important than himself. Sure, at times he boasts to supervillains about being the God of Thunder and the Son of Odin, but his actions show that he puts the good of others before his own good.
On Wednesday The Unworthy Thor #5 dropped. This is the issue that fans of Thor have been awaiting since 2014’s Original Sin crossover event. At the end of that story (written by Jason Aaron, current scribe of the Thor titles), Nick Fury whispers something to the God of Thunder that instantly makes him unworthy of Mjolnir. The hammer falls from his hand onto the surface of the moon, where Jane Foster recovers it and transforms into the current Thor.
Those who understand what it means for anyone to be worthy to wield Mjolnir immediately asked: What in the world could Nick Fury say to Thor that would make him become unworthy? Wouldn’t Thor have to do something or stop doing something before he became unworthy?
And so we waited. After several months and then more than a year went by, it became easy to think that maybe even Jason Aaron didn’t know what Fury said. After all, the fact that any words could make Thor unworthy seemed to contradict what we know about worthiness. So I started to wonder whether or not the mysterious whisper had simply been a lazy way of getting the Odinson out of the way in order to introduce the new Thor.
Now The Unworthy Thor has come along to shatter all of those suspicions like—ahem—a bolt of lightning (KrakkaDOOM!). The story follows Thor’s quest to recover the version of Mjolnir that was wielded by the Thor of the Ultimate Universe (part of the Marvel multiverse that existed until the Secret Wars event in 2015). With his Mjolnir being wielded by Jane Foster, the Odinson reasons that he might be able to wield this new hammer.
But when he finally finds the Ultimate Universe Mjolnir and reaches out to grasp the handle, he decides not to take it. He can hear it calling to someone else (“As mine called to her,” he says). Though he doesn’t say this, it seems clear that he’s reluctant to take possession of a hammer that belongs to someone else when his own has been taken from him.
And then he finally reveals what we’ve all wanted to know for three years: the words that Fury whispered to him:
***Last spoiler alert.***
“Gorr was right.”
For those who don’t know, Gorr (also known as the God Butcher) is the main villain in the first story arc of Thor: God of Thunder, which Aaron began writing back in 2012. An alien who suffers the loss of his family (some to an earthquake and others to starvation), Gorr seeks vengeance against the deities of the universe, whom he blames for his family’s suffering and death. When Thor discovers that someone is committing genocide against immortals across the universe, he goes after the killer and defeats him—but not before Gorr’s accusations shake him badly. The story explores age-old questions about the problem of evil: if a good God (or gods) exists, why do evil things happen?
The revelation of Fury’s words, then, suggests that what made Thor unworthy was his belief that he is no longer worthy. It’s both a stunningly simple and deeply complicated answer to the question that Thor fans have been asking since Original Sin. If Thor’s worthiness is determined by his possession of certain virtues (chiefly humility), then how could what Fury says affect him as it does? If nothing else, Fury’s words ought to make Thor feel even more humble, right? If Gorr was right that gods are all “vain and vengeful creatures,” then wouldn’t that humble him even more, making him even worthier of Mjolnir?
But it is important to remember that humility is not the same thing as having a low opinion of yourself. It doesn’t mean a lack of “self-esteem.” Humility simply means ranking others as more important than yourself. And when Fury tells Thor that “Gorr was right,” his words destroy Thor’s humility by making him think more about himself. So when we see Thor at the end of Original Sin—despondent and struggling to lift Mjolnir—he has returned to the mentality that he had before he ever became worthy to begin with. His concern is entirely with lifting the hammer—not for the good of others, but for his own good, for his own sense of worthiness. He needs to regain the feeling that he deserves Mjolnir.
The Unworthy Thor is important, not only because it reveals why Thor became unworthy, but also because it shows us the moment when he regains his worthiness. When he chooses not to take up this new Mjolnir, he does so because he knows that it is calling to someone else, that another hero has a greater need of this hammer than he does. He stands to regain his personal sense of worth by taking the hammer for his own, but paradoxically, he is worthy to lift it only because he has the humility not to.
The title of The Unworthy Thor proves to be ironic, then. Far from being unworthy, the series proves that this old Thor is as worthy as he has ever been.
Armond Boudreaux is a writer and assistant professor of English who lives in Georgia. He is the author of That He May Raise, Animus: Little Gods, and the forthcoming Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World. He writes about superheroes, politics, and philosophy at http://www.aclashofheroes.wordpress.com. You can read more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.