In the beloved comics, both men not only are rooted in times long past, but are so squeaky clean as to be unrelatable (the same problem that recent adaptations of Superman faced, with varying degrees of success). Blonde, beautiful, and beefcake-y, these mythic giants are possessed of an ethos that is so pure, so lofty that we may aspire to it but never fully expect to achieve it.
Eight years and billions of dollars later, we are in the dawn of Phase 3 with several more installations to come (not to mention an undetermined number of future phases!) and no ceiling for success in sight. As for the “problem” of Cap and Thor, it would seem the Marvel geniuses solved it with aplomb. The characters have enjoyed approximately equal success with one another both in the box office and in fan response, and are just as established and beloved as anchor members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Avengers as their original print counterparts.
Yet I personally continue to be far less satisfied with the Thor adaptations than with Cap’s, and it wasn’t until the credits rolled for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that I could fully articulate why:
Thor makes me root for him to overcome and be better, as every standard hero should.
Captain America makes me want to make myself better.
This is not to disparage Thor as a character, nor his value in the Marvel machine. He is a perfectly likable protagonist and follows the hero’s journey structure well. An incorruptible paragon of virtue, he never shies away from conflict or personal sacrifice in order to protect the realms and loves of his life. He was also brilliantly set up by Joss Whedon as the only true match / neutralizer for Hulk, a major feat and pivotal role.
He’s just so distractable. The big mistake they made in adapting Thor’s story was overemphasizing his romantic affections (even going so far as to create an insulting love triangle in Thor: The Dark World that only served to diminish Lady Sif and make Thor wishy-washy). In truth, Thor’s weaknesses have only ever been arrogance and, of course, Loki. (Thank God for Tom Hiddleston, the clear anchor of Thor’s whole franchise and without whom, Thor might devolve into an inconsistent, incoherent action figure.)
Meanwhile, Captain America is so firmly grounded in honor and truth that his greatest weakness is not having enough of himself to go around – the fact that he is, actually, mortal. Yet when I look at Cap, I do not see an impossible standard. I see who I wish I were, who I want to become.
Cap’s heroics aren’t limited to combat and shield-wielding and running thirteen miles in thirty minutes (although those are all supremely fun to watch). He also protects the innocent and confronts injustice and takes care of old ladies and throws himself between his team and harm. Most of all, he is always the one who says, in the midst of the most horrific and lonely and hurtful of circumstances, “I’m not leaving you!”
This inevitably reminds me of Someone else I studied this weekend, One who took the worst I had to offer and still threw Himself between me and certain death. And after He did so, He assured me that I can accomplish even greater feats when I allow myself to believe and try.
Thor shows me who I am. Cap shows me who I want to be. Lord, help my unbelief!