The Avengers is a great movie, with great writing. But one character in it poses a bit of a political problem for Marvel: Thor, the god of Thunder. Religion is a big deal in most parts of the world, and having a character who represents godhood requires some careful maneuvering to avoid touching some sensitive nerves.
Ever since Marvel introduced Thor in 1962, they’ve been careful about portraying their “gods”. Thor and his Asgardian kin are seen as merely an alien race with advanced technology (insert Clarke quote about advanced technology = magic), and certain superhuman traits which aren’t all that remarkable in comparison to other amazing superheroes like The Hulk. Last year’s Thor movie went to great lengths to explain Thor’s world in a technological context instead of mystical, and in The Avengers there are several jabs at Thor’s godhood including Tony Stark calling him a “demi-god”, and good old Captain America, wearing the stars and stripes, proclaiming that “there’s only one god”. Thor and others like him were simply worshipped as gods by ancient peoples who didn’t know their true nature. This approach works for outdated mythology and gods no living person really believes in anymore, but what happens when Marvel’s modern mythology makes light of currently practiced religion?
It happened…in November 1980.
Marvel got themselves into a tiny bit of trouble when they messed with Shiva in Thor I #301. Shiva is seen as one of the three Supreme Gods in Hinduism (along with Vishnu and Brahma), and has five important roles: creator, preserver, destroyer, concealer, and revealer. Those powers apparently sounded so awesome to a writer at Marvel that they decided to create a comic where Thor did battle with Shiva. You’d think that Shiva being Shiva would’ve given him the upper hand, but nope…Shiva was getting his ass beat and offered up a truce. This offended Hindu readers who wrote angry letters, but not because Shiva was in there in the first place (Vishnu and Brahma appeared too). They were angry because Shiva didn’t win! Marvel later fixed the problem by retconning and saying that it wasn’t Shiva after all, but Indra (an older Vedic thunder god that no one worships anymore) posing as Shiva. Problem solved!
Shiva has since made other appearances in Thor comics, but not in battle. Marvel apparently learned their lesson on that one.
Marvel has of course dabbled in Christian themes too, with Johnny Blaze becoming Ghost Rider from a deal with a devil-like being who may or may not be Satan. Hardcore Christians have been complaining about that for years, but since the devil is never portrayed in a positive light, Marvel has never gotten into too much trouble for having him around. But Marvel have shied away from Jesus and most references to the god of Abraham. There are a few obscure mentions here and there, but for the most part they’ve been really good about not crossing that line in the comics.
When it comes to gods in the movies, Marvel has been extra cautious to put them in a place that won’t offend the Christian majority. In The Avengers, Iron Man does remarkably well against Thor, even though in comic book battles Thor has either won easily or Iron Man needed help from Asgardian tech (see Thorbuster armor). Captain America even stands toe-to-toe with Thor and comes out favorably. While Cap’s shield is well-established as being near-indestructible, a single bolt of lightning from Mjolnir would make Cap extra crispy – but we can’t have America Incarnate being bested by a Scandinavian myth, right?
I will watch with great amusement and curiosity as Marvel’s comic tales continue to be converted into mass-market films. As we delve deeper into the history of the Avengers and characters like Thor, Thanos, and the Asgardians, many other god-like beings come into play, including Eternity who literally is the living embodiment of all that lives in the universe. The relatively small number of comic book readers out there are used to this, but it would be interesting to see how the religious world at large would react to this alternate portrayal of our world where “god” is really just a matter of perspective.