How the movie Thor impacts the changing public image of physicians.
Thor: From Myth to Marvel Comics to Movies to Medical Commentary
This entry in the seemingly endless run of superhero movies features plenty of action, but also has a lot to say about the changing public image of physicians.
If you like 3-D special effects, with CGI-generated galaxies that catapult you billions of miles and millions of years away, this is the film for you.
If you like flaxen-haired men with chiseled bodies and protruding pecs -- men who fight foes like fearless warriors but melt like M&Ms in the arms of a woman, this is the film for you.
If you like fantasy battle scenes, where four brave men (and one woman) combat miles of military troops, where monstrous beasts make Jurassic Park dinosaurs look like Minnie Mouse, this is the film for you.
But if you want to know about Thor’s real origin story, and what Thor says about doctors, their social status, and their psychological states, then you should head for the source material: Thor comic books, published by Marvel since 1962. (Or you can wait for the sequel, which promises more data on Dr. Donald Blake, the mighty Thor’s alter ego.)
I don’t mean to berate this lively film, but, for the sake of full disclosure, I must inform you that there is much more to the story of this Norse mythological character.
In Marvel’s comic book, Thor’s father Odin, ruler of the Asgards and a demigod himself, strips Thor of his powers and memories and sends him to Earth to learn humility. Odin turns Thor into a “lame” human medical student, who walks with a cane but becomes a star surgeon named Dr. Donald Blake. Sometime later, while hiking along a rocky path, Dr. Blake cannot keep up with his comrades. He loses his footing, falls into a cave, and drops his cane. While trying to escape, he slams his cane against the wall—and then discovers his secret: his cane becomes his hammer, and Blake becomes “The Mighty Thor”.
There is little in the film to remind us of Thor’s comic book origin story -- save for a glimpse of a white coat embroidered with the name, Dr. Donald Blake. There is a cursory mention that the coat belonged to the “ex” of the female lead, who becomes Thor’s romantic interest. Those unfamiliar with the comics would not notice this off-handed allusion.
In the film, we witness the war-mongering young Thor berating his aging father Odin, who is played by Anthony Hopkins of Hannibal Lecter fame. The wizened old man then exiles his son. Much more follows this origin story, but let’s zoom in on this, and leave the rest for later.
What kind of message does this send? Is this Marvel’s way of saying that supercilious surgeons like Dr. Blake should be more “down to earth”? Does Marvel remind prideful physicians that they, too, can lose face (or limb), and be limited by the same illnesses that afflict mere mortals (such as their patients)?
Alternatively, this story might express admiration for MDs. It can console patients, assuring them that even superficially imperfect practitioners possess godlike healing powers. It implies that doctors in general -- even obviously disabled doctors -- are closet deities. Their scalpels are as powerful as Thor’s hammer. Like divinities, doctors can bestow life. Or, like other fallen angels (Lucifer?), they can hasten death.
This superhero story says a lot about how docs perceived themselves, and how society perceived doctors -- in the early 1960s. But that was 50 years ago. A lot happens in half a century.
In the early ‘60s, society was delighted by doctors, especially after Salk’s historic (and selfless) achievements in the 1950s. Salk developed the first safe polio vaccine, but refused to patent it because he did not want public health commandeered by private profit. Medicare had not yet been born in 1962. (It arrived in 1965, over the objections of the still-strong AMA, which feared government control of medicine.)
Today, doctors live in a world that is ruled by managed care companies, but is threatened by more and more government intrusion. We practice in the democratizing world of Internet medical information, where everyone is an instant expert, and where DTC pharma advertising to patients bypasses doctors altogether. We practice in a country where our President nominated a nurse as the country’s “Surgeon General.”
Most doctors today do not believe that they are treated like deities. Many don’t think that they are treated like doctors. Some feel that they, too, were “cast from grace.” It’s strange that we need to retreat to comic book stories to remember when society still revered medical care.
In summary, the film about the Mighty Thor is good for diversion. But it is the comic book that is thought-provoking. Thor comic books should be required reading for those who like top-of-the-line sci-fi and also like to contemplate shifts in society’s perceptions of health care.
Packer, Sharon. Superheroes and Superegos: The Minds behind the Masks. ABC-Clio, 2010.
Sharon Packer, MD, is a practicing psychiatrist and is Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her books include Dreams in Myth, Medicine & Movies (2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (2007), and Superheroes and Superegos (2010). She is currently in contract for Sinister Cinema Psychiatrists (McFarland) and Evil in Pop Culture (ABC-Clio).