Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of… THOR.
–Journey Into Mystery #83, 1962 (Thor’s first appearance), by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby
So began the immortal intertwining of the mighty Thor with his magical hammer Mjölnir in the Marvel Universe. As would be fully revealed over the course of decades, Odin had banished his son to Midgard (the realm of mortals) in the form of Donald Blake, a physician with no knowledge of his life in Asgard. Thor could only reclaim Mjölnir, forged specially for him by the dwarves Brokk and Etri, by again becoming worthy to wield its power and the corresponding responsibilities inherent to being heir to Asgard and the rule of the Nine Realms.
From Thor’s debut issue, the powers of Mjölnir have been fairly consistent. The mythical hammer:
- Can only be handled by the worthy, which does not necessarily mean Thor exclusively, but precludes so much as budging the hammer by the unworthy;
- Whenever Thor hurls it from him, it must return;
- The hammer is invincible; nothing can resist it – nothing;
- The hammer can bring forth all the powers of the storm;
- Thor can use the hammer to fly, originally by flinging it and holding to the strap, but in later issues simply by willing flight;
- Mjölnir also features a variety of powers deriving from its mystic enchantment, including time travel, inter-dimensional travel, blasts of cosmic energy, and more. Most importantly, through most of the history of Marvel’s Thor, Mjölnir was the means by which Thor transformed to his alter ego Donald Blake.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor’s relationship with Mjölnir has been streamlined, but only a little. The basic powers remain, but the transformation into Donald Blake has been eliminated entirely, while none of the other more cosmic or magical powers have been introduced to date.
The MCU Thor was still banished, Odin still inscribed the hammer word-for-word with the “Whosoever holds this hammer” text from Journey Into Mystery #83, and Thor’s worthiness to wield Mjölnir was the lynchpin of his 2011 debut film. This at least seems to be a trademark of Marvel’s interpretation of Thor.
And that emphasis on Thor’s worthiness, and the moral integrity of superheroes in general, seems to be a theme in Avengers: Age of Ultron, as the below promotional clip indicates, showing several of the Avengers attempting to lift Mjölnir with Thor alone passing the test.
While the various northern European texts from which we draw our knowledge of Thor are not as plentiful as we would like, we do have some idea of what Mjölnir’s mythical powers are:
Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short
Skáldskaparmál, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur translation, 1916
The hammer is indeed incredibly heavy, requiring Thor’s strength-enhancing belt Megingjörð and iron gloves Járngreipr to wield properly. However, there is no mention of the hammer being exclusive to Thor’s use, and in fact, in a tale referenced previously, the giant Thrym stole Mjölnir while Thor was sleeping and demanded the goddess Freyja as his bride before he would return it.
The chief difference between the ancient mythology and Marvel’s interpretation of Mjölnir, then, is that the ancient Thor was a god and today’s Thor is a superhero. As the god of thunder and lightning, who fought off the frost giants of winter and could be responsible for the success or failure of a harvest or a Viking raid, Thor was an arbitrary force whose actions were beyond the understanding of mortals.
But the superheroic Thor of the past fifty years is focused on being the protector of Midgard, and as such needs to have an ethos that more closely resembles the other superheroes in the Marvel Universe. To turn a god into a superhero is no easy task, but one way is to force the god to always have his power limited by the moral restraints of humanity. No capricious or arbitrary action is allowed by this restriction on the possession of Mjölnir, forcing Thor to leave his more destructive impulses behind. By struggling to be worthy, he becomes more like us.
The struggle continues. In recent Marvel comics, Thor has again become unworthy and Mjölnir does not respond to his touch. Like in previous periods where Thor was unworthy, injured, or dead, a successor has emerged worthy to wield the Uru-hammer in Thor’s time of shame. We don’t yet know her secret origin (we will soon), but we do know that her story continues a long tradition at Marvel of using Mjölnir to bring out the humanity in the mighty Thor.